Monday, May 02, 2011

Misfire in Babylon

                Last week I had the pleasure of seeing Stevan Riley’s Fire in Babylon, a documentary about West Indies cricket that I had eagerly awaited. I had the added pleasure of seeing it with Samir Chopra and dissecting it with him afterwards over a cool drink on an unseasonably warm New York afternoon. Since Samir had already decided to blog about the film, I was a bit hesitant to write about it myself. Having read Samir’s piece, however, I think our perceptions were sufficiently different that there is no danger of redundancy.
Let me begin by reaffirming that Fire in Babylon is a well-made and very, very enjoyable cricket film. An important test for any good sports film is the question, is it fun for people who know nothing about the game? At the screening, I tried to put myself in the shoes of the native-born Americans in the audience and decided that the answer in this case is unequivocally ‘yes.’ (What American would not respect a game that apparently consists mainly of bloodthirsty crowds and stunning blows to the head and the crotch of the batsman?) For fans of game, especially people who remember the Clive Lloyd era, the film is a treat, with fascinating interviews with West Indies players and yards of spectacular footage. One slow-motion clip of Michael Holding in profile, running in to bowl, is nothing less than cinematic poetry.
            Ultimately, however, I was disappointed – to some extent with what the filmmakers did, but more so with what they did not do. In their quest of a fairytale about a team of black cricketers who triumph over a history of racism and adversity, they managed to iron all the nuance and complexity out of the most complex and richly nuanced sport of all. The film gave, for instance, the impression that intimidatory bowling had not existed before Lillee and Thomson subjected the hapless West Indians to it in 1975. Bodyline, anyone? Even Bodyline was not as unprecedented as the Australians made it out to be. And what about Gilchrist and Hall terrorizing batsmen in the fifties and sixties? 
            Controversies about fast bowling were nothing new in the mid-seventies, and the West Indies were hardly naïve victims who belatedly learned to hit back.  Just months before that tour, the same West Indies batsmen had faced Australia in England and made a mess of Dennis Lillee.  Lillee and Thomson on Australian wickets were a formidable pace attack, but so were Holding and Roberts, and let's not forget that the one Test that the West Indies won (by ten wickets)  on that tour was in the fast-bowler's paradise that Perth used to be. Not dealing with the context and setting up a dubious premise might provide a dramatically satisfying sense of novelty, but it effectively reduces the film to a work of feel-good fiction, not a documentary.  
             Not surprisingly, the narrative occasionally takes a fictional turn: Malcolm Marshall is described as a 'youngster' (or something along those lines) first making an impact during the 1984 tour of England! Never mind that by 1984, 'Mako' was already established as one of the three best quicks in the world, alongside Imran Khan and Richard Hadlee. It's the only way the writers could find of fitting him into the story they've chosen to tell. (I dimly recall Marshall from his pre-Mako days in 1978, when he came to India as Sylvester Clarke's deputy. The seniors were playing for Packer. That's when he was a youngster.)
            Fast bowling is at the heart of Fire in Babylon, as it should be, since it was at the heart of the Caribbean hegemony of the mid-seventies through the mid-nineties. But it is not enough to say simply that fast bowling won matches for the West Indies, or even that it generated black pride. Since Lloyd’s bowling tactics were undoubtedly controversial, the other side of the controversy ought to be explored, by interviewing cricket writers, umpires and opposition batsmen. Why does Tony Cozier not get a word? Is it not likely that Sunil Gavaskar, Anshuman Gaekwad, Geoff Boycott and Brian Close would have interesting insights about what it was like at the other end of the pitch? Were the Lloyd/Holding tactics in the Kingston Test in 1976 – bowling beamers, etc. – actually legitimate? Is there not an issue of 'sportsmanship' in bouncing tail-enders in the era before helmets? The footage goes from bare heads to helmets with nary a comment about headgear – surely a lapse when the subject is intimidatory bowling. How does bowling six bouncers an over affect the game as a whole? What effect did the relentless emphasis on pace have on spin bowling in the West Indies? Was Roger Harper teased in the dressing room because he bowled at 50 mph?
It was as if the filmmakers were terrified that somebody might say something critical about Lloyd’s juggernaut and disrupt the uplifting fairytale. That fear does not do justice to the West Indies fast bowlers: Gavaskar made appalling comments about Jamaican crowds after that Kingston Test, but he was also an open admirer of Andy Roberts and of Caribbean cricket, and he scored thirteen Test centuries against the West Indies. Likewise, it is unlikely that Boycott would be less than generous to his greatest adversaries. Even if some batsmen were critical, that would be valuable from a dramatic and historical point of view. Leaving out hostile and neutral voices (in the name of ‘authenticity,’ which to the filmmakers seems to mean ‘telling only one side of the story’) constitutes a lost opportunity to document an intensely interesting moment in the history of the game. One of the best parts of the film is the section on the South African boycott and the rebel tours of the early 1980s, because here, we get to hear not only from those who chose to honor the boycott, but also from those who joined the rebels. Colin Croft, who falls in the latter category, does not look like a greedy fool as a result; if anything, he comes across as sympathetic and human, showing what can be accomplished when the filmmakers have confidence in their subjects and in their own narrative skills.
On the subject of race, the film pushes too crudely, and not in the right places. Any discussion of race and cricket in the Caribbean has to be provided with a context that includes C.L.R. James, Learie Constantine and Frank Worrell. They, and not Clive Lloyd and Michael Holding, were the original insurgents.  Sobers, leading the Rest of the World in Australia in 1971, was already the most respected cricketer on the planet and Clive Lloyd was on his team. There is very little of that in the film. Nor is there any acknowledgment of the other racial tensions of the Caribbean, such the black/Indian divide in Guyana and Trinidad, which consistently ensured local support for touring Indian teams. Cricket is not immune from these tensions, and it can make excellent dramatic material. The West Indies victory in Kingston in 1976, for instance, came on the heels of the defeat in Port of Spain, and there is a powerful, although not edifying, racial story in that sequence that deserves to be explored. It is also worth noting that Lloyd’s all-conquering team had no players of Indian origin at all; the list of great Indo-Caribbean cricketers has a longish gap between Alvin Kallicharran and Shivnarine Chanderpaul. The film also neglects the opportunity to pick up on the irony that the West Indies side is now indeed a paler shadow of its old self, with a suspiciously white batsman in Nash and an Indo-Trinidadian opening bowler in Ravi Rampaul.
During the Lloyd and Viv Richards captaincies, the West Indians were exceptional both as a unit and as individuals. Watching Holding bowl to David Gower, or Roberts to G.R. Vishwanath, was as good as cricket can get, and certainly we need some of that pace magic now. (Thank God for Dale Steyn, even if the South Africans don’t have four of him.) But the factors that made those teams great are also those that made them controversial and interesting. About Holding in Kingston in 1976, Gavaskar wrote that the man who looked like an angel running  in to bowl had become the devil (or Dracula?) incarnate. It does Holding and his colleagues no favors to portray them naively as spotless, aggrieved angels. The devil is always more interesting than the angel (not least because he is a fallen angel), and as Mick Jagger knows, quite capable of holding his own when it comes to our sympathy.


Blogger Freyalyn said...

Very well written article - this film comes out in the UK soon and I shall go and see it. You have made some valid points and I shall bear them in mind. I was taken to the Old Trafford test to see my father play for England (not having been around for his previous England career), and just about remember it! Yes, Brian Close is my pa.

6:00 AM  
Blogger Samir Chopra said...

Welcome to the blog, Ms. Close! :) Nice to have you here. Yes, indeed, it'd be nice to see what you think of the movie. Your Dad facing up to the West Indian quicks is one of the ballsiest things I've ever seen in my life. You were so lucky to be there!

4:41 PM  
Blogger Satadru Sen said...

Thanks for your comment, Mr. Close. I do want to say, though, that although I think FIRE AND BABYLON missed several opportunities to be a more satisfying documentary, it's a lot of fun to watch, and I hope you enjoy it. And like Samir said, my hat (or helmet!) is off to your father.

9:03 PM  

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