Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Fire in Babylon

Proving that anything can serve as a platform for self-actualization and ethnic pride, Fire in Babylon tells the story of the record-setting West Indian athletes who used cricket to beat their former colonizers at their own game, "like slaves whipping the ass of the masters," as graying Rastaman Bunny Wailer says with a carnivorous grin.

Yup, cricket. The game we Americans think of as a leisurely pastime played by polite men in white, that imperialist leftover Robin Williams called "baseball on valium," became a whole different thing in the hands of the West Indian players of the late '70s and '80s. Fast bowlers like Colin Croft and Michael Holding and hard-swinging batsmen like "master blaster" Viv Richards injected as much fire, flash, and eye-popping athleticism into their sport as the African American stars of the same era did to basketball—though, to be fair, the cricketers learned their fast-bowl style from the Aussies.

A humiliating loss to the trash-talking Australian team in 1975 motivated the West Indians to find a new way of playing, inspiring them to prove that they were, as Richards puts it, "Just as good as anyone. Equal, for that matter." After a symbolically significant win against England, they dropped back into first gear for a while before getting fired up for real. The catalyst was a pep talk by the backer who bankrolled them for an unofficial "World Series," but the ultimate inspiration was the Black Power movement and the team’s newfound sense of responsibility to a multitude of fans hungry for yes-we-can role models.

Roaring back to glorious life, and beautiful to watch in the clips from old games, the team launched a 15-year run as the champions of cricket’s prestigious test series. As a crawl at the end of the film informs us, it was the longest winning streak achieved by a professional team in any sport.

Thicker than they were in their youth but just as charismatic, the middle-aged former stars of the team provide most of the narrative, looking back on their glory days in talking-head interviews. Clive Lloyd, the coach and mentor who first inspired them to prove themselves to the world, adds context about the team’s significance to members of the African diaspora worldwide. A few musicians and other cultural observers also chime in, some literally singing the team’s praises.

The film is as slow off the block as its subjects were, pounding away on some issues like a woodpecker working a log while leaving others almost unexamined. Did those fire-breathing Aussie bad boys of the 70s, who had the English "literally running for cover and begging for mercy," as Richards recalls, get any heat from the press and the public for their potentially lethal fastball? We don’t know, since Fire in Babylon reports only on the vitriol heaped on the West Indians for their life-threatening speed. If the Aussies got a pass for the same thing, showing us the evidence would have shored up the statements made by the talking heads in the film, who credit the criticism of their team entirely to racism. And if the Aussies caught flak too, exploring the differences in how the two teams were treated might have let to a subtler and more enlightening discussion of how racism affected the media’s and the public’s reaction to the team.

Meanwhile, way after we’ve gotten the point, people keep talking (and talking and talking) about how cricket was a way for West Indians to reclaim their pride. The war metaphors got tiresome after a while—does every game really have to be a battle and every player a warrior?—and there’s nothing particularly artful about the narrative, which follows an arc burned into our DNA by countless sports films about underdogs that bite back. The camera work and editing are strictly utilitarian, too.

This is one of those features that would probably work better trimmed down to an hour and shown on TV, yet even at a bloated 84 minutes, it’s generally engaging and occasionally inspirational. The story and subjects deserve a better film, but they’re appealing enough to make even this one worth seeing.

Opens July 22 at the reRun Gastropub Theater

Written for The L Magazine

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