More Glamorous than Che: Make a Film about the life of Angela Davis
By Phil Hall
It’s fascinating to see how films or books or musicians who really epitomised the zeitgeist and hit the spot sometimes plunge out of sight. What a good film My beautiful Launderette was. It exposed the homo-eroticism behind so much fascist violence. The film helped reconcile two issues at the same time: British neo-fascism and homophobia.
My beautiful Launderette was vastly more effective at producing a cultural catharsis than, for example, the film Quadrophenia. Sometimes things are said in art which cause people to have a long flash of recognition so great that you realise the ideas behind them have been damned up for some time. It’s simply embarrassing to have your eyes opened. After awarding praise and fame, the work of art that opened the door is put away, hidden from sight.
In a way it’s possible to credit My Beautiful Launderette, based on Hanif Kureishi’s famous book, with turning skinhead and working class male iconography into gay iconography. It is possible to credit it with making racism laughable. That’s not hate you feel. That’s something else. The Pakistani of immigrant parents they hate is a straw man. Most British racism comes from Chipping Norton, Farnham and Guildford, not Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow or London. The desire of Daniel Day Lewis’s character to punch and beat the beautiful Pakistani boy he grew up with was a desire to embrace him and an attraction of youth for someone familiar, yet still new and fresh and different.
There was no art powerful enough before the war to make its dogs whine in shame and lick their chops and walk away.
So, for example, which artists were speaking sensibly about the evils of the oncoming war of empires that began in 1914? Clearly, there were no world class authors of books or painters or film makers who could create a picture powerful enough, broad enough and hold it up long enough so that all the young men and women of Europe could be released from nationalism. Tolstoy didn’t do the trick.
There was no cultural diffuser, no depth bomb of art explosive enough to make young women embarrassed about giving young men white feathers for not enrolling. There was no strong enough counter current to the social Darwinism which claimed that war was cleansing and winnowed the weak out from the strong; that war made men out of boys. The result was millions of young men, many in their late teens, died in the war, millions more were crippled and millions traumatised.
Dulce et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
By Wilfred Owen
War is cleansing? Winnowing? A rite of passage to manhood? Hardly! And the pustulant unconscious of Europe, in particular Germany’s, was never lanced after WWI. The narratives of social Darwinism intensified into racial theories. Despite the horrors of the previous European war, despite Charlie Chaplin and Wilfred Owen and the Cabaret in Berlin lampooning Hitler and Surrealism and Guernica and everything else, including Jung spelling it out directly:
“Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions.”
There was no art powerful enough before the war to make its dogs whine in shame and lick their chops and walk away. To help them recognise that they were projecting their shadows onto the wrong people, that it was not ‘The Other’ who caused them such pain. The Jews and the Gypsies were not responsible for inflation in pre-war Germany.
In the 60s and later in the 70s and 80s, arguably, we won the culture wars against a resurgent conservatism and the philosophies of selfishness and discrimination – despite the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979.
In the 1970s and early 80s, my era, these struggles took the form of CND, Greenpeace, Rock Against Racism. Feminism intensified and developed in places like Greenham Common. Gay Rights gathered momentum with music and song and film. Together, with understanding and laughter we sent prejudice and discrimination chittering off into the darkness to hide for a while.
Ken Loach, for his choice of subject matter, is a far more important director than many people understand. Throughout his life he has tried to hold a mirror up to the British and make them see the reality of life in their country and the suffering people experience. Perhaps Ken Loach’s weakness is that he is too much of a social realist and not romantic enough. People do need a good sweet dollop of romance to help to wash harshness of reality down.
In the face of the need for equal opportunities the establishment thinkers (who are ultimately on the payroll of the British oligarchy) decided not to oppose such obvious Goodness as the fight against discrimination – at least not head on. Furthermore, there was always the reality that key members of the groups discriminated against could be co-opted into supporting the establishment.
Instead the philosophers, the academic and media pundits continued to argue for our system of wage slavery to be reformed and tweaked; much as the apologists for slavery itself did in the 18th and 19th centuries. Slavery and colonisation gave us wealth and the industrial revolution. Look at the advantages of capitalism, too. What’s not to love?
Right wing economics professors snickered at Marxist economics and called it ‘ideology‘. They worked at developing economic theories which showed how, in certain lights and from certain angles, no one ever really behaves altruistically. Therefore, they concluded, it would be more honest and admirable for these idealists to admit to being – at root – self-interested and greedy. Following on logically, socialists and humanitarians are self-deceiving and probably have a hidden agendas.
Using this twisted logic, to be an idealist is to be untrustworthy; a fanatic, a hypocrite. To say that you act for the greater good means you wear a mask, because you aren’t admitting to yourself your real motives, your hidden desire for power and fame. You deny the fact that the true nature of the human condition is to be out for number one. To be an altruist, for these reactionaries, working mainly in economics, is to be a human being in the closet.
We need more independent Cinema. We need films that unblock the flow of understanding.
We need more independent Cinema. We need films that unblock the flow of understanding in the time of Black Lives Matter. Let me give you an example. Django didn’t win the Oscars. It should have. Instead that repulsive film Lincoln, stuffed full of method acting, did. Ironically, Daniel Day Lewis, the star of Lincoln, was also the co-star of My Beautiful Launderette.
Lincoln was a nauseating film because it was about a white benefactor being placed on a pedestal as the inspiration and source of freedom. Django, on the other hand, was a cathartic fantasy about a black man destroying the plantation of a white slave owner.
But the film, Django, was made by a deeply apolitical man, Quentin Tarantino. There is nothing revolutionary about Tarantino or Django. Django burned the old plantation house only to leave us with the image of Jaimie Fox – a celebrity; someone with no absolutely no answers to the causes of racial injustice in the USA today. Django’s victory was not a collective effort. Django is Quadrophenia to a better film that hasn’t been made yet.
Intersectionality is the answer
The culture wars are intensifying again and this is precisely because of the idea of intersectionality. The silos walls are breaking down and a common front is being built around broad socialist objectives. Intersectionality is where all oppressed and exploited people make a common cause with each other against a common enemy – the capitalist class. Angela Davis is a powerful proponent of intersectionality.
From an artistic viewpoint, perhaps a film that manages to portray the life of Angela Davis might act as a great moment of intersectional clarity and catharsis. A film like this might cause the penny to drop and put right wing populist politics in the US on the back foot.
Who in Hollywood will make this great film? Oliver Stone, Michael Moore, some as yet unknown, longed for director?
Angela Davis*, as a young black woman became politicised in the 60s. In fact she was politicised from childhood. She was jailed. She was on the FBI’s 10 most wanted list and Ronald Reagan tried to have her executed. She wanted, and wants, revolutionary change for her society. She wants prison reform. The story of Angela Davis’s life is no Tarantino fantasy of revenge. Ms. Davis’s story is far more illuminating.
A good dramatisation of the life of Angela Davis, sweetly romantic, but bravely accurate, with world wide distribution, could help lance the pustule in the US unconscious and disperse the gathered toxins. It could produce a moment of political and social clarity.
Perhaps a film like this could catalyse US society against its common enemy, the .1%. If They Come in the Morning could be a film like My Beautiful Launderette. Just as My Beautiful Launderette showed a mirror to British society in the 70s.
If They Come in the Morning could hold up a mirror to US society in 2020 and help some of that country’s citizens see themselves reflected in another light. Through understanding it could help US citizens dispense with prejudice and have a common realisation about who is the enemy they face. For the first time in a long time US citizens could have the opportunity for a moment of deep recognition and, perhaps, for some people a moment of deep embarrassment, too.
* It should be noted that, to the great credit of the United States, Angela Davis was not executed, she is now a deeply respected figure and a professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz. This we should acknowledge.
Phil Hall is a university lecturer working in the Middle East. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain and Mexico. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine.