issue 241 - March 1993
directed by Spike Lee
It seems fitting, maybe even inevitable. Malcolm X and Spike Lee, two of the most uncompromising figures in recent Afro-American history, meet on celluloid to do what they always do best – encourage resistance and inspire debate. Malcolm X is over three hours long but don’t let that stop you from going to see the film – it combines a spacious epic quality with Lee’s ability to tell a gripping story. You won’t get bored.
Lee effectively demolishes the myth of Malcolm as a demagogue spreading race hatred, without falling into mindless hero worship of an icon. Denzel Washington’s portrayal renders Malcolm very human indeed although he shaves off some rough edges for popular consumption.
Visually stunning images jump off the screen. But somehow the parts don’t quite add up to a whole. You lose a sense of Malcolm as a person as the film moves into his Black Muslim days. Too much time gets taken up with speeches and you lose a sense of how and why he is changing.
In a funny way the film is personal when you want political and vice versa. Malcolm’s break with the Muslims, for example, is a reaction to personal corruption and jealousy at the top which conveys little of the political disagreements which must have played a big role. Yet when Malcolm undergoes a dramatic change on a pilgrimage to Mecca you only get a sense of the political implications. Smaller dramatic moments get lost in the immensity of the production and it is fair to say that Lee fails to lead his audience into Malcolm’s private life. This diminishes the effect of his assassination at the end of the film.
But perhaps this is asking too much. After all, Malcolm was an essentially public person and is of interest because of this. And it is on this level, with the exception of the silly triumphalist ending, that Malcolm X is most successful. The complexity and richness of the man’s thinking, his ability and willingness to rethink and strategize and the clarity of his commitment are overpowering.
Lee has done a powerful service in uncovering a part of the history of resistance that the white establishment has been only too keen to see buried. Best of all, the film has provoked a revival of interest in Malcolm X in North America, with displays of his writings adorning the shelves of even commercial booksellers. Don’t miss it.
The Death of Klinghoffer
by John Adams
Conflicts of a musical nature aside, opera has not hitherto been known for its combative nature. Indeed, with most operatic composers choosing their characters from a genepool of Figaros and fairy queens and their storylines from legend or folk history, operatic subject-matter has remained – with a few notable diversions – a hermetic world, far removed from the present day. Such innate conservatism is all the more odd when set against the innovation coming from other areas of music theatre – dance, performance art and the like – but it seems that the composers are catching up: John Adams’ Death of Klinghoffer is a watershed.
The opera is based on true events. In 1985 Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly American Jew on the Mediterranean cruise ship Achille Lauro, was brutally murdered by Palestinian hijackers. Adams, a US composer who mixes minimalist technique with lush, romantic orchestrations, declared his interest in alternative subject-matter with his first opera Nixon in China. But if that work raised audience eyebrows with its subtle irreverence, then Klinghoffer – which opens with a chorus of exiled Palestinians – raised the roof.
Of course Klinghoffer is not – as some US critics felt – an exercise in pro-Palestinian propaganda. In fact the chorus of exiled Palestinians is followed by one of exiled Jews. Another chorus recalls Hagar, an Old Testament figure whose importance in both Judaic and Islamic tradition is established. Tourist-characters wonder at the ruins of the ancient world but neglect the key issues of modern times.
The Hagar chorus and Klinghoffer’s death song – the Aria of the Falling Body – stand amongst his best vocal music. The orchestral music is at once purposeful, reflective, dramatic and witty (with numerous nods towards other composers). At first listening its mood sounds closer to Debussy or Satie than to Adams’ minimalist forebears.
Adams offers no solution to the continuing conflict in the Middle East; neither does he take sides. What he does do – and magnificently, movingly so – is to embed the very individual tragedy of Klinghoffer in a history of religious and poltical conflict. If Klinghoffer has one single message, it's that history, even ancient history, has consequences right up to the present moment. And this is a musical wake-up call.
Time of Fear
by Deborah Poole and Gerardo Rénique
(Latin America Bureau)
It is indeed a time of fear for the shanty-town dwellers of Lima and the Indian peasants of the High Andes who together make up the majority of Peru’s 22 million people. They are caught in the middle of a vicious war between the Government and the Sendero Luminoso guerillas.
‘Shining Path’ – what a magic, poetic name for a revolutionary movement! The reality is horribly different. They may call themselves Maoists but not for them is Mao’s dictum about winning the hearts and minds of the masses (‘the people are the sea; we are the fish’). Their philosophy and methods invite comparison with those of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge.
This book goes some way towards making good our ignorance of the other guerilla movement, Tupac Amaru, which directs its armed activities more selectively and seeks to gain support from a much wider spectrum of the population.
‘Every successful revolution is the kicking open of a rotting door,’ said the economist JK Galbraith. The state apparatus of Peru is not yet rotten enough to be kicked open, yet its efforts to put an end to Sendero are often ineffective, so the war looks set to continue for years to come.
To make matters even worse for the peasants in the High Andes, economic pressures have forced them to turn their land over to growing the coca plant. As a result they find themselves ground between two millstones: the government forces, backed by the US Drug Enforcement Agency, who are trying to stop them growing coca, and the narcos (gangs in the service of cocaine traffickers) who exploit them mercilessly.
All this within an economy which suffers hyperinflation of an annual several thousand per cent and with a mountain of foreign debt (roughly $1,000 per person) which there can be no hope of ever repaying. Poor Peru…
The Latin America Bureau have come up with another authoritative country profile. The authors – a US anthropologist and a Peruvian historian – have written a compelling and convincing story, up-to-date enough to record the capture in September last year of Abimael Guzman, leader of Sendero Luminoso. But you should keep a decent atlas to hand, for the seven maps herein are woefully inadequate.
Should we should we not pray
for them who thunder promises
from prefab podiums
feeding famished ears with vows
of promise lands
Should we should we not pray
for them who banish thought
murder reason, exile hope
hang poets for their dreams
claiming every right to think
without a mind
Should we should we not pray
by their bedside
who ravish our future
in castles sentried
by brass buttons and eunuch cannon
Should we should we not pray
for them who scorch our sun
matchet our moon
ordering us to greet
with bugles and drums
the majesty of their power
? ? ? ?
Promise Land by Nigerian poet Niyi Osundare, from his Selected Poems published by Heinemann.
When Reds was released in the early 1980s, it was fashionable in radical circles to deride it. How could it possibly be a good thing? Ageing Casanova Warren Beatty, one of the most privileged people this planet has ever contained, portraying stalwart socialist hero John Reed... A Hollywood epic version of the Russian Revolution, taking up where Zhivago left off... Using great political events as mere backdrop for romance between Reed and fellow journalist Louise Bryant...
Horse-shit, as Reed himself might have said. Any mainstream epic which tackles the Left head-on is bound to be suspected. But for me Reds was a quite miraculous achievement: a big-budget (huge for its time) Hollywood movie which treated revolutionary socialism sympathetically, which made people all over the world feel the magnitude of the Russian Revolution. You’d have to be quite a cynic, for example, not to be stirred by the extended sequence which sets the taking of the Winter Palace to the emotional strains of the Internationale and brings the first half of the film to a close.
In these post-Soviet times the Russian Revolution seems a more dubious proposition than it did even when this film was made. But it was still one of the key moments in human history, when the new industrial working class threw off the inevitability of its exploitation; it was surely this moment, for example, which made welfare states inevitable throughout the Western world as fireguards against the flames of insurrection. And by following John Reed through the exaltation and idealism of the Revolution to his profound doubts about its direction at the end, we are emerging with quite an accurate thumbnail portrait of its historical significance.
Broadly Reds tells the story of Reed, an early luminary in the US communist movement who gave a fine eye-witness account of the Russian Revolution in his book Ten Days That Shook The World. On his return to communist activism in the US he was involved in some typical Left schisms. We witness these in the film — and far more extraordinary to find in a Hollywood film than the Revolution itself is the sight of nitpicking debates in smoke-filled rooms between warring American communist factions. Reed travelled back to Moscow to seek Comintern ratification for his faction and ended up spending the rest of his short life there — he died in 1920 at the age of 33, and remains the only American to be buried with honour in Red Square.
The Revolution apart, you might think this is not very promising material for an epic movie, and you’d be right. Frankly Beatty (who produced and directed as well as starred) and British dramatist Trevor Griffiths (who scripted) could not have sustained the interest of a mass audience in the political material without moving the relationship between Reed and Bryant to the emotional centre of the film.
Besides, the portrait of the relationship has great merit in itself. Louise Bryant (as played by Diane Keaton) is no empty-headed sex-focus: she is a feistily intelligent, fiercely independent woman, with a strong record as a journalist and activist in her own right. The scene where Reed proposes that she accompanies him to New York and she responds `What as?... your girlfriend? your mistress? your paramour? your concubine?` makes a memorable feminist point which carries through into the drama of their relationship throughout. The film is modern enough to insist on Bryant’s equality as much as she herself does, and her courageous solo journey through snowbound civil-warring territory to reach blockaded Russia is given as much impact as any of Reed’s own exploits. And I have to say that the scene where the couple are reunited at the death on a railway platform never fails to register with me as one of the great romantic moments in cinema history: when I first saw this it reduced me more completely to tears than any film has before or since.
Reed and Bryant moved in fascinating circles: we meet the celebrated anarchist Emma Goldman, for instance, while Jack Nicholson turns in one of his finest and — in a career built on overplaying — most understated performances as the great playwright Eugene O’Neill. And the movie is given an extra quasi-documentary dimension by its interspersing of wry reminiscences of Reed and Bryant by people like Dora Russell, Rebecca West and Henry Miller: here, more than anywhere, you get the sense that this was a real labour of love for Beatty.
This film could never have persuaded the purists. But there’s always a case for taking on the big political issues with the broadest brushstrokes so as to engage with people who will never touch Ten Days That Shook The World, let alone socialist theory. There’s no broader brushstroke than epic cinema and I’m defiant in my belief that there are few better examples of that genre than Reds.
Reds directed by Warren Beatty.