Monday, November 14, 2011

Fire in Babylon

2010, UK, directed by Stevan Riley

A terrific portrait of the fearsome West Indies cricket team of the 1970s and 1980s, set against the backdrop of the cultural and political ferment from which bubbled forth reggae's global rise and the raw-edges of The Harder They Come, Fire in Babylon is a little lacking in broader cricket history, never mentioning, for instance, the deeply controversial "Bodyline" tour of the 1930s, which soured Anglo-Australian relations to an astonishing degree over the use of physical intimidation (by England). As the film tells it, the lethal West Indies fast bowl attack was developed as a response to Australia's fiery tactics, accurate enough for the short term, but an irony indeed when seen in the context of vociferous Australian objections to such intimidation in decades past.

Such tactics were a major innovation for a Windies team still emerging from the colonial shadow, ay a time when they were often dismissed as fun-loving calypso cricketers. As the film tells it the 1976 tour of England marked a major turning point in Caribbean identity, including for those in the diaspora who had endured two decades of unwelcoming treatment in the alleged mother country. Indeed, the team's performances seem to both feed off that broader awareness and contribute to it, most often in brashly joyous ways.

For the sportsmen themselves there was clearly much more on the line during the period, most notably during that 1976 tour of England, during which the athletic young West Indian players made England look, quite literally, like a bunch of old men - surely sowing the seeds for a major change in training and conditioning by cricket players. The players weren't just making a sporting point: England's captain, the South African-born Tony Greig, made a spectacular, if likely inadvertent, miscalculation when he commented that he intended to make the West Indies "grovel" during the course of the series. That he made his comments at a time of great unrest in South Africa - the Soweto Uprising began during the tour - only reinforced the sense that the West Indies were playing for rather more than sporting victory, and even in the interview 35 years on there's an icy tone to Viv Richards's comments when asked about Greig's ill-chosen words. It's one of the highlights of the film, giving a glimpse of the steel for which Richards, who played without a helmet, was known.

Poster art credit: Bose Collins

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States