DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES: Gorillas go ape


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SET TEN YEARS after the apes became self-aware and intelligent, human civilization has collapsed due to a biological experiment (the simian flu) that has metastasized into Armageddon. Small, well-defended communities live in fortified fear… of what’s “out there”. “Out there” are the apes: a large community, knitted together by the communal activity of the hunt and living peacefully under the thoughtful, unquestioned leadership of Alfa ape, Caesar. When the story begins, it’s been two years since they last saw a human… until now, when two ape scouts stumble upon a small human group, searching for the location of a large dam’s long unused hydro-electric generator.

 

The confrontation, fuelled more by fear and surprise than animosity proves fatal to one of the apes. And so it begins. The story charts Caesar’s attempts to broker a peaceful co-existence with the humans based on trust and respect. But hawkish humans and apes, driven by private agendas, distrustful of each other and wary of too much trust, plunge the two communities into war.

 

This is a story of trust corrupted by deception, a theme that plays out not only in the bigger narrative but even in the small set-piece scenes, such as one in which one of the apes monkeys around to distract a couple of armed humans; once he has won their trust, he shoots them both. What began with scenes of trust and harmony rapidly falls apart, and we are left in the end with a world where both humans and apes distrust each other as well as themselves.

 

Presumably on this note, part three will take us back to where we first met the apes, way back when, before Charlton Heston had turned into a rifle-toting bigot.

 

Director Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield”) has taken over from Rupert Wyatt’s brilliant reinvention of the franchise three years ago, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”. With the aid of flawless CGI, he (and the extraordinary Andy Serkis of Golum fame, reprising his role as Caesar) manages to anthromophize the apes well enough to make their interactions compelling, believable and empathetic. The worlds he constructs – one of accomplishment (the ape world) and one of failure and destruction (the human world) – are richly immersive and makes no doubt where his (and our) sympathies lie.

 

Beyond this, the story of competing ideologies and its slow build toward war is nicely done – certainly a far cry from the usual brutish summer blockbuster offers of all style and no substance. Not that this is any sort of ponderous dissertation on the fog of war. It’s a fast paced, adrenaline-pumping action flick with just enough head and heart to stand heads over the likes of “Transformers” et al.

 

It suffers though by comparison with its breathtaking original. Who knew what to expect from the original James Franco/Freida Pinto/John Lithgow ‘original’? What we got was an intelligent, thoroughly credible explanation of where it all began.

 

But like so many second acts (“Quantum of Solace” after “Casino Royale”, “The Dark Knight” after “Batman Begins”, “X-Men 2” after “X-Men” etc), “”Dawn…” is no “Rise…”

 

What the original managed to offer, apart from the credible pseudo science was the equally credible knit of relationships between Franco and his dementia-struck father John Lithglow; Caesar and his jailer/tormentor Tom Felton. These provided strong emotional motivations for the actions that followed; they involved us in the drama.

 

The emotional motivation factor is missing in “Dawn…” Kobo is Caesar’s hawkish opposite number. But whereas Caesar’s relationship with humans was formed by the love he experienced from Will (Franco), his owner (the focus of the first movie), Kobo’s only relationship with humans was shaped by the abusiveness of his human captors. It makes good sense therefore that he should view these humans as a threat not worth negotiating with. But we’re never made to feel Kobo’s sense of angst and anger. It’s stated, never evoked. There are layers to Caesar’s character; Kobo remains an ape with a gun.

 

The humans equally remain cyphers. We know Ellie (Keri Russell) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) are good guys, but the plot never allows us to know them or build a relationship with them (the way we built with Franco and Lithglow). The baddies are the typical interchangeably gung-ho baddies with big guns (unlike the profit-driven industrialist, Steven – David Oyelowo- whose greed catalyzed the chaos that was to ensue in “Rise…”)

 

So whereas “Rise…” seduced us into its world and invested us in the bizarre reality of rooting for Caesar and the apes over the humans, “Dawn…” offers more spectacle, but less soul

 

 

 

BOYHOOD: Mature Film-making


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“Boyhood” is a long film about a small family that’s been epic in its planning and grand in its execution. Richard Linklater’s unpretentious, nuanced story about a young boy’s journey in life from childhood to college took twelve years to make. Every year, he shot for a few weeks using the same core principals (Ellar Coltrane as the boy, Mason Jr., Lorelei Linklater as his sister Samantha – she’s the director’s daughter, who grew so fed up with the part that she begged dad to kill her off – Patricia Arquette as mother Olivia and Ethan Hawke as the absent dad, Mason).

Linklater’s not the first to have produced a movie on such vast – time – scale. Michael Apted did it with “Up” (since 1964, he’s been visiting and filming the same subjects every seven years) and Michael Winterbottom shot “Everyday” over the course of five years.

The focus of “Boyhood” centers around the lives of Mason Jr. and sister Samantha and their two –estranged- parents. Mom is a deeply responsible, loving mother who will do whatever it takes to protect and care for her family. Dad is a lovely, caring father who is also an irresponsible, serially unemployed drifter. These two extremes map out the DNA of their kids’ emotional world.

Mom’s sense of responsibility edges her toward the proffered care of what turns out to be two disastrous relationships with men who confuse the ideal of responsible authority with abusive authoritarianism. No such problem with Mason, the fun-loving dad, who we see slowly evolve from cool, guitar playing dad to responsible, employed family-man driving a responsible family sedan. And in the process, he becomes a bit boring.

No wonder, young Mason Jr. grows up feeling confused: both secure and loved but torn about whatever life’s grand scheme is meant to be; and importantly, bent on trying to be true to himself and not to someone else’s idea of what he should be. As he matures away from the draconian authoritarianism of his two abusive, alcoholic step fathers into the quiet teenage rebel (very quiet – he wears an earring and paints his fingernails purple), his key question becomes one of existential –and teenage- angst: what’s it all about? Director Linklater offers up the answer via Olivia, the mom, in a tender scene just as Mason Jr. is preparing to leave home for college. She has a restrained breakdown and sobs, “I just thought there would be more”. The film suggest, against a backdrop of bible thumping Southern preaching, that there really isn’t more. This is it. This is what life is. Make of it as you may…but don’t expect it to be in the service of some super or supra natural authority.

Linklater shapes the narrative of this easy flowing, richly layered story via a series of -mainly – quietly observed moments. There are a few moments of raised drama, mainly via confrontations with Olivia’s drunk husbands, but by and large, the life we’re invited to eavesdrop on avoids the thespian hysteria and melodrama of, say, “August: Osage County”. He is a director who has offered us in the past stories seen through an observing eye (as he did with those three other magnificent Ethan Hawke movies: “Before Sunrise”, “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight”). As a result, the slow build of character over the twelve years of his tale feels almost unscripted; almost as if he were simply recording the “real life” of a few people and the world as it changes around them.

What certainly changes, and there was no way multiple actors or prosthetics could have accomplished this, was the people. Over the course of the three or so hours of the movie, we’re with Mason Jr. and Samantha as their bodies, as much as their characters, evolve and change. Even Patricia Arquette morphs from young and slim to older and fatter and then back to slimmer again, almost as if her body were paralleling the tribulations of her character.

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The wonder of it all was how Linklater managed to sustain his concentration for so long and with young inexperienced actors who keep us convinced over the duration of the story. There is clearly a meta-narrative here in the symbiotic relationship between the actors and the script. Mason Jr.’s character is one that’s very low keyed, so that this non-actor isn’t made to stretch; Linklater’s sleight of hand places the bigger set piece ‘acting roles’ in the more experienced, seasoned veterans. But as the child becomes a man, Linklater places more and more narrative responsibility on his shoulders, and the family story becomes more focused on Mason Jr as protagonist.

All in all, this is a rounded, mature, satisfying film; well worth the price of entry

BEGIN AGAIN: Note-Worthy


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AT LAST, HERE’S a smart, well-written, nicely acted rom-com that’s fun to watch and that doesn’t insult your intelligence. Begin Again traces two stories that merge together. One is of Greta (Keira Knightly), an English writer-singer trying – and failing – to come to grips with a bad breakup and with club crowds unmoved by her singing. The other story is of Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a divorced music producer, also failing to come to grips… with his inability to find a new hit, and, according to his partner, Saul (Mos Def, from “Dexter”) to adapt to the times.

Mark is a mess: he’s an embarrassing drunk, his marriage is in shambles and his daughter’s respect for him has disintegrated.

Luckily for him, he staggers into a bar and hears Greta’s lovely and ignored song (sung by Keira herself) about loss and loneliness. He imagines what it could sound like with the right kind of arrangement and pitches the idea to her.

Now here’s where Begin Again veers away from the formulaic clichés of what could well have been a typical Jennifer Anderson/Katherine Heigl “vehicle”. The movie doesn’t quickly slip into rediscovered love or musical redemption (with a few cute kids and klutzy moments thrown in), it uses the set-up of a down in the dumps producer meeting a down in the dumps singer/songwriter to explore issues of authenticity v speciousness, honesty v deception, truth v lies.

Greta’s ex – Dave (first-timer Adam Levine, who also performs his own songs) – is the anti-Greta. She is all artistic integrity and honesty; he is all about the fame and the money. As an audience we’re trained to see pretty early on that he’ll cheat on her. But this isn’t (only) about a man cheating on a woman (or they typical rom-com point of frisson), it’s about the sundering that results when one performer loses his integrity and honesty while the other –Keira- remains (virginally?) authentic.

And as the relationship between Dan (Ruffalo) and Greta tightens, during the recording of her album (all over New York, ambient sounds and all), Dan’s own artistic integrity surfaces. And he is a better person/friend/father/husband for it.

The writing is sharp, and the story tries to be as honest as its theme (within the confines of the form: this is after all a rom-com, not a tragedy). Keira seems, mercifully, to have shed her habit of pouting as her signifier of emotion, and her pain feels genuinely moving. She’s convincing both as a talented singer and as a big sister surrogate to Dan’s daughter, Violet (Halee Steinfeld, so good as Mattie Ross in “True Grit”). Ruffalo is always tremendous; his shaggy good looks suit the role as the disheveled producer. The connection between him and Keira is credible and sparkles, thanks to some nice directing from John Carney (who also wrote).

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The principals are well supported by Adam Levine (Keira’s caddish ex), James Corden as Steve, Greta’s other New York-ambitious, unsuccessful English-musician friend, Catherine Keener as Miriam, Dan’s wife and a number of small, pitch-perfect vignettes from the likes of CeeLo Green as a larger than life hip-hop artist, and Mos Def as the producer who has long ago shed any vestige of creative honesty.

There’s also (for me), the other towering superstar in the movie: New York. There it was in all its gritty, gorgeous, throbbing, pulsating, beautiful glory, from Schiller’s to Washington Square Park to the unaccommodating subways.

Of course this was a movie about music, and the music is delightful. Carney cleverly ties in the lyrics of the many songs that make up the track with the ebb and flow of the narrative. Gregg Alexander (from the New Radicals) and Danielle Brisebois (an actress and fellow New Radicals member) co-wrote most of the songs along with Nick Lashley, Rick Nowels, Nick Southwood and even John Carney.

This seems to be the month of strong sound-track, hot on the heels of Eastwood’s “Jersey Boys”.

July has become the month of the hum.

 

DEREK WALCOTT: An Appreciation


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DEREK WALCOTT: Poet of the exiles

London; a stray image from Derek Walcott’s poetry drifts into focus as I sheltered from the rain. It comes from “In a Green Night”

Imprisoned within these wires of rain, I watch

This village stricken with a single street

(“Return to D’Ennery, Rain”, In A Green Night)

The rain that’s falling here is cold, dark and soundless…just a grey, unfriendly drizzle that carries no showers of blessing. And yet, my memory fabricates the sound no doubt many of us West Indians abroad can recall from the past when…

…branching light startles the hair of coconuts,

and on the villas’ asphalt roofs, rain

resonates like pebbles in a pan

(“Hurucan”, The Fortunate Traveller)

Just as it’s likely that the poetry of Robert Burns holds an added layer of meaning to a Scottish reader, in the same way that Whitman’s songs of America may speak more profoundly to Americans (or at least those conscious of history) there is a different relationship between readers from the Caribbean and the poetry of Derek Walcott (who has just released another massive anthology of his work: The Poetry of Derek Walcott, 1948-2013). Familiarity adds edge

This essay seeks to re-introduce Walcott’s poetry through this lens of its enhanced emotional relevance to West Indians, particularly the large community living away from home. And though this ‘lens’ is by its nature a limiting profile of a poet, whose range is so vast, nevertheless, it may be interesting to re-evaluate his work from the viewpoint of how it has helped shape, codify and interpret for many of us, the experience of being West Indian on foreign shores..

For many of us who grew up around the same time as Walcott, his experiences paralleled ours: the need to escape and enter a life of voluntary exile, a sort of pilgrimage to the First World – driven by both a longing to be a part of the bigger world as well as a need to be free from the confines, the pettiness, the often squalid reality of small islands. But escape is also loss. The exile, the wanderer must find ways of accommodating both the excitement of discovery as well as the hostility of his new worlds all the while managing the nostalgia of absence. With time, the émigré learns to distil memory and experience into a sense of identity and which can shift from alienation to that of a fortunate traveller. This reader’s personal odyssey – not particularly distinct from that of the hundreds of thousands of other displaced West Indians – is reflected in the arc of the poet’s narrative over the sixty-five years he’s been revealing to us the world we live in.

Reading his first book, In A Green Night, when it was originally published, ushered many of us into a special club of readers. For the poet seemed to have pin-pointed with eerie precision our adolescents’ needs to leave (“imprisoned within…”) the limiting scope of the islands. At that age, there were worlds yet to be conquered:

I, with legs crossed along the daylight, watch

The variegated fists of clouds that gather over

The uncouth features of this, my prone island.

(“Prelude”, In A Green Night)

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Then in “The Castaway”, the book that followed that the real outward momentum gathers force and we joined him in the urge for whatever it was ‘out there’ beyond the horizon:

The starved eye devours the seascape for the morsel

Of a sail.

The horizon threads it infinitely.

 

Action breeds frenzy. I lie

Sailing the ribbed shadow of a palm,

(“The Castaway”,The Castaway)

Listen to that incantatory rhythm; it’s almost as if the poem were summoning the experience, not ‘merely’ describing it. Its palette of imagery became a map for the road ahead. For though these lands held all that was dear to us, out there on that existential horizon was the challenge that didn’t exist in our limiting shores. ‘Out there’ was the future, the destination where our parents expected us to grow educationally and where we could learn to measure up to ‘the big boys’, the white boys:

I had nothing against which

to notch the growth of my work

but the horizon, no language

but the shallows in my long walk

 

home, so I shook all the help

my young right hand could use

from the sand-crusted kelp

of distant literatures

(“A Latin Primer”, The Arkansas Testament)

We were buoyed by the energy of exile with its romantic promises of freedom and intellectual fulfilment. But exile was also flight…flight from a West Indies that had already begun to disintegrate. In Tiepolo’s Hound, the protagonist, Pissarro, relives the spirit of The Castaway in his need to find some sort of salvation on a distant shore and flee what he sees as a crumbling hometown:

…abandoned forts

and ruined windmills and postage-stamp parks…

Perhaps he saw their emptiness in terror

of what provided nothing for his skill

 

until his very birthplace was an error

that only flight might change, and exile kill.

(“Chapter One”, Tiepolo’s Hound)

Walcott redefined how we viewed our drab, everyday surroundings, trapped as we were by “[its] ordinariness,/…the inertia that fills its exiles with horror” (“Port of Spain”, The Fortunate Traveller).

For indeed, we were not only journeying north to engage in the larger world but travelling away from a place of “urine stunted trees…” and “malarial light” (“Tales of the Islands, Chapter VII”, In A Green Night) with its “male, malodorous sea” (“Castialiane”, In A Green Night)

And yet, initially, the exuberance of departure was always coloured by the romanticism of what was being left behind. With departure came the quiet potency of our collective sense of the homeland(s) that we, the young exiles, the second generation of the diaspora, would hold dear. The further we drifted away from its shores, the more magical appeared the place(s) we left behind; the reality of the “urine stunted trees” paled when compared with the remembered beauty of home:

This island is heaven – away from the dustblown blood of cities;

See the curve of the bay, watch the straggling flower, pretty is

The wing’d sound of trees, the sparse-powdered sky…

(“As John To Patmos”, In A Green Night)

 

The places even sounded magical:

Anguilla, Adina

Antigua, Cannelles,

Andreuille, all the l’s

Voyelles, of the liquid Antilles,

The names tremble like needles

Of anchored frigates,

Yachts tranquil as lilies,

In ports of calm coral

(“A Sea-Chantey”, In A Green Night)

 

As the poet begins his own journey and lifts away from home, he looks back and down from his ascending aircraft and sees the island grow small, literally and metaphorically. However, this is not Naipaul’s embittered escape from what he saw as the flotsam and jetsam of cultures.

In a poem dedicated to “the exiled novelists” – guess who? – Walcott rails:

You spit on your people,

your people applaud,

your former oppressors

laurel you.

The thorns biting your forehead

are contempt

disguised as concern,

(“At Last”, Sea Grapes)

 

Rather, Walcott’s view is ennobled with sadness and a sense of imminent loss, even though he heads for his (true?) north

I watched the island narrowing the fine

writing of foam around the precipices then

the roads as small and casual as twine

thrown on its mountains; I watched till the plane

turned to the final north…

(“Chapter X; Tales of The Islands”, In A Green Night)

 

The image is repeated several years later, when this entire stanza is reprised as he reminisces in Another Life.

This dichotomy – of (positive) exile v (negative) escape, departure v flight, adventurer v refugee, the squalid v the magical – is a tension that dominates his early works…as much as it dominated the lives of us abroad, in our stiff clothes and cold confines. The urge to leave, to ship out, to board the schooner on the horizon was always balanced by that longing to stay, was always tempered by the anchor of home, even with the increasing realization that there was not much there worth staying for.

The initial image of the horizon is one that is repeated in many guises throughout the poems. It is a horizon toward which we metaphorically shipped out and is highlighted by a series of boats, from anonymous schooners and distant sails to the aptly named schooner Flight to Achille’s fishing canoe in Omeros, In God We Troust (“Leave it! Is God’s spelling and mine”) to the ambiguous Bounty. This is the poet’s flotilla of signposts, each one signifying a stage in his circuitous odyssey, from flight to homecoming

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However, as departure hardened into exile, the seduction of the islands and the pull of home shrivelled as the euphoria of independence coarsened into “the curse of government by race” fattened by corruption and politicians “Drained/of every sense but retching indignation” (“Party Night at the Hilton” Sea Grapes). We were also now bent on escaping the islands’ new cultural norm: of endemic, cynical kleptocracy. This was Walcott’s ironically named Star-Apple Kingdom, where:

One morning the Caribbean was cut up

by seven prime ministers who bought the sea in bolts –

one thousand miles of aquamarine with lace trimmings…

who sold it at a markup to the conglomerates,

…the rest was offered on trays to white cruise ships

taller than a post office

(“The Star-Apple Kingdom”, The Star Apple Kingdom)

 

No wonder…

…Our emerald sands

are stained with sewage from each tin-shacked Rome;

corruption, censorship, and arrogance

make exile seem a happier thought than home

(“The Hotel Normandy Pool”, The Fortunate Traveller)

 

The beauty he had so eulogized and celebrated was now overgrown by a tawdry, squalid modern Caribbean:

Year round, year round, we’ll ride

this treadmill whose frayed tide

fretted with mud

 

leaves our suburban shoreline littered

with rainbow muck, the afterbirth

of industry…

(“Ebb”, The Gulf)

 

The Gulf is poetry of a harder edge; it expresses the rage we all felt as the green night slipped away into crassness, where for those many who stayed behind there was often another kind of escape: an escape into narcotizing pretence: the life of masquerade. Walcott howls at the flippancy of the new identity being created, epitomized by the revelry of Carnival (“…a noise that fears everything” What The Twilight Says):

‘Join us’ they shout, ‘O God, child, you can’t dance?’

but somewhere in that whirlwind’s radiance

a child, rigged like a bat, collapses, sobbing…

 

Upon your penitential morning,

some skull must rub its memory with ashes,

some hand must crawl and recollect your rubbish,

someone must write your poems

 

And:

…After a while, this whole,

slow grinding circus doesn’t give a fuck.

There is nowhere to go. You’d better go.

(“Miramar”, The Gulf)

 

Thank God we’d left this Caribbean, its dreams of anti-colonial self-rule rapidly unravelling.

But the thrill of escape and the excitement of arrival soon peeled back the darker reality of diaspora: the loneliness, the sense and shock of loss:

…the train

soon changed its poetry to the prose

of narrowing, pinched eyes you could not enter,

to the gas-ring, the ringing Students’ Centre,

to the soiled, icy sheet

(“Exile”, The Gulf)

 

For exile can sound more romantic than its reality. Arrival at any new destination shocks the spirit; and certainly for the warm-weather islander, what first shocks the body is the cold. Winters were long; summers never seemed to come. But somehow the misery was made not simply bearable, but almost heroic as we suffered with Walcott:

Through the wide, grey loft window,

I watched that winter morning, my first snow

crusting the sill, puzzle the black,

nuzzling Tom. Behind my back

a rime of crud glazed my cracked coffee-cup

(“A Village Life”, The Castaway)

 

Moreover, familiarity does not breed acceptance. No matter how many years the exile spends away, no matter how in love with the adopted homeland, all this enduring wetness and cold is anathema to one’s sense of identity. In a much later book, Walcott writes:

…my soles stiffen with ice

Even through woolen socks; in the fenced back yard,

trees with clenched teeth endure the wind of February

(“North and South”, The Fortunate Traveller)

 

Even worse than the expected culture shock of the cold, alienating city, was the sudden, deeper shock of racism. London, Toronto, New York in the late 60’s took care of that:

…and when

I collect my change from a small-town pharmacy,

the cashier’s fingers still wince from my hand

as if it would singe hers – well, yes, je suis un singe,

(“North and South”, The Fortunate Traveller)

 

The personal experience he suffers is a microcosm of the broader xenophobia and distrust of the other, of those dark skins “taking our jobs”, “threatening our ways of life”. In “Midsummer, England” the poem shifts from a perspective of quintessential Englishness -“the sky-blue striped pavilions” of Henley and “fields trimmed by centuries of reticence”- to a more threatening one:

…the fear of darkness entering England’s vein,

the noble monuments pissed on by rain,

the imperial blood corrupted, the dark tide.

(“Midsummer, England”, Sea Grapes)

 

Add to this the reality of distance and time and suddenly you discover that the cold anomie of the big city has forced a kind of amnesia about what we’d left behind. Somehow, the longer we spent away, the less urgent was the angst of what was happening back home. For always there was the nostalgia for home, for the familiar, no matter how compromised it was by bad politics and corruption:

Better a jungle in the head

than rootless concrete.

Better to stand bewildered

by the fireflies’ crooked street;

 

winter lamps do not show

where the sidewalk is lost

not can these tongues of snow

speak for the Holy Ghost:

(“Pentecost”, The Arkansas Testament)

 

And yet, despite it all, accommodation follows. Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but it also leads the heart to surrender to the pull of adopted cultures:

…you had not come

to England; you were home.

 

Even her wretched weather

was poetry…

(“Exile”, The Gulf)

 

Eventually the exotic – winters, night without power-cuts, water that always flowed out of the tap, bookshops, art galleries – faded into the customary; the mark of foreign-ness softened enough to allow you to blend in and feel comfortable in dual cultures. Long years in New York, London, Toronto yielded passports and new shapes to identity. In one of his more autobiographical books, The Prodigal, Walcott explores the redefinition of his divided self

I lived in two villages: Greenwich and Gros Islet,

and loved both almost equally. One had the sea,

grey morning light along the waking water,

the other a great river, and if they asked

what country I was from I’d say, “The light

of that tree-lined sunrise down the Via Venetto”

(“Chapter 4”, The Prodigal)

 

It is impossible to love two cultures without being changed. Even if the heart of identity is essentially Trinidadian/West Indian, the embrace of ‘the other’ recalibrates – perhaps irrevocably – your sensibility, your reference points, your language:

And what was altered was something more profound than geography,

it was the self. It was vocabulary.

Now it was time for the white poem of winter,

when icicles lock the great bronze horse’s teeth.

(“Chapter 2”, The Prodigal)

 

It was at moments like this when these foreign shores grew welcoming and began to feel like a new home that you accepted the fact that home was no longer bound within a geography. Identity was where you found it.

The issue of identity and belonging is central Derek Walcott’s poetry. But in this fractious flotilla of islands, from the strident and proud Jamaicans and Barbadians to the smug Trinidadians, and where so many either have or long for that escape route of an American green card, not to mention passport, what really does ‘identity’ mean? As the poet asks…

What was the Caribbean? A green mantling

behind the Great House columns of Whitehall,

behind the Greek facades of Washington,

with bloated frogs squatting on lily pads

like islands, islands that coupled as sadly as turtles

engendering islets…

(“The Star-Apple Kingdom”, The Star-Apple Kingdom)

 

The nature of identity in his poetry realizes itself through a sense of race, history, language and landscape. Unlike some of his poet peers and the politics of race that often dominate the local conversation, Walcott eschews the claim to African-ness as a simplistic misstep. “What else was he,” he asks in Another Life, “ but a divided child?”

…they yearned for Africa,

they were lemmings drawn by magnetic memory

to an older death, to broader beaches

where the coughing of lions was dumbed by breakers.

(“The Star-Apple Kingdom”, The Star-Apple Kingdom)

 

“Once we have lost our wish to be white,” he writes in What The Twilight Says, his book of essays, “we develop a longing to be black, and those two may be different, but are still careers”. Race in the West Indies is a deeply complex matter: the easy certainty of black v white that still divides a ‘united’ States and lessens a ‘great’ Britain does not operate there. “Blackness” goes from ‘midnight’ through myriad colour nuances from high brown to (Walcott’s) red nigger through dougla (African and Indian), haquai (Chinese and African) to high brown, near white French creole, and for some of us, “Chinee Chinee never die, flat nose and chinky eye”.

It’s a matter to which Walcott returns time and again. In a duet of early poems, which sounds reminiscent of early Joyce, he notes:

I who am poisoned with the blood of both,

Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?

I who have cursed

The drunken officer of British rule, how choose

Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?

Betray them both, or give back what they give?

(“A Far Cry From Africa”, In A Green Night)

 

and also

My eyes burned from the ashen prose of Donne

 

Ablaze with rage, I thought

Some slave is rotting in this manorial lake,

And still the coal of my compassion fought:

That Albion too, was once

A colony like ours…

(“Ruins of a Great House”, In A Green Night)

 

But the ‘wrong race’ can also be a passport locally to exclusion and we are back to the feeling of being a castaway:

I had no nation now but the imagination.

After the white man, the niggers didn’t want me

when the power swing to their side

they first chain my hands and apologize, “History”;

they next said I wasn’t black enough for their pride

(“The Schooner, Flight”, The Star-Apple Kingdom)

 

And what of ‘history’? As the West Indian puzzles past race toward this locus of identity, the weights of myth-creating, self-enhancing history are not obviously there in what Walcott describes as these “history-orphaned islands” to anchor one in a sense of self. Where are the identity-defining battles? Where are the landmark achievements? We didn’t fight for independence – it was granted by a regime financially drained by war and exhausted of empires:

There’s nothing here

this early;

cold sand

cold churning ocean, the Atlantic,

no visible history

(“The Almond Trees”, The Castaway)

 

For most big city residents, history is all around – particularly in cities such as London, where you can’t help but be immersed in it. The link with the past is tangibly there, from the buildings and parks, to the commemorative statues and plaques that remind you of the many who shaped the texture of the country and the meaning of being British. But for the West Indian, the physical presence of history, of a past, is largely absent. There, many (most?) of the more beautiful, old edifices have long been torn down through our indifference, only to be replaced by crude, ugly concrete structures; and those few that remain, decaying and abandoned, are redolent of the smell of slavery, colonialism and white domination.

…The abandoned road runs

past huge rusting cauldrons, vats for boiling the sugar,

 

and blackened pillars. These are the only ruins

left here by history. If history is what they are.

(“Chapter IV”, Omeros)

Even the region’s early art, dominated by the etchings and water-colours of genteel artists such as Cazabon, is an art of the gracefully pastoral; one that veers away from harsher, less scenic realities. The real presence of the past simply hovers at the edges:

…in snaps

of fine old colonial families, curled at the edge

not from age or from fire or the chemicals, no, not at all,

but because, off at its edges, innocently excluded

stood the groom, the cattle boy, the housemaid, the gardeners,

the tenants, the good Negroes down in the village,

their mouths in the locked jaw of a silent scream

(“The Star-Apple Kingdom”, The Star-Apple Kingdom)

 

So, most of us grew up without the presence of history that many people simply take for granted. How do you feel a sense of identity with a country whose heroes are largely unknown and, unless they serve a clear political purpose, mainly uncelebrated; whose touch with the past stretches no further than a generation at most? We had journeyed to countries with a clear sense of a past, having left ones that exist only in a continuous present.

To many of us, the only ‘history’ that we knew starting in school was of Empire:

…think of the width its power could encompass:

“one-seventh of the globe”, we learned in class.

It’s promontories, docks, its towers and minarets,

with the power that vanished as dew does from the grass

in the rising dawn of a sun that never sets

(“The Spectre of Empire”, White Egrets)

 

Although about fifty years ago, England had begun to shed itself of the costly burden of empire:

…All history

in a dusty Beefeater’s gin. We helped ourselves

to these green islands like olives from a saucer,

 

munched on the pith, then spat their sucked stones on a plate

(“Chapter V”, Omeros)

 

Yet its colonial dregs – the headmasters and civil servants – clutching their gins and gentility and the last remnants of power, still lingered around the pools of once exclusive clubs, wary of the nearing shadows of dark-skinned Independence. Their shrinking world struggled to stay time and fend off the future. And we, young masters of the as –yet- unsullied new West Indies looked upon these ghosts of empire with a mixture of awe and humour.

…Every one of them a liar

dyeing his roots, their irrepressible Cockney,

overdoing impatience. Clods from Lancashire

 

surprised by servants, outpricing their own value

and their red- kneed wives with accents like cutlery

spilled from a drawer.

(“Chapter V”, Omeros)

 

But this is no politician’s scorn. Even as he offers us this less than flattering image, the poet recognizes that what the colonial bureaucrats offered was a kind of commitment that would soon be lost

One day the Mafia

will spin these islands round like roulette. What use is

Dennis’ own devotion when their own ministers

 

cash in on casinos…

(“Chapter V”, Omeros)

 

We witnessed history give way to tourism

…I watched the doomed acres

where yet another luxury hotel will be built

with ordinary people fenced out. The new makers

of our history profit without guilt

… these new plantations

by the sea: a slavery without chains, with no blood spilt

(“The Acacia Trees”, White Egrets)

 

Perhaps because the West Indians’ sense of history lacked the public iconography of older cultures (after all slavery ended less than two hundred years ago and our memory of the pre-colonial Spaniards lives on only in the sometimes Latinate syntax of our dialect) we’ve come to depend more and be knitted together more by the private history of shared memories. In a very personal poem, Walcott describes a scene that, for people of a certain age, is one we all share. And, really, this shared past provides a more unifying perspective than any schoolboy’s learning of the Emancipation Act:

That evening I had walked the streets of the town

where I was born and grew up…

…I had peered into parlours

with half-closed jalousies, at the dim furniture,

Morris chairs, a center table with wax flowers

and the lithograph of Christ of the Sacred Heart

vendors still selling to the empty streets-

sweets, nuts, sodden chocolates, nut cakes, mints.

(“The Light of the World”, The Arkansas Testament)
Perhaps also we have grown up with the same stories. In a trio of poems from The Arkansas Testament, Walcott conjures up the folk imagination where “Every ceremony commenced/in the troughs, in the middens, at the daybreak and the daydark funerals/attended by crabs…” (“Gros-Ilet”). Here, he pulls out of our collective memory the stories we all grew up with and feared in the dark:

The gens-gangée kicks off her wrinkled skin.

Clap her soul in a jar! The half-man wolf

Can trot with bending elbows, rise and grin

In lockjawed lycantropia.

(“White Magic”, The Arkansas testament)

 

History lies also in our language. The West Indian oral tradition is a weave of epochs: it combines, as noted above, the syntax and patois of the long past, pre-Colonial Spanish occupation; the tense structures and vocabulary the slaves brought with them from West Africa; and words and phrases from the waves of Indian immigration – all grafted into an English that seemed stuck in the eighteenth century. This was the palette the poet found as he sought to find a unique idiom, informed by the lineage of the ‘mother tongue’ but seasoned in the rhythms of the place. More so than most of his peers, Walcott is intensely self- conscious about his search for the kinds of words and cadences that can accurately reflect the integrity of his artistic voyage. You often sense that he feels the responsibility of developing a style that can articulate the West Indian experience, that his search is not only for himself but for us all. He is giving us a voice:

My race began as the sea began,

with no nouns and with no horizon,

with pebbles under my tongue…

(“Names”, Sea Grapes)

 

In some of his earlier work (mainly In A Green Night), the language sometimes sounds arch, overly poetic. This quickly dissipates as, with The Castaway, he settles into a style that becomes distinct to him and the sensitivity he offers us. It was a long cry from the early West Indian poets, struggling to shake off the weight of the English rhyming poetry we were taught at school and seek some sort of authenticity. The first break with the English tradition (around the 1920’s) had come via experimentations with dialect by a Barbadian policeman, Edward Cordle, who started publishing poetry in the local newspaper. This was quite a revolution; not only were his stories stridently relevant (he wrote of poverty and suffering), but also the idea of writing in the –debased- idiom of everyday life was shocking. Most poetry written in the West Indies at the time was in a voice that smelt of Wordsworth and the Romantics and bore no relevance to the life lived; more the black man’s yearning for white colonial acceptance.

Walcott’s search for his authentic idiom had to find the balance between the potentially dead end of dialect and a language that could contain the complexity of his consciousness and could ‘feel right’. His own shift into dialect is occasional, judicious and precise: it is the style he used for drama and, often, irony.

His initial attempts at dialect feel indulgent and false, as if he felt pushed by the intellectual politics at the time to experiment in this idiom:

Man, I suck me tooth when I hear

How dem croptime fiddlers lie,

And de wailing, kiss-me-arse flutes

That bring water to me eye!

(“Parang”, In A Green Night)

 

But he’s ever wary of the politicization of style. In “What the Twilight Says” he notes, “…Carnival was as meaningless as the art of the actor confined to mimicry. And now the intellectuals, courting and fearing the mass, found values in it that they had formerly despised. The apotheosized the folk form, insisting that calypsos were poems.” And again, “Our bodies think in one language and move in another, yet it should have become clear, even to our newest hybrid, the black critic who accuse poets of betraying dialect, that the language of exigesis is English, that the manic absurdity would be to give up thought because it was white.”

As the poetry evolves, his dialect weans away these distractions and its use becomes occasional, judicious and precise: it is the style he used for drama and, often, irony. He begins to use the oral tradition very much as the –often oracular- voice of a number of ‘characters’. The personae of his few dialect poems are careful constructs, such as the mordant observer of “The Spoiler’s Return” masking his anger with the wit of Calypso ‘picong’:

Is Carnival, straight Carnival that’s all,

the beat is base, the melody bohbol,

all Port of Spain is a twelve-thirty show,

some playing Kojak, some Fidel Castro…

 

all Frederick Street stinking like a closed drain

Hell is a city much like Port of Spain

(“The Spoiler’s Return”, The Fortunate Traveller)

 

The list of dramatis personae in his works is long and multiple characters emerge (Walcott the poet and Walcott the dramatist often shade one into the other). And, true to the dramatist’s craft, he gives them all quite distinct, authentic voices. But their concerns and the issues they wrestle with are, for the poet, familiar tropes. Shabine, the exile, the outsider, the street-wise intellectual is the embodiment of all the resentments, anger and frustrations of a generation: poor, black and ignored by the curve of history bent on ostracizing its citizens. For Shabine, the ex-colonial, to make sense of his world, of a place in history (“I met History one, but he ain’t recognize me”) he must find the right words (“that’s all them bastards have left us: words”):

…we live like our names and you would have

to be colonial to know the difference,

to know the pain of history words contain,

to love those trees with an inferior love,

and to believe: “Those casuarinas bend

like cypresses, their hair hangs down in rain

like sailors’ wives. They’re classic trees, and we,

if we live like the names our masters please,

by careful mimicry might become men”

(“The Schooner Flight”, The Star Apple Kingdom)

 

Shabine’s heroism lies in his recognition of this (we young colonials knew Wordsworth and Keats; but no West Indian poetry found its way into the English curriculum) and the need to find and forge a language that can frame a perspective:

…When I write

this poem, each phrase go be soaked in salt;

I go draw and knot each line as tight

as ropes in the rigging; in simple speech

my common language go be the wind,

my pages the sails of the schooner Flight

(“The Schooner Flight”, The Star-Apple Kingdom)

 

Walcott’s self-conscious search for words was not merely a literary exercise. The exile soon finds that, even when the vocabulary and sentence construction of his birth are hidden away, his accent is pigeon-holed. It’s exotic, possibly difficult to understand, connotative of leisure and indolence; not so much ode to a skylark as ode to skylarking. And as the years draw on, from life as a student to life as an adult, the voice becomes ever-shifting: a voice for home, a voice for ‘back home’ and a voice to be understood and taken seriously:

I must put the cold small pebbles from the spring

upon my tongue to learn her language,

to talk like birch or aspen confidently.

(“Upstate”, The Fortunate Traveller)

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The fortunate traveller is one iteration of the poet as discoverer; in another he is a modern Crusoe, forging a language to suit the place:

Like those plain iron tools he salvages

from shipwreck, hewing a prose

as odorous as raw wood to the adze

out of such timbers

came our first book, our profane Genesis

(”Crusoe’s Journal”, The Castaway)

 

In the autobiographical Another Life, he draws our attention to the moment of recognition when he had finally pushed himself toward a language that sparkled with the accuracy he sought:

images-1

I watched the vowels curl from the tongue of the carpenter’s plane:

resinous, fragrant,

labials of our forests

over the plain wood

(“Chapter 12”, Another Life)

 

For the poet, authenticity is all. And Walcott weaves together a sense of celebratory elation and a sense of place with its articulation:

A panel of sunrise

on a hillside shop

gave these stanzas

their stilted shape.

 

If my craft is blest;

If this hand is as

accurate, as honest

as their carpenter’s.

 

every frame, intent

on its angles, would

echo this settlement

of unpainted wood

(“Cul de Sac Valley”, The Arkansas Testament)

 

Indeed, it is within this (mythic) landscape that fragments of our sense of identity lie. Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory looks at the role of our surroundings as a fundamental cultural factor in the creation of myth. Indeed, landscape is memory and Walcott’s summoning of the landscape not only brings we exiles closer to the home we left, but underlines the power of the physicality of the place – just one thread in the weave of elements that knit the patterns of cultural identity.

By and large, Walcott’s poetry is structured around repeated patterns: they begin with clear precise images whose philosophical meaning flowers as the poem meanders through its field of stanzas. The result is that there emerges from the range of his works a very tangible sense of the landscapes of the Caribbean. There’s almost a slide-show that transports the reader from the sea where “eels sign their names along the clear bottomed sand” to the “moonlit sickle shore[s]” to the rainforests of “garrulous waterfalls” and “blue, tacit mountains” over the “pastures of bananas” to the hot cities. We experience the key duality of the West Indian climate – hot sun and drenching rain.

For unlike the sweet summers of London or New York, so eagerly anticipated and enjoyed in people-watching outdoor cafes and shady gardens, the sun in the West Indies strikes a different pose:

The feel of the village in the afternoon heat, a torpor

that stuns chickens, that makes stones wish they could hide

from the sun at two, when to cross from door to door

is an expedition, when palm trees and almond hang their head

in dusty weariness…

(“Chapter 12; Part Two”, The Bounty)

 

Even the smells are there to startle the memory:

Night, our black summer simplifies her smells

into a village; she assumes the impenetrable

 

musk of the Negro, grows secret as sweat,

her alleys odorous with shucked oyster shells,

(“Nights in the Gardens of Port of Spain”, The Castaway)

 

For the reader as exile, here is poetry that transports you there and re-crystallizes memories long fragmented, lost to time, ennobled now within the framework of the poet’s visual elation (“One the desperate memory fastens on” The Bounty.)

And so, vague memories of walking through the bush and hearing birdsong is transformed to “[walking] through a thickness pinned with birds” (“II. The Bush” The Gulf) and (from “The Walk” ,The Gulf), I can hear the rain as it cools a parched earth:

….a clump of bamboos whose clenched

fist loosens its flowers, a track

that hisses through the rain drenched

 

grove…

 

In the end, the exile, though ever-conscious of the rot that’s set in back home, somehow has to have the heart to find his way back to the qualities that made him who he is. In the end, the reasons for escape cannot sunder the love of the place of birth, whose hold is part of one’s sense of self. Walcott captures this longing in his later books, which can be seen as a poetry of homecoming. This is “Odysseus/home-bound on the Aegean” (“Sea Grapes”, Sea Grapes):

…Watch how spray will burst

like a cat scrambling up the side of a wall,

gripping, sliding, surrendering: how, at first,

its claws hook then slip with a quickening fall

to the lace-rocked foam. That is the heart, coming home,

trying to fasten on everything it moved from,

how salted things only increase its thirst.

(“Chapter Two”, White Egrets)

 

We see the change most clearly in The Bounty, his book of memories that marks the turning point in his journey. From this point, Odysseus returns home. The wandering exile feels reclaimed by the land. His life away becomes “the pain of exile”. And, as his heart continues to force him back, his life in a foreign country loses the light of its promise. The exile simply becomes the stranger; the displaced man:

…this was not his climate or people, no season

as depleting as this, and beyond this there was the sea

and the unrelenting mercy of light, a window in the prison

his mind had become;

(“Six Fictions”, The Bounty)

 

In “Christmas Eve”, that time when the pull of home is strongest, the poet gives in to forces he claims not to understand. As ever in his poetry, we experience the contradiction between what propels him and keeps him away and the stronger gravitational pull bearing him back South:

Can you genuinely claim these, and do they reclaim you

from your possible margin of disdain, of occasional escape:

the dusk in the orange yard of the shacks, the waxen blue-

green of breadfruit leaves, the first bulb in the kitchens – shape

and shadows so familiar…

Yes they reclaim you in a way you need not understand

(“Christmas Eve”, The Bounty)

 

Even to the many of us who never made that returning, re-immigrating journey, the pull is the same:

…the frogs croak

behind fences, the dogs bark at ghosts, and certainties

settle in the sky, the stars that are no longer questions.

Yes, they reclaim you in a way you need not understand:

candles that never gutter and go out in the breeze

(“Parang”, The Bounty)

 

(One wonders whether Walcott’s image of the endurance of love : “candles that never gutter…” is a deliberate pop reference to Elton John’s “candle in the wind”)

Odysseus, after all those years of wandering is borne back by the tide of sentiment deeper than all the concerns that keep us – the exiles – away. The liberating horizon with its promise of freedoms becomes simply “the edge of the sea”. The schooner Flight may bear us away, but the ties, the ties, they keep us there; they bring the benedictions of acceptance:

The sea-canes by the cliff flash green and silver

they were the seraph lances of my faith

but out of what is lost grows something stronger

 

that has the rational radiance of stone,

enduring moonlight, further than despair,

strong as the wind, that through dividing canes

 

brings those we love before us, as they were,

with faults and all, not nobler, just there.

(“Sea Canes”, Sea Grapes)

 

The sense of homecoming – either physical (Walcott has indeed returned home to live in St Lucia) or (for those of us the permanent exiles) spiritual – brings with it a kind of optimism. But returning is not a recapture of some lost magic. The poet is quite straightforward that the return to the country is no amnesiac retreat to a glorified past.

The house where we used to live,

its vine-twisted verandah gone,

is a printery now; not a leaf

will curl from its pillars again

(“The Lighthouse”, In A Green Night)

 

Not only that, but after these years of travel, the identity of the returning prodigal now embraces more than his Caribbean roots. So too do we of the diaspora add another meaning to the divided self, for like the poet, after long years in the embrace of another culture, the tendrils of roots burrow into another homeland. The horizon changes. The starved eye no longer sits sailing the ribbed shadow of a palm:

Perhaps it exists on only one horizon –

one with windmills and belfries with questioning cranes,

meadows with chattering aspens, a temperate zone,

equestrian statues and water-braiding fountains

This is poetry’s weather, this is its true home,

Not where palms applaud themselves and sails dance

In mindless delight and gulls race the foam.

(“Chapter 11”, White Egrets)

 

This is part – half- of the picture: the prodigal’s accommodating heart has not opted out for the distant homeland. The love of the adopted place is real and sound but can never replace or compromise where the heart was raised. There may have been exile and flight, but the anchor of the islands can never loosen:

..This small place produces

nothing but beauty: the wind-warped trees, the breakers

on the Dennery cliffs, and the wild light that loosens

a galloping mare on the plain of Vieuxfort make us

merely receiving vessels of each day’s grace,

light simplifies us whatever our race or gifts.

I’m content as Kavanagh with his few acres:

for my heart to be torn to shreds like the sea’s lace,

to see how its wings catch colour when a gull lifts.

(”The Lost Empire”, White Egrets)

 

Unknown

 

JERSEY BOYS: Foot tapping


jerseyboysmovieimage

IT’S NOT A particularly good script, the acting is generally plodding and the story doesn’t cohere around anything resembling a core thematic idea, BUT… it’s got the elevating, exciting, joyous music of Stephen Castelluccio, aka, Franky Valli and the Four Seasons. For that one can forgive a lot; and because of that, the many shortcomings of Clint Eastwood’s “Jersey Boys” seem largely irrelevant in this foot-tapping, smile-inducing, got-to-get the record, movie.

Eastwood’s “Jersey Boys” is the uber New Jersey movie, with New Joisey hoodlum types cruising around in large open air Studebakers wearing Brando-esque wife-beater shirts, smoking non-stop and drifting in and out of petty crime. Even today, Jersey still longs to be back in ’66, when they could claim Sinatra, Valli and sundry legendary Mafiosi. John Lloyd Young, clearly chosen for his pitch-perfect Valli-esque voice and close resemblance to the singer, is no great shakes as an actor. With him, the writers’ flat characterizations seem even flatter. No matter, he’s more or less convincing enough to fit in to this troupe of wannabe wise guys looking for a way out of this wrong side of Jersey’s tracks but ever loyal to underworld king-pin Gyp DeCarlo (the ever reliable Christopher Walken).

jersey-boys-movie-still-9

The track that leads them out was of course “Sherry” back in 1962. After that, the great song-writing duo of Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle) and Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) along with Valli’s fabulous falsetto and dynamic stage presence produced hit after hit: “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, “Walk Like a Man”, “Rag Doll”, “December 1963”, “Can’t Take My Eyes off You” and “My Eyes Adored You”. Eastwood, himself no mean musician, lets the music do the talking.

As the Four Lovers morph into the Four Seasons; as group intimacy leads to vexations and splits; as Valli seeks to repay the onerous debts of his fellow band member and one time mentor, Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), Eastwood stresses that the one element that helps them transcend and escape the often sordid reality of their lives was the music, If there is an unifying theme, it’s the power of music to heal…to “soothe the savage beast”

Clint sticks with his tried and trusted team of craftsmen: Tom Stern as cinematographer (who also worked with him on “J.Edgar”, “Invictus”, “Gran Torino” etc), Joel Cox as editor, Pat Sullivan Jr as Art Director etc. This combination, led by Eastwood, no doubt account for that particular look and feel of all his movies: solid, studied but not fussy, uncomplicated, somehow quintessentially American.

This is no “Mystic River”, but hell, after 38 movies, who’s counting.

BELLE: Sidney Poitier, where are you now?


Belle

BACK IN THE day, when Hollywood was still struggling to get Black faces on the silver screen, Sidney Poitier became the white-acceptable face of the idea of the good Black man. In movies such as “Lilies of the Field”, “The Guest Who Came to Dinner” “To Sir With Love” and “In the Heat of the Night”, Sidney was the uber Black. And in a series of delightful movies, Poitier became the symbol of Black equality. His characters were not simply as bright, as cultured, as good as de White folk, but actually better. He was brighter, richer, more humane, more cultured, more forgiving and unencumbered by any trace of malice or rancour. Here were movies that had been crafted for the acceptance of a White audience, and which caught the zeitgeist of the long US march away from Jim Crowe to a Black, albeit hated, man in the White House.

And now along comes “Belle”, an entertainingly engaging, well crafted, well written, weep-inducing escapist fantasy that offers us an idea of England that is leavened by a strong sense of fair-play and tolerance; where racism can be spotted a mile away by mean, anti-social, money grubbing leeches, and where power was wielded by men of conscience and good character.

Yeah, right.

“Belle” is the story of the half-cast love-child of a British navy captain, Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) who brings her to be cared for by his uncle, William Murray, Earl of Mansfield and the Lord Chief Justice, one of the most powerful men in the Kingdom (Tom Wilkinson). What the audience is not told is that Dido Elizabeth Belle was just one of three illegitimate children fathered by Sir John (who no doubt courted these –slave-women honorably and with proper British manners).

Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is raised to be a genteel, aristocratic lady (In the Poitier vein, she is prettier, more intelligent, and more accomplished than her peers and, despite being snubbed by her family at public social occasions, she is philosophically indignant, but unencumbered by rancor). As the movie would have it, she’s relegated to the sidelines purely during the consumption of meals when outsiders were in the house – and this was due entirely to the stringent conventions of the day that forbade good families having to dine, not with Black folks (no convention of the time would even have considered this) but with illegitimates. Fair-play England objected to her not so much because she was Black; it was, we are lead to believe, because she was illegitimate.

The reality is that she was treated shoddily by the family – above the invisible servants, but, as the person in charge of the household’s menial tasks, below the ‘real’ family. If in the movie, she was doubly free (from slavery and, as an heiress, from the need for money), in reality she was triply outcast – from others of her race, from equality within her family and without a real place in the social pecking order of the Empire.

But, hey, she was Black. On multiple occasions Dido refers to her blackness and Director Amma Asante is keen that we feel the pain of Dido’s racial angst; feel the agony and turmoil of what it must have been like to be in this gorgeous, refined, rich, desired woman’s shoes. She is, after all, courted, not for love, but for her money (a dimension that suits the movie’s theme of the dependency of women, but not really a reflection of any historical truth).

Life’s a bitch. Thank God, Dido is an independent-minded, proto-feminist.

But to be fair, for a man of Lord Mansfield’s status to have accepted a half-cast into his home, in a world as rigid and stratified as England was in the eighteenth century must have taken huge guts. One of the story lines in the movie revolves around a court case in which Lord Mansfield was engaged. It concerned the insurance claim of a salve ship, whose owners dumped their cargo (slaves), in order (they claim) to save their seamen from dying of thirst. As the story points out, the slave trade was the bedrock of London wealth at the time; to find against the claim could potentially threaten this wealth and wreck incalculable economic harm. How would Lord Mansfield, already ‘tainted’ by his relationship with a Black woman, rule?

Mansfield’s legal deliberations revolve finally around deliberations of his conscience. He must do what is both legally and morally right, and hang the consequences.

So too must Dido, a slave to the onerous demands of her society when a woman’s freedom to marry the husband of her choice was severely constrained; when both men and women could only know a semblance of independence if there was money at hand; and when social class was the only arbiter of career and companionship.

Notwithstanding the dodgy nature of the movie’s glossy version of race relations in London (we see a few other Black faces – as maids and nannies – but actually, as a port city, there were many Blacks in the city at the time; indeed about 3% of London’s inhabitants were (mainly free) Black), relative newcomer Amma Asante offers us a very confidently directed film.

She isn’t the only newcomer: This is writer Misan Sagay’s first major movie; and though Gugu Mbatha-Raw has been in countless TV dramas, this really is her big screen breakthrough. And what a breakthrough it is: she is a luminous, commanding presence. I suspect we’ll be hearing more of all three of these ‘new’ talents soon.

They’re surrounded by many familiar, always compellingly believable, faces: Tom Wilkinson, as Lord Mansfield, mixes stern gravitas with an avuncular warmth; his wife is the quietly compelling Emily Watson; and Tom Felton, cast as the face of British racism reprises his deliciously nasty character –Draco Malfoy- from the Harry Potter films.

So, in the end, this is an often dishonest movie that still manages to be an enormously satisfying evening out. The corny love story between Dido and aspiring gentleman, John Davinier (Australian Sam Reid) owes much to Jane Austen; and cinematographer Ben Smithard (“My Week With Marilyn”) bathes all the scenes with the genteel glow of a Watteau painting.

Take a handkerchief!