A few years ago, I’d read a review of a book called The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohllenben. It seemed interesting, but the premise, “What they can feel, how they communicate…” seemed far-fetched and silly, so I passed it over. My loss, having just finished Suzanne Simard’s “Finding the Mother Tree: Uncovering the Wisdom and Intelligence of the Forest
Dr. Simard is a scientist and academic (professor in the Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences at The University of British Colombia) that for the last thirty years has been doing, leading really, some fascinating research into precisely that: how trees interact with each other and the unseen network that connects them (referred to by one journalist as the wood wide web).
In short, the belief when she started her research and beloved of the timber industry (and their sponsored governments) that trees compete (for light, water, nutrients etc.) rather than cooperate, is, she found, fundamentally flawed. Thirty years ago, Suzanne set out to challenge the (Canadian) orthodoxy of a government program called “Free to grow” whereby whole swathes of land would be cleared of everything but for the chosen (i.e. most profitable) tree species…a program that essentially turned forests into wood farms.
Her research (much derided then by the government, the foresters and the Monsanto’s of the world) showed that this approach was grossly inefficient, resulted in sicklier trees, and in the long term, harmful to the viability of the land (since it drained the soil of vital ingredients).
Far from being some sort of anthropomorphic, doolally nonsense the (peer reviewed and oft repeated) science is impeccable. Using Carbon 13 mass spectrometers, radioactive markers and other highly sophisticated means of making the invisible visible, Suzanne and her teams were able to follow the journey of the connections below the soil; follow the way trees pass carbon, sugars, nitrogen, water and other disease inhibitors from root to root via an intricate network of microrisal funghi threads (She speaks of “sugar molecules traveling through the networks like milkshake through a straw”).
It’s a transformative (to me) understanding of trees.
Here are a few highlights: Forests are an inter-dependent community that depend on each other for a mutual exchange of nutrients to help them withstand disease, cope with climate change and grow strong. Diversity is a fundamental as each species brings something unique to the party. There are ‘mother trees’ who recognize and deliver nutrients specifically to their offspring. Older trees will suck water up hydraulically through their much deeper roots to feed saplings whose roots are still shallow and which, therefore, may be affected during dry seasons. Dying trees will yield their nutrient-rich store of carbon to younger off-springs, like some sort of parental legacy. These revelations are rootedly part of how the indigenous tribes understand their forests (ancient wisdoms we’re now ‘discovering’) With little overstatement, she reframes forests as organisms connected through a neural network as complex and life affirming as the brain.
The book’s also an engaging memoir of Suzanne’s life: the growth in her academic and scientific self-confidence ( a woman in the logging industry was easy pickings!) and the personal markers (deaths, marriage, divorce, cancer etc) that shape her perspectives and her fortitude. It exudes a wonderful, joyful connectedness with the forest (makes you want to quit the city life immediately) and a quality of observation as keen as the finest artist
Yay. The movies are back. Back to the big screen with about three people sitting masked and socially distant. During the first lock-down we were tantalized with the buzz that theatres would be re-opening with the incredible awesomeness of Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s long awaited spectacularly filmed mystery dud about time. And to herald the ending of this newest lock down, the grand re-opening of cinemas once again has been built up with the launches of not one, but two pre-summer blockbusters, A Quiet Place Part II and Cruella.
So far this re-opening is going down with the same damp squidiness as the first one.
A Quiet Place Part II. *** Shhh**
The story of AQP2 begins excitingly enough with Day 1, a brief prequel to the first Quiet Place and an introduction of when (not so much how) it all began. This is as compelling an opening as the opening of World War Z, when the easy-going quotidian of daily life turns into mayhem and horror. That first ten minutes were definitely worth a star.
So far so good.
And then we return to the present; we’re back in the world where to make a sound is to court pretty much instant death (from creatures who clearly are nearby but make no sound at all since no one can ever hear them). Problem is, having had that horror twist unfold tensely in AQP1, AQP2 feels very much like same old, same old: more moments when quietness isn’t possible (the issue of a crying baby was sorted out in Part 1) and more vague journeying in search of a place alluded to in a ghost recording of Bobby Darren crooning about “Somewhere beyond the sea”.
The conundrum AQP2 faced is the perennial one of how to continue the excitement and the unexpected in a part 2 story so that it’s more than just repetition (Brilliantly solved in Sicario 2).
It’s not been solved here. The writers have shifted the focus to the two kids (Millificent Simmonds and Noah Jupe), so it’s more of a coming of age story (or, “How I lost my innocence and learned to kill my first monster”…instead of the more status quo coming of age of “How I first got laid”).
But really, if you’ve seen the first, don’t bother with the second (or it appears, the soon to be written third)
A QUIET PLACE PART2 Dir/Writer: John Krasinski. With: Emily Blunt, Cillian Murphy, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe. Cinematographer: Polly Morgan (Lucy in the Sky)
Cruella** the Deville wears Prada`
Here are two of my favourite Emmas – Stone and Thompson – seeking the same unexpected thrills and box office gold of that other parallel story, Maleficent. All good so far.
And then, back to that reference to “damp squidiness”. Emma Thompson as ‘the Baroness’ and costume designer Jenny Beaven (Dolittle, Mad Max: Fury Road) are given full license to simply go for it. And that they do. The Baroness is a deliciously nasty, imperious, evil, murderous, baddie. A fabulously, flamboyantly dressed…clothes designer.
Bathos meets blockbuster to produce mere boredom.
Estella (Emma Stone) is a poor orphan child dragged up in the underworld by a trio of (kindly) fellow orphans who teach her how to pickpocket. (What the Dickens is going on here you might well ask). But it’s her passion and flair for dress-design (She’d rather patch pockets than pick them) that connects her with the Baroness and is the catalyst to her evolution into Cruella.
Clearly someone, armed with focus group insights and in charge of the purse, felt that the pattern for profit meant that we had to empathize with Cruella. The result is that the movie (astonishingly shoddily written by six persons. Six persons!!!) consistently pulls its punches. Cruella is neither particularly likeable nor particularly evil; just haughty. Call it haughty couture. As for the Dalmatians, you’d never notice their presence. The 101 have been reduced to about three. It’s more cat-walk than dog show. One not worth dressing up for.
CRUELLA. Dir: Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya) Writers: Dana Fox + 5 others. Cinematographer: Nicholas Karakatsanis (I, Tonya). Production Designer: Fiona Crombie (The Favourite). Costume Designer: Jenny Beavan
ALL THINGS SHINING is a treasure trove of ideas about – very loosely – (Western) man’s understanding of his/her place in the world, from Homeric times when capricious gods shaped our destinies to an unquestioning, if ever changing idea of the Christian life, culminating with what the authors regard as modern nihilism. The book takes the reader on an intellectual journey from Homer to David Forster Wallace via Aeschylus, Christ, the neo-Platonic Aquinas, the Aristotelian St Augustine, Luther, Dante, Descartes, Melville, Kant and others.
All in under 300 pages.
Their hypothesis is that, unlike, say the Middle Ages, modern man chooses whether to believe in a divinity (be it God or gods). The fact that such a choice exists at all (It was inconceivable in the ancient world) has, according to the authors (philosophers Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly) resulted in a kind of nihilistic autonomy that has separated us from the enriching, life-enhancing, intuitive spiritual reality that’s at our door. Modern man’s very private introspection has generally alienated us from the very public, transcendent communal moods of the polytheistic Greeks. That kind of shared exultant joy and uplift we still however fleetingly experience in sport stadia (or I would add, revivalist religious or political congregations…the theatre even)
We need to learn to how to free ourselves from the flattening of technology, to be able to participate, Homeric like, and be swept away in the reconnecting joy denied us by the nihilism of the times. The skill lies in our ability to separate positive moods of interconnection (say participating in King’s “I have a dream” congregation) from destructive ones (say a Hitler or Trump rally).
The insights the book offers is almost clouded by this -very American?- self-help polemic. Don’t let that proselytizing put you off.
The authors suggest that the lens through which we view and understand our lives was formed by two fundamental ‘reconfigurers’ : Christ and Descartes. Christ shifted the framework of the moral life away from action (“I commit adultery”) to intent (“I’m open to committing adultery”) and from a fatalistic view of the universe to one where the idea of goodness was bound up with ‘agape’: the joy and celebration of the Christian life. Self-realization came via belief.
Descartes upended this with his famous dictum “Cogito ergo sum…I think therefore I am”. You will note, it’s not “I believe or I pray therefore I am”, it’s “I think…”. This is a radical shift in our idea of ourselves. As a result of Descartes, we became subjects independent from God…in a sense we became our own gods. His philosophy heralded the beginning of the modern world and the drift toward the potential nihilism of the autonomous individual.
The authors also dwell on that group of persons they call the ‘archetypal articulators’: Homer, Dante, Melville, Martin Luther King etc. (I would add Derek Walcott). These articulators were able to gather up and evoke the world of their times…the zeitgeist…in ways we may be able to appreciate but, from our modern context, might find hard to fully understand.
The book’s an easy read (once you pay attention) and its size makes it an attractive proposition (I find the likes of Hillary Mantel’s final doorstop opus maximus too daunting to even contemplate). That said, I wish they’d spent less time on Melville and more on Kant and Heidegger.
WHAT A HUGELY missed opportunity. This fast-paced, often nonsensical action movie is based on a fascinating premise: that a group of nativists seek to wean America away from its divisive ideological civil war and bring the country back together by a focus on a bigger war: against Russia. So they create the conditions for such war.
The director is Stefano Sollimar who did the outstanding Sicario 2. The movie has some first-rate actors: Michael B Jordan and Guy Pearce. The brooding score is from Jon Birgisson (Pieces of a Woman); Philippe Rousselot (Fantastic Beasts) is the cinematographer and the set design is Kevin Kavanaugh (The Dark Knight Rises). Even the clunky script is from Taylor Sheridan (who wrote both Sicario movies)
So what went wrong? The actual story, the plot, is so laughably silly and hunky hero John Kelly (Jordan) is so woodenly one-dimensional that even the OK-ish action sequences feel flat. There’s a shadow of the inconsequential, the ephemeral that lingers over the whole enterprise like its (imagined) ill-conceived mission statement: “We need content! So, let’s make a super hero movie without an actual super hero and with revenge at its heart”
Tom Clancy you should be blushing even now
TOM CLANCY’s WITHOUT REMORSE. Dir: Stefano Sollimar. With: Michael B Jordan and Guy Pearce. Scriptwriter: Taylor Sheridan. Cinematorgrapher: Phillippe Rousselot
FERN (FRANCES McDORMAND) is a recent widow. The industry that sustained her community has collapsed. The money that sustained the life she once lived has evaporated. It is cold and damp and lonely (what Melville’s Ishmael describes as “the damp, drizzly November in my soul”.) And so, in a deliberate parallel to the idea of America, Fern, like Huck Finn, lights out, heading West in her modern covered wagon and learning the ways of the road (like how to mend a flat tyre) on an odyssey of discovery…the discovery of ‘what’s out there’
At first glance, there seems to be a major contradiction at the heart of Nomadland: having had her life torn asunder, first by the death of her husband and then by the death of the industry that sustained them, Fern’s seemingly enjoyable time working as a packer in Amazon is jarring. This is Amazon we’re taking about; the arch villain of humane people-centered industrial practices. The darkest face of modern capitalism. Even the life on the road that she’s chosen to live (in a tiny cramped van), seems more tolerable than you’d expect. Yes, it’s credibly spare and basic (Director Chloe Zhao makes a point of showing us the rudimentary conditions of her toilet processes), but it seems free from the imagined squalor and poverty you’d expect.
But to fret over these details is to miss the intent, the magic even, of the story.
Don’t be fooled by its quasi-documentary feel. Much as the original story (from Jessica Bruder) may have been based on the gritty reality of these new road warriors: this army of people fleeing loss, destitution, homelessness, the collapse of their societies etc, this is a parable of renewal and hope. It’s about the indomitable strength of the human character; about the restorative power of finding and becoming a part of a bigger community of like-minded, non-judgmental souls, as she does; about the possibility of joy, of love and of enriched happiness in the face of a society where money is the (only) accepted route to such.
And it’s all told from her increasingly open-hearted point of view. It’s not so much ‘reality’ as her reality
And it is all this without mawkishness and Hallmark sentimentality. It’s a movie that inspires optimism in a world where cynicism and despair seem to only available roads. It’s as though the director is urging her audience to rediscover with Fern, the America of the imagination, Whitman’s expansive panoramic America, his America containing multitudes (where Amazon is just one of those that can effortlessly be absorbed by the contradictions of such vastness). The wonderful cinematography of Joshua Richards (God’s Own Country) lays it all before us: the America of the endless plain, the infinity of folding mountains, the fast flowing isolated streams where it is possible to lie naked, floating without a care or fear.
Nomadland is a quasi-mythic place that is accessed only by stripping away the dross of the politics, the commercialism, the divisiveness of what I guess may be Normal-land. And once you’re there, despite her sister’s cajoling and the seductive charms of a simpatico fellow nomad (David Strathairn) and his lovely family, really, you can never go back; you can never re-settle into the non-nomadic, anchored, way of life. The -finite- past is not the place where you want to return to (as she does toward the end when she revisits her past, now an abandoned town). The present, envisaged as a moment of timelessness, is where you need to live…where we all need to get back to.
Frances McDormand (accompanied by a group of non-actors and ‘real’ nomads that texture the movie) is as compellingly believable as usual. She manages to balance all the pain and sorrow and loneliness of the very vulnerable with the weathered maturity and self-contentment of someone who, like a solo mariner, is as comfortable alone as she is with company. Her ageless, variegated face is the face of the land she travels on.
Ms Zhao is well deserving of the Oscar in this piece of almost invisible directing; it suggests a story that tells itself, as if without ideological shaping. And she invests her tale with an easy rhythm; a flow as organic as the seasons that unfold before us.
I’m leaving on a jet ‘plane… soon
NOMADLAND. Dir (and screenplay) Chloé Zhao. With: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn. Cinematographer: Joshua James Richards. Art Director: Elizabeth Godar (Us)
TO THOSE OF you who get to this fascinating, absolutely riveting movie, I suggest you pay attention to the art direction (if for a moment you can concentrate on anything beyond the jaw dropping B-movie thrill of what’s taking place): from the protagonist’s parent’s kitschy house to her jokily ‘girlie’ coffee shop to a wonderful hippy-esque wedding ceremony…all glossy surface masking so much that remains out of sight.
In one coffee shop scene the camera focuses on the beatific, beautiful, butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth face of Cassie (short for, duh, Cassandra). She’s standing in front of some sort of ornate pink circular wall hanging. It frames her to suggest a halo. It’s an ironic icon for this avenging angel of death.
Cassie (Cary Mulligan), traumatised by an incident several years ago, has dropped out of medical school, works as a barista by day and by night pretends to be the uber vulnerable woman: one helplessly drunk in a bar. And thus is she open sesame for any proto-rapist on the prowl. From their, and the society’s perspective, she’s clearly looking for it. Inevitably someone (she’s ‘drunk’ in quite posh bars with posh boys on the make) offers to get her back home safely, then takes her to his apartment and seeks to have his way with her before she passes out. Their shock when she ‘snaps to’ and reveals how deadly sober she is, is a sharp kick in the groin. Her potential assailants veer between shame and outright terror. Who knows what vengeance this angel can wring upon them?
These faux seductions are just the warm-up act for a much more cleverly planned strategy of revenge/exorcism/catharsis on Cassie’s part. Her intent is not simply to seek revenge, a la Arya Stark (remember her list?), it’s to force those who catalysed her initial breakdown into facing up to their crimes, to confronting their demons within, to be exposed to the truth behind their carefully constructed lies and narratives.
And this is the heart of the story (which feels so very current and ‘real’). It’s about the clever narratives people tell themselves to protect themselves from the sins of their past (in this case gang rape): that they were young and didn’t know better, that in the world of “he said, she said” it was always better to protect ambitious young men’s futures (forget about how it may have affected the victims’ futures); that any woman’s sex life is fair game in a court of law; that anyway they’ve become better persons etc.
We construct narratives to fence us in against harm (Banks are forces of good, the US is a bastion of democracy, the UK has overcome systemic racism etc). Cassie is an archetype of the worst nightmare: she’s the arch debunker of myths, the exposer of truths. And once the truth of one’s self is exposed, once the superstructure of wealth and fame and decency has been pulled down, so often there is nothing left (One character in the movie – Alfred Molina- has come to his own self-reckoning before Cassie’s arrival; and he’s a husk of a person)
Well, a woman who, alone, entraps men in isolated bedrooms isn’t going to end well. But this one does, sorta, in a wonderful moment of movie catharsis, of grand operatic cummupance…a joyful, gotcha exclamation point after two hours of edge of seat viewing.
Carey Mulligan, who holds the movie together in every frame, from start to finish, is outstanding, as she always is. She can switch from angel to Devil and all the layers of eschatology that separate them, in a flick of an eye, a curl of a lip. Writer/Director Emerald fennel (who you may recognise from The Crown), gives her tale the over the top jauntiness of a satiric morality story.
She also slyly encourages the viewer to sympathize with some of Carrie’s victims. The question she poses is that perhaps it isn’t just a black and white affair. That the stain of past misdeeds are not permanently etched into the skin. That people can change. That people can emerge from the darkness.
Or can they? Perhaps (to bastardise Macbeth) all great Neptune’s ocean can never ever wash the blood of the past off the hands of the present.
PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN. Writer/Director: Emerald Fennell. With: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Clancy Brown, Laverne Cox, Alfred Molina. Cinematographer: Benjamin Kracun (Monsoon). Production Designer: Miahael Perry
WHEN HE WAS just 23, Werner Heisenberg (who may or may not have sabotaged the Nazi bomb program…as shown in the OK-ish war movie, The Catcher Was a Spy with Mark Strong as Heisenberg) spent a few solitary days on the windswept island of Helgoland in the North Sea. It was there he figured out a chunk of the mathematics of the quantum universe, and went on to develop his foundational Uncertainty theory.
It’s a pleasant story and there merely to give some sort of dramatic brio to Carlo Rovelli’s new book (after his last, incredibly successful “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics”). It seeks to simplify and help our understanding of the deeply weird world of quantum physics.
I use the words “simplify” and “understanding” advisably.
The book’s an easy enough read…relatively easy. Rovelli makes a superhuman effort to find real world examples to explain quantum phenomena. But (thanks to my analog brain) I found I had to reread multiple paragraphs and chapters multiple times in order to try to rephrase his insights into something I could claim to understand (or at least made sense to me). And on multiple occasions I had to refer to other texts (Manjit Kumar’s book, “Quantum” often offered greater clarification on ideas that remained obstinately opaque).
That said, it’s a rewarding read and a fascinating book.
The book highlights and ‘explains’ the physics that underlies some of the more well known weirdo aspects of the quantum universe: Quantum superposition (where a particle can seem to be in two places at the same time…or, like Schrödinger’s cat is neither dead nor alive) and its twin, Entanglement (where particles separated by vast distances still act in perfect unison). It examines the phenomena (that makes any discussion about this world one of ‘probabilities’ not exactness) whereby the simple act of observing the behaviour of electrons – interference- changes their behaviour (which is why the un-observed cat is in a purgatory of being neither dead nor alive) And, (back to Helgoland) the mathematics of quantum uncertainty (where you can be precise about the position of an electron or its velocity but not both at the same time; and since elections are in perpetual motion, that’s not very helpful).
At heart, he notes, properties exist only in relation to something else. Don’t think of the world as one of objects but as a weave of relations and interactions. (As a crude example, he cites the blueness of the sky. The sky doesn’t have the property of blueness; that ‘property’ is merely the interaction of the wavelength of light photons interacting with the molecules (themselves the result of the interactions of atoms within which are the interactions within their nuclei etc) that make up my optic nerves that are fed in quanta, or packets, of electric signals to the interacting molecules that light up a region of my brain. And voila: blue! Nothing has intrinsic properties except in relation to other things. No interaction at the quantum level = nothing)
Rovelli is keen to push the discussion as far as it can go. If, as he asserts, all matter exists only in relation to other matter, is there a Foundational element? The elusive God particle? To answer this he turns to (the suddenly trendy) Bhuddist philosopher, Nagarjuna, who reasoned that nothing exists in itself independently from something else. In other words, at its root, existence is emptiness. The fundamental substance does not exist.
And is it possible to directly correlate the quantum world with the experiential world of thoughts and emotions? To him it is, as he leads the reader down, down into Alice’s looking glass to show the synapses that link the person writing this with the quarks and bosons and fermions at the heart of reality.
TOWARD THE END of this movie, Mary Anning (a real person, stunningly realised by Kate Winslet) is in the British Museum. She has come to view one of its more important fossils…discovered by her thirty years before. To get to her fossil, she must first pass in front of a wall encrusted with the portraits of the science establishment. They’re all men: stern, imperious Victorian men. Her fossil, there in its triumphant glory, has been credited to one of these men. The idea that a woman, an amateur and a working-class woman at that, could possibly have achieved such an accomplishment is not something they, the establishment, could ever be open to either accepting or even understanding.
To them Anning is known; she’s simply not recognized.
And perhaps, this theme of recognition; of the need to discover the realities beyond the surface, shapes the drama of the tale.
Mary Anning is, in a sense, the story’s ammonite: solemn, silent, the delicate skeleton of her past, of her life and the passions within hidden and unrecognized to the passing observer. She lives with her mother, Molly (Gemma Jones as an equally closed off, unemotional guarded character). Their relationship is as cold and bleak as their harsh surroundings: the rocky cliffs of a wave-shocked shore. They eke out a living from the small, undervalued ammonites Mary manages sell to curious tourists and the occasional collector.
It is into this life that a wealthy, casual collector, Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) dragging along his withdrawn, sickly wife, Charlotte – herself an unrecognized fossil authority- (Saoirse Ronan ) turn up. Perhaps she can stay there with them, take in the bracing the sea air for her health, perhaps accompany Mary in her daily ‘digs’.
To the solemn, solitary Mary Anning, this is an impossible request. But it pays. And money’s short.
Their grudging companionship, Charlotte’s fearless industry and the growing bond of their like-mindedness, parts their defensive layers. Crack open that cold stone and the beautiful ammonite lies within. Love (and very hot sex) blossoms.
But where can this go? One a wealthy, married, very young city woman trapped in the claustrophobia of Victorian prudence; the other a working class woman, alive only on the untamed shore. Even where there is love and passion, how much can the one ever recognize the full reality of the other?
This is a beautifully directed movie (by Francis Lee of God’s Own Country), structured (along with an excellent, very restrained score) almost symphonically to balance the dominant adagio rhythms of Anning’s solitary life with the sudden allegro of her awakened passion (the layering and interplay of ‘notes’ that The Dig, rooting around in the same themes of class and academic learning, lacked).
The brief flashes of loss and yearning and sadness that escape Mary’s quiet, resolutely dark, stoic demeanor are quite masterpieces of acting. Charlotte’s transformation is equally compelling: from the inhibited, drooping, sexually unsatisfied, bride to the girlish, exuberant, sparkling lover and then to the burnished, self-confident society woman…fitting addition to her husband’s glossy collection of objects.
And yet, Ammonite seems to have escaped Oscar’s accolades. But Mank has made the cut along with Amanda Seyfried. Beats me
AMMONITE. Dir/Writer: Francis Lee. With: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Jones, Fiona Shaw. Cinematographer: Stéphane Fontaine (Jackie; Elle). Composer: Volker Bertelmann (Your Honor) and Dustin O’Halloran
IT’S A QUICK read and an endlessly fascinating/informative/engrossing one.
It slips coincidentally, conveniently into the list of books I’ve been reading since the year begun:
Michael Taylor’s The Interest details the battle of pamphlets and narratives – and finally reality, in the form of multiple rebellions, not to mention the French Revolution – in the lead up to the final abolition of the slave trade.
Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger offers a gripping fictionalized account of life (and I use that word advisedly) on a slave ship.
CLR James’ classic on the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins was (to me) a revelation…not just slave v free, black v white, but also mulatto against everyone and royalist v revolutionary.
Finally, Sathnam Sangera’s Empireland, that considered the extent to which Empire (you know, British exceptionalism and moral superiority, deep-rooted patronizing, systemic racism, the loot of the Indian sub-continent and the repositioning of two hundred years of slavery as their glory of abolition… that we need to “get over”) shaped the modern British character and self-identity.
THE SHORT VERSION The book is look at the institution (of slavery) from the perspective of three lives in the mid eighteenth century: a trader (John Newton, author of Amazing Grace and about 400 other hymns), a slave owner, and diarist (Thomas Thistlewood) and a freed slave (Olaudan Equiano) whose diaries brought the reality of slavery to the ‘common man’. They were all literate, articulate, well-read men whose experiences give flesh and feeling to what can be the dry bleak history of the ten million Africans who made the crossing (and the two million who were fed to the sharks).
All three contributed to the final collapse of the slave trade by exposing the innocent and largely indifferent British public to the reality of what their sugar romance was really founded on
THE LONGER READ
JOHN NEWTON Newton was a dissolute youth from a seafaring family who, after a year spent in Africa recruiting slaves, signed up for ‘the crossing’. Thereafter he spent many years in the dangerous but profitable business of hauling slaves across the Atlantic. He was as brutish as his job demanded despite his deepening faith and the long theological discussions he had with other like-minded traders.
Slave trader turned celebrity
A mild stroke was the turning point for him to give in to his real passion: evangelical preaching and hymn writing (out of which came Amazing Grace). His well-turned self-narrative: the confessed sinner who, guided by the hand of God, finds amazing grace and redemption (so, like him, anyone can be saved), and his obvious competence as a preacher made him nationally famous.
His fame also made him an obvious choice for the Abolitionists and he was eventually co-opted to The Cause by his personal friend: the much younger, ambitious Quaker MP, William Wilberforce.
He wasn’t the first and sure won’t be the last deeply religious person to find a means of balancing deep faith along with venomous racism.
Money, Money, Money
What existential power could possibly have kept this (eventual) abolitionist in his immoral trade? Money! Time and again, his conscience urged him out. But the money was too good; and anyway, as he rationalized it, it was really God’s choice for him.
White Man Seeks Job, Finds Fulfillment
He turned up in Jamaica around the same time that Newton was trading his slaves, in search of a job and the dreams of endless wealth proffered by slavery. He was just out of his teens. He found the job easily enough having just the right criteria the planters there were looking for. He was white.
He’d spend the rest of his life on the island, managing a few pens (where a slave owner – and in the end he owned over 35 slaves- would keep a ‘pen’ of slaves for rental to individual plantations across the island) as well as full-fledged sugar producing plantations. (Funny word that isn’t it: “plantation”. Makes it all sound like some lovely rustic farmer’s retreat) Like Newton, Thistlewood managed to combine great erudition (as well as a strong passion for horticultural research) with grotesque brutality. As the author writes, “…intellectual refinement and educated pedigree are no guarantee that the same person is humane or kind (Remember the educated Nazis)”
Though his erudition and vast library of books may have made him stand out from his fellow slave owners, his brutality was par for the course. Slave owners lived in a state of permanent watchfulness (especially after a huge rebellion in the 1760’s called Tacky’s Revolt). Their strategy for dealing with the imbalance of numbers where slaves outnumbered whites by more than 20:1 was simple: execute brutal punishments for even the most marginal misdemeanours. One slave who was accused of eating a piece of sugar cane was flogged, pickled (his wounds soaked in salt, pepper and lime juice) and tied down for another slave to shit in his mouth. Decapitations (and the heads were then displayed on spikes for all to see), amputations and slit noses were not uncommon punishments.
Where he differed from his fellow owners was in the meticulous care he took to diarize everything. From his diaries, we learn not only of the often whimsical summary punishments he meted out to his slaves, but the names, dates and times of every one of the 138 women he’d raped (multiple times) over the course of his life. He raped them whenever he felt the urge to: in the fields, in the warehouses, on the ground, up against trees; in private or in full view of others. Some of the women he’d rape even after just flogging them; or he’d rape them and then flog them.
Nothing new here. Just the fact that it had all been written down (Thankfully the kind of facts the Abolitionists needed to counter the argument that slavery was OK, really)
He also differed from his co-owners in his love for one particular slave, Pibbah, with whom he had a thirty seven year relationship; one that lasted right up to his death. She was his confidant, his paramour, his servant and his trusted and affectionate (his words) common law wife (who remained the property of another slave owner). Go figure!
After his death, his slaves were separated and sold off. Business as usual
What’s in a Name?
Olaudah Equiano’s name changed multiple times during his life. His original name, Igbo, was soon formalized as Gustavus Vassa. Or at least, that was the name he was given as a slave. Gustavus became Jacob and at some periods, Michael. This was better than his original slave-name: Number 3. When the Africans were captured (by the likes of Amazing Grace preaching John Newton), they lost not only their families, friends, country, dignity (they were auctioned off naked) and freedom, but also their names. Equiano was the name Gustavus gave himself – it was what he called his African name (think Mohammed Ali) – or his nom de plume for his incredibly successful autobiography, “The Interesting Narrative”
Black Man Can Write!
Like Newton and Thistlewood, Equiano was a highly literate man, who penned his biography.
The main difference of course was that he was (or had been) a slave. It was his actual real-world tales of slavery – of being captured, shipped to distant lands (Barbados), flogged, tortured and then freed, captured again and the extraordinary skill he had for making money (and then having the money stolen) not to mention traveling the world as a sailor – that became a major factor in helping to galvanize the public’s attitudes against slavery.
His contribution to the anti-slavery cause came principally from the shock his descriptions delivered to the (avid) reading public. It viscerally communicated the horror of working on the plantations: the horror of the sexual assaults, the terror of the tortures. But there was an added dimension to his increasing celebrity status as a fine writer and gifted speaker: the fact that an African, a black man, a slave was capable not just of thought, heaven forbid, but of such eloquence and intelligence made a lie of the accepted notions that blacks were a part of an inferior species.
The Society Slave
Equiano was one of a large number of slaves (and freed blacks) who, as personal property, had been brought to England by their owners. Personal slaves were something of a must-have accessory in certain classes of society (Samuel Johnson had one such, and to whom he left his entire estate). Luckily for Equiano, his owner was a seaman. And so he found himself, at twelve, on multiple naval expeditions and engagements. It was on board ships that his initial exposure to reading took off. For in those days, many of the larger naval carriers came with a full complement of teachers, charged with educating the young apprentices sent to sea to be trained (Nelson, sent to sea when he was twelve was educated this way).
By the time he finally bought his freedom (having been re-sold several times), he’d been part of two Royal Expeditions looking for the north east passage to India, became an expert in the French horn and – to earn some personal money – in trading small goods; he’d served as a servant, clerk, accountant, hairdresser, horse groom, interpreter, field slave supervisor, and ferryman. When he preached and proselytized up and down the country, his was as riveting a tale as you could imagine. Upon his death, he left his daughter a comfortable sum (from sales of his book).
And then, in a puff, his name and history simply disappeared without a trace for one hundred and fifty years.
The book’s an easy read, and filled with endlessly interesting details about the period that give great texture to the eco system of slavery…to the attitudes that sustained it and eventually helped kill it
“YOU CAN MURDER the revolutionary, but you can’t murder the revolution. You can murder the freedom fighter, but you can’t murder freedom” This was the rallying cry of the very young (he was just twenty at the time), charismatic Black Panther freedom fighter, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Panthers. It was a rallying cry that resonated beyond the walls of the poor, disadvantaged black urban youth, to whom the Panthers delivered free school meals and medical care. Hampton’s danger was that his message (at a time of anti-Vietnam anger) was equally appealing to whites in the community who felt equally alienated from power and overpowered by aggressive policing.
So ‘dangerous’ was he that J. Edgar -Reds under the beds – Hoover (a heavily made-up Martin Sheen), the cross-dressing director of the FBI ordered him, this Black Messiah, neutralized.
Order not via Law but via state-sanctioned assassination.
This mandate was the catalyst for the events that followed and that the story tracks. Bill O’Neil (LaKeith Stanfield), a rootless hustler, posing as an FBI officer to fleece cowed blacks of their cars, is easily co-opted by FBI Agent Roy Mitchell (the protean Jesse Piemons) as an informant. O’Neil is the anti-messiah, the black Judas…the archetype of the Uncle Tom His job: get close to Hampton and inform Mitchell, his handler, about Hampton’s movements, about his friends, his beliefs, his weaknesses and eventually, prep him for assassination.
After a confused first half, in which huge issues (the formation of Hampton’s rainbow coalition, the events leading up to his imprisonment, the arc of the emotional connection between Hampton and O’Neil etc) are crammed into 60 minutes, Judas and the Black Messiah swings into life in the second half where the emotional truths of the story are allowed the breathe.
The amoral, feckless O’Neil, blackmailed by the feds, revels in the glamour of out of reach baubles such as meals at expensive restaurants. But he is increasingly torn by his disloyalty to Hampton. This duality within that eats away at him is stunningly well portrayed by Stanfield. His edgy, jittery tension is nicely contrasted with the centered calm of Hampton, a man whose pent-up energy is only released in his gush of (near incomprehensible) words.
Director Shaka King layers contrast as a way of building up the thematic quilt of his story. At the centre of this world of state v Panther violence lies the sweet, almost innocent love story of Hampton and his blushing partner, Deborah (Dominique Fishback). Death is paralleled with birth. (State) deceit and subterfuge, expressed via O’Neil’s underhanded-ness is contrasted with the close-knit bonds and community togetherness of the Coalition. Hampton’s eloquence is contrasted with O’Neil’s silences.
In the end, death begets death; murder begets suicide. And the state and its ‘enemy’, Black people, remain locked in an embrace that remains, like its core Law and Enforcement strategy (shoot to kill) unchanged to this day.
As an actor, Kaluuya has an electric presence; he manages to shine through a crappy script (which forever asks us to believe what we’re told, not what we see). But the real star here is Stanfield. Compared with the others up for it, this to me is the obvious Oscar choice.
And yet, I feel this movie is a missed opportunity. It is well aware of, and never shies away from the importance of the issues it addresses. But as a dramatic vehicle, it is very uneven. The issues behind the story seemed bigger than the storyteller’s ability to knit them together into a seamless dramatic whole (which might account for the phalanx of writers credited with the job).
JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH. Dir: Shaka King. From a story by Will Berson (writer), Shaka King (writer), Kenneth Lucas and Will Lucas. With: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKieth Stanfield (Knives Out), Jesse Piemons (I’m Thinking of Ending Things), Dominique Fishback. Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt (The Rhythm Section)