The Christmas Films (including how not to make a film about a liberation movement)

Maaaayn, it’s been a while.

Further evidence of my cushy life could be that I’m only now distressed about my last weekend of freedom before the 9-5 starts cramping my style again, or perhaps evidence to the contrary; everything’s been so hectic for the past 6 weeks that this has been the first week I’ve been able to sleep late, let my head stop reeling from things to do, and basically stop long enough to think about writing something worth reading.

I can’t promise that this is it, but at least I’m trying right???

The last six weeks have really just been life on a lot more hype than usual.  Some long-overdue quality time with bestie, christmas shenanigans in the French Caribbean and then in the English homes of my loved ones, a plethora of traditions and my reflections on them filled my head for a while; is it some kind of colonial crap if a bunch of anglophone women do Christmas karaoke together privately in Martinique?  Or is it bonafide cultural exchange if they bring Martinican hubbies, kids, and a few Martinican mates who think it’ll be random to do a Chanté Nwel English stylee, but fun?  Or is it simply a group of friends who’ve bonded over being far from home helping each other through the acute homesickness that comes from Christmas far from home?  Does anyone else worry about such things?

Shock horror – being around old friends and family was wonderful.  Particular highlights were the cinematic moments so this post is more film review than anything.  It’s been a while since I engaged with the arts, and I spent a glorious evening at the British Film Institute (they have a lovely cafe as well as the awesome FREE mediathéque), one of my favourite old haunts so please, indulge me.

Highlight number one was no doubt watching the French film that I’d been unable to find with English subtitles anywhere in Fort-de-France.  I thought my bro might like it as a pressie.  It was viewed with my family on Christmas Day because my auntie, completely separately, had wandered into HMV (remember that shop?) and had heard it was good even though she normally loathes ‘reading subtitles’. This also nicely resolved the existential crisis which had emerged as I’d  wondered if my improved French would mean that there would now always be a part of me that my monolingual anglophone family would never understand.

The Intouchables – not to be confused Brian De Palma’s Al Capone film – should deffo be checked out if you haven’t seen it yet.  It’s the story of the unlikely friendship between a rich middle-aged Parisian paralysed from the neck down and his twenty-something carer from the ghettoes of Paris.  Although it sounds painfully cheesy (what is it about the phrase ‘unlikely friendship’ that provokes retching?), it works because it’s genuinely hilariously funny.  I burst out laughing about two minutes in and it continued that way, so unless you have no sense of humour at all, you should be able to find a giggle in you.  We all loved it, except for my brother who got it for christmas but had already seen it.  Oops.

I also finally caught The Best Man Holiday with my sister who’d been working in francophone West Africa for a few months and had gotten similarly homesick for our DVD nights (I think); if you liked the first one, the sequel’s must-see.  If you haven’t seen the first one, and you’ve ever been to a party with a lot or mostly black people in England in the past 15 years, and wondered where they’d all learned to do the ‘Candy Dance’, watch The Best Man, the wedding film that started a bonafide tradition.  Seriously.  I think someone should write a paper on that particular cultural phenomenon; the organic evolution from a trend to a traditional practice, easily traceable back to a single, wildly popular film.

But I digress. In The Best Man Holiday the same lovable group of uni pals are reunited over the christmas break 15 years later and despite the joy of the reunion, old rivalries soon break out.  It’s a different vibe this time around, but it’s also a better film I think.  The entire cast reunites – no easy feat with a 9-strong ensemble cast – with the same writer-director, Malcolm D Lee, and create higher-quality magic all over again.  Which is a nice thing to be able to say about a sequel to a film you absolutely loved.   

Then just before departure I saw the Mandela film with the siblings and bestie.  This was supposed to be a family outing ie with ‘the adults’, but mum put her foot down.  We were astonished.  Why wouldn’t she want to see it?  Mum was teaching South London schoolkids about the evils of apartheid back when it was still on the South African statute books!  Those Free Mandela mugs in the kitchen cupboards were not bought on ebay, they’re older than my little sister!  Why would she not want to see the big screen story of a struggle she’d been a part of in her own way?  Her response?  ‘It wasn’t that long ago – I still remember it’.

This simply confounded my siblings and I.  ‘Don’t you want to see whether they tell it like it was?  If they tell the story properly?’  Mumsy can be quite monosyllabic when she wants.  She looks straight up at the children who are slightly intimidatingly all leaning over her expectantly, confident they’ve provided a solid and logical argument.  Irrefutable.  ‘No’ She says simply.  We know better than to argue with mum, after all, we’re her trainees not the other way round.  A far less argumentative auntie however is fair game.  ‘She’s crazy!  You’ll come and watch it, won’t you auntie?’  Less confrontational, the answer was still negative.

I was overcome with the strangest sense of déjà vu.  When Marley the movie came out a few years back, we’d had the same conversations.  ‘When are you going to see it?’ asked the excited children.  ‘We’re not’ came the adults’ response.  Huh?  These are the same people that indoctrinated us into Marley fandom via repeat play of various songs throughout our respective childhoods and adolescences?  As my auntie explained at the time, they were at the concerts.  They watched the interviews and documentaries at the time.  There was a particularly good BBC one years ago.  They’re not particularly interesting in learning more now.  

What a difference a generation makes.  Marley and Mandela came to prominence when my mum and her siblings were conscious adults, whereas Marley was dead before I was born and Mandela was freed when I was still in primary school.  So what I’ve always absorbed as history, was current affairs when mum was my age. Films we wanted to see to ‘learn something’ were consequently of no interest to her.  Not to mention the fact that she comes from a generation which went to the library rather than the cinema if they wanted to learn something.

But off we went.

The short version is mum was right.

The discussion after was nevertheless suitably loud.  The two idealists came out disappointed that they hadn’t really learned anything, despite the fact that they hadn’t read the book nor were they amateur Mandela scholars.  The two pragmatists were unsurprised that they’d Hollywoodified the story.  I argued that I felt it wasn’t Hollywoodified enough – that a biography of a statesman is usually far more concerned with the behind-the-scenes; the major characters you never knew, the squabbles, foibles, the minor details which make a person of the familiar image beamed at you.  I avoid autobiographies for the simple reason that you get to know a person so intimately you can’t help but sympathise with them, whether or not they deserve any empathy when it’s all done and dusted.  With the Mandela film, I had quite the opposite sensation. 

SPOILER ALERT!! (Stop reading here if you’re planning to see Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom)

I didn’t leave the cinema armed with much more knowledge about who Mandela the man was than I’d entered with.  He was a young man who liked the ladies.  While new information, it was hardly earth-shattering.  There’s a lot of young men at any given point in time at any given place on earth who like the ladies I’m quite convinced.  That Mandela goes to prison as part of a democratic collective, but comes out ‘bigger than the movement’ is new information but it doesn’t cast him in a positive light.  When the rest of the imprisoned leadership vote that the discussions he alone has been invited to should be widened, Mandela’s response is kinda cold.

This post wasn’t supposed to be a film review but, hey, so I will add one more thing: I really liked the way they juxtaposed Winnie Mandela’s political journey next to Nelson’s.  I’d done some Winnie Mandela research recently for a class on women in political struggle, and was particularly interested to see how she’d be treated in the film.  Now, over at Ms Afropolitan, a fabulous blog for/about ‘a woman’s take on Africa & diaspora society with a cosmopolitan outlook’ the women have different ideas, but personally, I was pleased with the prominence she had in the film.  I felt like she was returned to her rightful place as a central figure in the South African struggle.  The media I consume rarely connects Nelson and Winnie Mandela.  Winnie is usually effaced altogether from the discourse.

I was especially pleased with her portrayal as a human being, transformed by the struggle she chose before she met her husband.  I don’t think it’s simply a reflection of the acting;  Winnie Mandela goes on a journey in the film, the young woman we meet at the beginning is markedly different from the one we see just before the credits roll, whereas Nelson kind of just ages.  His smile is easy at the beginning, and easy at the end.  This is despite us seeing him begin to engage with South Africa’s liberation struggle, then lead it, then be imprisoned, then get out of prison, then lead it again.  He drinks and parties less once out, but he’s also now an older man so, outside of my family, that’s what I’d expect. In this film, events happen, but I didn’t get the impression they profoundly changed who he was, and rarely did I get the impression that he changed them.  When I presumed I was supposed to believe that he’d been changed, like when his raving buddy got killed, I struggled to believe it. The problem with this lack of ‘becoming’ is that if Mandela is not deeply moved by the struggle he’s involved in, or burdened by his responsibility, he seems a little…entitled. Which is not an attractive quality in a leader.

Elba’s Mandela is more statesman at the end than the beginning.  As you’d hope.  And it’s the older Mandela who really has presence in the film (Elba plays the character throughout but the makeup and plotting indicate ‘younger’ and ‘older’ Mandela).  I imagine it’s because there’s much more footage of him, so he’s easier to recreate.  At the start of the film, Mandela comes across like a young lawyer caught up in a fight, rather than someone consumed by the struggle they engaged with in my reading if I’m honest.  But perhaps that slight detachment enables the later Mandela the statesman.

I don’t know the history well enough to complain, but the film convinced me that the ANC leadership was less than 10 people, and the masses who turned up at rallies did so cos they were angry too, not cos they were organised. I never got a sense of the stakes of ANC activism, nor do we see lots of consequences – the police brutality and harassment is almost a separate fact of life, unconnected to their cause and actions.  There’s a super cool scene where a group rushes a train station.  Hundreds of people literally run through a ‘no coloureds’ entrance and many make it onto the train.  Then we see Mandela and his comarade get arrested and it’s kind of over and never spoken of again.  Similarly, when they burn their passbooks, we’re led to believe this is a major event.  What happens the next day?  Or month?  It’s unresolved.

I see this post is turning into a rant.

In which case, before I make my first post of the new year sound too much like it’s been an angry few weeks, I’ll come back to the bit that killed me.

Now, I am no expert on South African history, but I have heard of Steve Biko – you may have too, Denzel played him in Cry Freedom before he played Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s Biopic.  Yeah, that long ago.  Biko’s article, ‘Black Consciousness and The Quest For a True Humanity’ written under the pen name ‘Frank Talk’ (see what he did there?) is as powerful a mission statement for a just society today as it was when first written forty-odd years ago.  Or so my students would have me believe.  How dude (Justin Chadwick) managed to make a 141 minute film about apartheid without anyone at any point uttering the name Steve Biko left me flabbergasted.

Or Desmond Tutu.  Come to think of it, I remember leaving the cinema with only 2 of Nelson’s comarades’ names still in my head.  And they were locked up with dude for 27 years.  One of them was credited as an advisor so that explains why his character was so well-developed but there were like 5 of them (see, without names, full personalities and decent back stories they’re forgettable only a few weeks later.  That’s just not right).  That there were any other organised groups fighting apartheid at the same time as the ANC was not clear from the film either.  On reflection, I can’t help wonder if perhaps the filmmakers were a bit taken by the legend of Mandela and wanted to contextualise him but didn’t do enough research about the context to do a convincing job.  So we left vex because we hadn’t learnt enough about the movement to rid South Africa of Apartheid, or Nelson Mandela himself.  What can I say?  We’re a geeky family.

My frustrations with Mandela are indicative of a wider problem I have with ‘movement’ films in general I suspect.  In the rush to idolise individuals rather than taking on the admittedly more difficult task of trying to deconstruct the motivations of nameless masses or even collectives, it’s hard to make a film about a group of people who work together to make something happen, or end an injustice.  It often goes against the very way we are used to watching films; many of us were reared on a simple one hero’s journey formula. A linear narrative with the complications of the human condition being resolved within the single hero.  A movement’s life is the diametrical opposite of that story.  A film about a movement necessarily has to be an ensemble piece – ie several major characters or heroes – and account for the characters’ relationships with each other – be they simply working or also personal – to feel even halfway true.  Even if that’s accomplished, there’s still the complicated link between the ‘leaders’ and the ‘masses’, who are the true stars, to be explained.

The only film in which I can recall that was really done well, is Boycott, which starred Jeffrey Wright as MLK, and Terrence Howard as Ralph Abernathy as well as 7 other main characters.  It’s clever casting because Terrence Howard is immediately recognisable on screen whereas Wright’s acting is so underrated – criminally so despite the awards – generally, that he manages to be part-great actor part-chameleon.  I think I’d seen Boycott twice before I realised that it was the same dude who had played Basquiat, and I was well into Casino Royale before I recognised him again.   The film gives viewers the same experience Montgomeryites must have had; that they knew and loved Abernathy, who’s the new guy he’s vouching for?  We see scenes where Abernathy takes the pulpit, not unlike a warm-up act, preparing the crowd for King’s more serious ‘we’ve got a mission’ type sermons.  Unlike Elba’s Mandela, Wright’s King organically grows into the leader-legend he would become.

Boycott also gives credit to the masses – we see maids being coaxed or threatened into getting the bus by their employers to break the bus boycott that is often credited with starting the civil rights movement.  We understand that it was those people, and usually women, exhausted after unholy working hours, at the end of the day gritting their teeth to walk miles home or taking the replacement collective taxi service of private cars that the boycott leaders organised, who were the backbone of the movement.  The strategising and leveraging and planning of the leadership committee, a collective of too oft-forgotten individuals who are all returned to centre stage in the film, would have been useless if those people had broken the boycott of the city’s buses on one of the 381 days for which it lasted.

In Boycott, we see King the saint-legend in context.  Surrounded by a team of intelligent, capable adults all deeply committed to eradicating an injustice.  They’re gifted, connected and working together.  King is the spokesperson for this highly effective collective, and the voice of a determined people.  He is not bigger or better than any of them:  he is because they are.  Thus the film introduced me to historical movers and shakers I’d never heard of, had me researching and sparked an interest in the women who started the boycott.  Not Rosa Parks, but Jo Ann Gibson Robinson.  When I bumped into a bust of A Phillip Randolph in the train station in Washington DC last year, it was because of Boycott (ED Nixon is one of the 7 main characters) that I knew who he was. Bayard Rustin famously debated Malcolm X, mentored King and was basically a major civil rights figure erased from the discourse as a result of being ‘out’ before being gay was cool.  I’d never heard of him ’til I saw this film.

This is the impact an historical film should have.  Mandela is not Django, whereby the historical background provides the backdrop for a story.  The background is the story in this film.  Admittedly the difference in focus is in the names; one film is named for the movement, the other for the man.  But given its failings as a biographical piece – it’s simply not personal enough – I think my critique that it should have tried harder to portray Mandela as part of a movement are valid (surprise!).  Particularly given that Mandela himself seemed quite big on the whole united movement not individuals thing in the film itself, as a MsAfropolitan commentator also pointed out.

Boycott is also better at avoiding the idea that success was inevitable.  From this far more comfortable side of events, it is hard to imagine a different outcome when we look back generally.  Either in our own lives or more broadly.  Often, we’ve heard the stories so many times, we forget that those sacrificing life and limb for social change, whichever particular struggle they were involved in, knew that the outcome of every situation was up for grabs and there were no guarantees.  Many legends failed repeatedly before and after they experienced the triumphs we know and revere them for – from Che Guevara to Nkrumah to Marcus, Malcolm and Martin that’s true.  In the immortal if translated words of Amilcar Cabral ‘Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories.’

In Mandela, it’s only really at the point where Mandela makes an impromtu TV appearance that I sensed that his interventions were truly decisive, revolutionary, and day-saving.  At that point, I got a sense of why he would be lauded as a great man for the rest of his life.  At that moment we understand how both Winnie and Nelson, always united in their hopes of liberating South Africa, choose divergent paths which are largely shaped by their experiences.

I disagree with the MsAfropolitan ladies here because I don’t think the film does depict Winnie as just another bitter angry black woman.  For me, one of the things to commend the film for is that it highlights that while Nelson was in prison, Winnie was on the streets soaking up the pain and suffering of the people, the mothers who were losing their children.  Living that daily, plus fighting her own battles with the South African police and that 18 or so months of solitary confinement all harden Harris’ portrayal of her as they surely would any human being who survived with their mental faculties still in tact.

Harris’ wedding day Winnie is logically not the face we see in 1992.   Her calls for blood and not peace are understandable having glimpsed not only her own unjust suffering, but that of those all around her.  The film’s undercurrent throughout is one of shocking violence, nay massacre.  At one point, 300 black South Africans die and not a single police officer is lost in a single altercation.  Thus Winnie’s response – to fight in hand to hand combat if they must to the death – may be terrifying, but it is not different, we are shown, to that of many and possibly most people around her.  She is on a different course to her husband, but she is also authoritative as the voice of the people, and assumedly the only person in the political arena representing the interests of the poorest and forgotten South Africans.  It is Madiba who firmly insists that South Africa turn in another, different direction, perhaps because of his interactions with Winnie, and his appreciation of what life under and fighting apartheid has made of his beloved wife.

Mandela was not a bad film.  Au contraire, it was perfectly enjoyable.  I found it wanting because I was unreasonably hopeful.  Boycott has spoilt me.  Even Cry Freedom, which ends when the white family escape to safety (no really) despite being unequivocally about remembering Biko and his work, managed to convince me that it was a team effort.  But, and again here I disagree with the contributors at MsAfropolitan, I found Mandela wanting as a political biography, or as a historical record of a liberation movement.  It was just too superficial.  Which I only said about Spike Lee’s Malcolm X after watching the PBS documentary Make It Plain.  As in 15+ years after I’d first seen and loved X. 

I didn’t sign up for Mandela discipleship afterwards, which would have been my way of giving the film two thumbs up.  I was pleased to lose myself in Idris’ Mandela where I was prepared and worried about seeing Stringer Bell pretend to be South African.  I’ve never been to South Africa, and in London I only knew white South Africans, so I’m hardly familiar with the accent, but I didn’t feel like the accents of Harris and Elba – Winnie and Nelson Mandela and two Londoners – grated painfully.  Or at all for that matter.  Whereas Leo DiCaprio’s in Blood Diamonds did.  I haven’t addressed two Brits playing these two South African icons mostly because the wrongness is too blatant for me to dissect here, however one of the non-idealists in our crew found that destroyed a little bit of the film for her.  I had to reconcile myself to that unfortunate fact in order to enter the cinema.

So.  All that said, Christmas was great – I saw some quality films!  Next up…12 Years a Slave, starring another yet another Brit putting on an accent.  One day we’ll get to star in films about our own heroes…Sophie Okenedo as Claudia Jones perhaps?  Chiwetel Ejiofor and Adrian Lester in a Kwame Kwei-Armah or Courtia Newland-written fictionalised version of the friendship between George Padmore and CLR James in Camden??  Even better:  Emmanuel Idowu as Brenton Brown in the film of Brixton Rock.  Idris can play Brenton in Dirty South. Cos Alex Wheatle has created a franchise the Film Council should jump on!  We can all dream…

Speaking of, I’m looking forward to the adventures of 2014.  2013 was a brillant year for adventures and memories that last a lifetime.  I feel quite lucky to simply wish for more of the same.

It seems like Martinicans are quite big on wishing you a happy new year, and do so with the enthusiasm that English people reserve for Christmas so 18 days in…

Wishing you a fantabulous 2014 – may it bring everything you need, and at least a few things you want!

PS – Idris Elba is from Hackney, I’m from Lewisham.  He always reps endz and I rep him for that. Hope I didn’t go in too deep on his film.

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