She died there in hospital, no husband, Sissy, daughter Ingrid no church kin around her and at her funeral of regulation 10 her own Lusamba saw the coffin and could not imagine her within.
She was a mother to everyone who was blown into Victoria station lost for food or direction, took them home like injured creatures fed them till they were strong watched them fly, never to return.
The concourse deserted like Christmas Eve only without the straggling drunkards or last-minuters wandering homewards, when a man cursed and spat hatred announcing that he had Covid (though he later tested negative).
She'd worked all hours overtime to send money home to her mother; they made her work without PPE sickness made her vulnerable to disease. She died alone, the banners remember outside her station chants of – 'Justice for Belly Mujinga!'
Belly Mujinga was a ticket controller who worked at Victoria station, originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She died on April 5th of Covid-19. She was spat on by a man who claimed he had Covid, though later tested negative. She had been working without PPE. ‘Justice for Belly Mujinga’ was a vital part of recent BLM protests.
As increasingly militarised police forces and emboldened white supremacists provoke and attack people of colour and their allies, Ciarán O'Rourke shows the relevance of Langston Hughes' political poetry
“I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street,” recalled Langston Hughes of his first literary forays: songs that “had the pulse beat of the people who keep on going.” The remark indicates in microform the emphasis and direction of Hughes's poetry in general: its blues-inflected verve and musicality; its demotic modernism and open-eyed, streets-up democracy; its refusal to ignore or reify the pain of poverty in American life, and the devastation of what W.E.B. Du Bois at the turn of the century had called “the color line”; its urge by contrast to pay tribute to the perseverance and creativity of 'his' people as a collective. “I am the darker brother”, Hughes wrote in one poem, partly addressed to Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, whose rollicksome, quasi-proletarian verses he credited as formative influences on his own work: “I, too, sing America.”
For Hughes, such a cultural mission could delight and inspire, revealing new depths and dimesnions to the national dream as it was lived by the masses, by communities of colour, by vast swathes of the population ordinarily rendered invisible by the literary and political mores of the time. In one early piece, he claimed fellowship with the “Dream-singers, / Story-tellers, / Dancers” of Harlem – a poetic comaraderie he likewise extended to “Elevator-boys, / Ladies' maids, / Crap-shooters, / Cooks, / Waiters, / Jazzers”. Against the harshness and desperation of contemporary experience in the nation's urban centres, the Missouri-born Hughes had an almost preternatural ability to tune in to the vibrant, rough-and-tumble clamour of local lives on their own frequency.
Colloquial sass and effortless cool
His portrait of “Lenox Avenue: Midnight” thus begins with colloquial sass and effortless cool: “The rhythm of life / Is a jazz rhythm, / Honey. / The gods are laughing at us.” For Hughes, this “jazz rhythm” was a sign of the times: of a new modernity shaped and sounded by black, largely working-class communities. But it was also a portal into American history. In one late poem, Hughes re-imagined the songs of enslaved Africans during the nineteenth century in its light, their voices sublimated – bursting finally free – in the form of the “Jazz!” concocted by “Jelly Roll's piano, / Buddy Bolden's trumpet, / Kid Ory's trombone”.
In his later years, Hughes was in fact criticised (including by a precocious James Baldwin) for his tendency to aestheticise black art and experience, speech and music, in the process creating stereotypes, his critics objected, that lesser (or outright hostile) writers could easily parody or dismiss. Hughes countered such critiques deftly, by highlighting the validity as well as the luminously many-storied tradition of writing from life in America, and farther afield. “The local, the regional can – and does – become universal”, Hughes responded, expressing sentiments shared (almost word for word) by contemporary modernists such as William Carlos Williams and Lola Ridge, before adding his own flavour to the tale: “Sean O’Casey’s Irishmen are an example. So I would say to young Negro writers, do not be afraid of yourself. You are the world.”
Just as Martin Luther King Jnr (whom Hughes came to know tangentially through the Civil Rights Movement) would later perceive in the African-American movement against “racism, militarism, and extreme materialism” in the United States the “arc of the moral universe” at large (bending slowly, King said, towards justice), so Hughes's supposedly local concerns were framed in an internationalist and “universal” perspective. “In the Johannesburg mines”, one piece read, in 1925,
There are 240,000 Native Africans working. What kind of poem Would you Make out of that?
Hughes quietly draws a line of association between questions of race and labour in America and similiar patterns of erasure and exploitation abroad, while signalling the arrival of a poetry concerned less with mannered gentility or academic allusion than with mass, black experience per se. “I herd with the many”, Hughes had declared the previous year, “Caged in the circus of civilization.”
As the last image implies, to capture and distil down to its essentials the (African-)American experience could also be fraught with political and personal anguish. “All the way from Africa to Georgia”, Hughes wrote, “I carried my sorrow songs”, placing the blood-spattered record of American racism within a centuries-long context of European colonial policy and thought: “The Belgians cut off my hands in the Congo. / They lynch me still in Mississippi.”
In the period in which Hughes lived and wrote, indeed, such lynchings were recurrent events, along with the systematised destruction of black property, from Mississippi to Oklahoma. De facto apartheid in the American South co-existed with more subtle forms of racial and social ostracism that remained in force across the Northern states. For all its ease of address and rhythmic exuberance, Hughes's poetry offered a chillingly close-focused catalogue of the agonising effects and insidious nature of such exclusions and abuses pervading American life. His work is populated by loner figures, suffering what Hughes once called “queer pain” (interpreted by some critics as a guarded reference to his own repressed Queerness, in a violently homophobic society). “Strange Hurt” recollects a woman whose behaviour seems mysterious and yet achingly familiar to the speaker:
In months of snowy winter When cozy houses hold, She'd break down doors To wander naked In the cold.
As here, one of Hughes's great talents as a political writer was his ability to acknowledge the psychological complexity of the people and characters he described, without softening the often multi-pronged critiques of power his poems simultaneously sought to articulate.
As we've seen, Hughes's anti-racism and social sympathies were coupled with a profound recognition of the forms of economic exploitation and hierarchy that shaped the political landscape of the unfolding century, both at home and abroad. “I live on a park bench. / You, Park Avenue”, begins one piece, “Hell of a distance / Between us two.” Another goes so far as to imagine a time “When the land belongs to the famers / And the factories to the working men”, asserting triumphantly that “The U.S.A. when we take control / Will be the U.S.S.A. then” – a concise expression of Hughes's Soviet sympathies throughout the 1930s, beliefs for which (to his distress) he would later appear before Joseph McCarthy's House of Un-American Activities Committee on the accusation of Communist Party membership.
The episode was telling. For although Hughes is rightly recognised today as a chronicler of America's grassroots life and democratic culture, containing multitudes, by the early 1950s he had long been known (gaining the attention of FBI) as a leading critic of US exceptionalism in his work. “Strangely undemocratic doings take place in the shadow of 'the world's greatest democracy'”, Hughes observed, as governmental and military leaders approved the deployment of segregated American regiments in the fight against global fascism during the second world war. “We want the right to ride without Jim Crow in any conveyance carrying the traveling public”, he likewise wrote in 1944, replying to an editor seeking clarification as to the aims of the black struggle for equality and meaningful citizenship: “We want the right when traveling to dine in any restaurant or seek lodgings in any hotel or auto camp open to the public which our purse affords. (Any Nazi may do so.)”
To read Hughes's work in an early 21st century context is to be reminded of the vast discrepancies between aspiration and fact, and in particular the extended history of white supremacy (its protean endurance) in American society. In the mid-1980s, Gwendolyn Brooks purported to speak for all “those of us who knew Langston” when she described his presence on the literary scene as one that had “made us all better people” – yet this geniality and warmth on Hughes's part belied a deeply registered sense of the crimes on which the USA's prosperity and political life were built. “The wreckage of Democracy is likely to pile up behind that Jim Crow Car”, he summarised in the 1940s, a premonition based on the cruelty and immense burden of racist violence he saw lurking at the heart of freedom's new, self-proclaimed protector on the global stage.
The Black Prophetic tradition
“Way down south in Dixie,” Hughes had written amidst the wave of racial lynchings that swept across the South throughout the 1920s, “(Bruised body high in air) / I asked the white Lord Jesus / What was the use of prayer.” Two decades later, he was equally clear in his perception and condemnation of police brutality as a method of racial terror. “Hit me! Jab me! / Make me say I did it”, opens one poem, entitled “Third Degree”. “I looked and I saw / That man they call the Law”, reads another: “I had visions in my head / Of being laid out cold and dead.” The piece finishes on an admonitory note, anticipating Hughes's explosive understanding of the likely consequence of Harlem's “dream deferred” in 1951:
Now I do not understand Why God don't protect a man From police brutality. Being poor and black, I've no weapon to strike back So who but the Lord Can protect me? We'll see.
Significantly, in both pieces Hughes deploys the religious language of what Cornel West has termed the Black Prophetic tradition, specifically as a means of highlighting the mutual bonds and necessity for self-organisation (and even self-defence) among communities of colour – in the face of systematic racial violence. As here, however, Hughes's most perennial and valuable insistence is on the capacity of ostensibly marginalized and subjugated peoples to voice their own experiences and shape their own stories – primarily by acknowledging themselves in one another, as Hughes himself attempted to do in verse. “Radio Station: Harlem”, opens one poem addressed to the people of the West Indies, “Wave Length: The Human Heart.”
Against the vista of entrenched social hostility and exclusion alluded to in the pieces above, then, Hughes was unafraid to offer elegy and denunciation: a politics of feeling and poetics of response that would shake loose the social blindfolds preventing his fellow citizens (as he always perceived them) from recognising the terrifying reality of racism in America. But his poetry also gleams with the dance and flow of life on the move: hums and sings with living voices. “Folks, I'm telling you, / birthing is hard / and dying is mean”, reads one fragment of poetic plainsong, “so get yourself / a little loving / in between.”
The result is that Hughes's work stands less as a static archive of gone time, catering to a merely historical interest, than as a stereoscopic unreeling of riffs and scenes that seem, somehow, to involve us still, beckoning us into a world both theirs and ours. “I play it cool / And dig all jive. / That's the reason / I stay alive”, runs Hughes's “Motto” – a precursor to Gwedolyn Brooks's iconic snapshot and street-corner rap, “We Real Cool”. Today, Hughes's vim remains infectious, his observational intimacy both enveloping and fresh.
Politically, too, Hughes speaks to us in our time. As monuments to Confederate generals of the American South and the merchants and genocidal monarchs of European imperialism are toppled, as increasingly militarised police forces and emboldened white supremacists deploy strategies of violence and provocation against communities of colour and their allies, his poetry offers both consolation and guidance. Hughes consoles: in his perennial capacity to side with and celebrate the self-activity of communities who exist in defiance of those lines of colour and class that power would draw across the map of our collective life. And he is a guide for our age, in the combination of clarity and dream, political fire and poetic soul, he carries to the fray of action: the not-yet-written pages of a future in which he heard, as we might do, the street-songs forming anew, the music of people who keep on going, going strong.
Shana L. Redmond writes about Paul Robeson’s afterlife in a U.S. Prison
“I have begun to undertake the task of trying to establish a Paul Robeson month here at Marion Federal Penitentiary,” wrote Bil Brown-El. An incarcerated person in the medium security prison in rural Illinois, USA, Brown-El addressed his June 1977 letter to Tony Gittens, director of the Electric Playhouse in Washington D.C. Brown-El was aware of the film festivals held by Gittens in his hometown and hoped that, with the proper setting of his conditions, his humble request would be met favorably. He continued,
From the very outset I would like to say that this have never been accomplished before here at the institution. There are very limited programs dealing with our people here at Marion, as well as very few films dealing with our people, black people, very few—education[al] or other. It would be [a] joy to see this project; a Paul Robeson month get off to a good start.
Beyond the need for more cultural opportunities at the prison for Black people, Brown-El argues that the answer to the question of why pursue this course is “very simple”: “Paul Robeson is one of America’s greatest men.” His use of the present verb tense, alongside his earlier frustration with those who “are ignorant to just who Paul Robeson is/was,” highlights that Paul had not left the world nor these precarious men, even a year and a half after his death.
Marion penitentiary, Illinois
Prison may seem a surprising location in which to find the great singer, actor, and radical Paul Robeson (1898-1976) but he knew something of those people and conditions. Though never incarcerated himself, Robeson was the son of a formerly enslaved man who secured his freedom through escape from a North Carolina plantation. He also lived through eight years (1950-58) of detention in the United States when his passport was revoked due to his political labors and global solidarities. He spoke in support of the incarcerated Scottsboro Boys in 1935 and the Trenton Six in 1949, as well as his comrade Ben Davis, whose membership and activism in the Communist Party, USA was used to convict and imprison him under the Smith Act in that same year.
Economic dispossession and political repression
Robeson was passionately and vocally opposed to the conditions of economic dispossession and political repression that produce imprisonment within Black communities, all the while forwarding alternatives to that violence. And though it would be inaccurate to label Robeson an anti-prison activist, his commitments are aligned with the urgent calls from contemporary Black U.S. communities and organizers for prison abolition, which abolitionist geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes as change that is “deliberately everything-ist” in its design and impact. It is then not a surprise that imprisoned people would seek Robeson out as Brown-El did, especially in the 1970s when incarceration in the U.S. was rapidly becoming the way to contain and disappear poverty and Black insurgency.
Though the proposed program at Marion Penitentiary was less spectacular and significantly less resourced than that which occurred in universities and museums all over the world, it was no less researched. Brown-El began his time with Robeson well before his communication with Gittens. While in solitary confinement at the United States Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, he read “Paul Robeson: Farewell to a Fighter,” by Carlyle Douglas, a writer for Ebony magazine who covered Robeson’s 1976 memorial at Mother A.M.E. Church where his older brother Ben had pastored for more than twenty years. In it, Douglas describes the “knots of sombre people” who braved a rainy Harlem day to honour Robeson. Amongst the strangers and members of multiple former vanguards (“the old Harlem Writers Guild, the Old Left…”) were
ideologues whose visions he had shared and supported, there were people whose personal resolve had been strengthened by the example of his steel-hard integrity, and people who loved him because he sang of them and to them with a voice unmatched in its combination of technical mastery and natural beauty.
The Negro spirituals and world folk songs that define Robeson’s career were inspiration to hundreds of thousands of people or more, and include his famed “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” which declares in verse two that “freedom shall be mine.” His unwavering belief in ultimate justice undoubtedly encouraged many to brave the weather and crowds in order to pay their last respects. Descriptions of the memorial were bookends to Robeson’s life, which Douglas covered in broad, yet thoughtful, strokes.
Like any good story, the highs and lows are dramatic and the lessons profound. Brown-El wrote to Douglas that since its reading he had “become conscious of self.” He went on to read Robeson’s Here I Stand (1958), which he later described as a book that fundamentally changed him: “after reading it, re-reading, and still reading it I realized that I have become addicted to Robeson-ism.” From this conversion developed a month-long program in honor of Robeson and an opportunity for Brown-El and his fellow men to continue responding to the world beyond their walls.
The “five[-]part affair” that Brown-El describes to Gittens, which was sponsored by The Black Culture Society (BCS) at Marion, included panels as well as guest speakers from Southern Illinois University, and culminated in a screening of Robeson’s 1933 breakout film, TheEmperor Jones. Originally a play by Eugene O’Neill in which Robeson also starred, the film adapts the story of Brutus Jones, a Pullman porter convicted of murder who escapes imprisonment and ultimately finds himself on a fictitious Caribbean island where, through coercion and quick-wittedness, he becomes the leader of the local people.
Like the other examples of Depression-era Black performance studied by Stephanie Batiste, The Emperor Jones “shows that black culture also contained an aggressive current of desire for power.” The real-life evidence of this desire for power is precisely what drew scholar Michele Stephens’s attention to Pan-African icon Marcus Garvey, who she juxtaposes with the original O’Neill play.
Proclaiming himself the provisional President of Africa in 1920, Garvey, like Jones, used decorative opulence and pomp and circumstance to stabilize the legitimacy of his reign as leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and, by extension, the wider Black world. Both men would, however, fall victim to the “true tragedy” of the Negro emperor, which included a failure to use his power to sustain meaningful collectivity beyond the nation and, according to Stephens,
[e]ven more dangerously, his transnationalism spoke most powerfully to a specific segment of the black American population, the group least likely to find social acceptance and the rights of full citizenship in American and, therefore, the group least interested in their cultural Americanization, the black working poor.
The choice of The Emperor Jones as a capstone event for the BCS Paul Robeson Month comes into sharper focus within this context. Seeing a Black man successfully flee, capture and seize his freedom, must have been compelling for those at Marion, yet it is precisely the group that Stephens mentions here who Brown-El envisioned as he planned the screening. They were not simply caged men; they were the Black and working poor, the most shunned and despised of society, the least likely to access their full citizenship rights, and, therefore, those critically attuned to the contradictory national logics exposed by Black performance, which, Batiste argues, “shows African Americans coming to terms with a nation that had both betrayed them and from its foundational creed continually held out the glimmer of a promise of inclusion.” Brutus Jones modeled this condition, perhaps most especially in the fit of madness into which he descends at the film’s end that is catalyzed both by his lifetime of dispossession and his struggle to achieve what he was told could be his.
Disappearing Black citizens into prisons
Though ending with a cautionary note for Black men to not aspire too far above their given social station, the narrative of The Emperor Jones was, like so much of Robeson’s early film portrayals, offset by the life lived by its star. By the time of the film’s viewing at Marion the story of Paul’s life had been told with a clarity that undoubtedly brought nuance to this portrayal and invited further consideration of his unique role in a nation that was, at this very moment, escalating the disappearance of its Black citizens into carceral dungeons. Over the last few months of 1977, Brown-El used his personal interest in and research of Robeson to launch efforts to advance the musician’s name as well as other struggles for social justice.
The Emperor Jones, starring Paul Robeson
As a part of Paul Robeson Month, the BCS developed a “Black Awareness Quiz.” Composed of eight questions in multiple-choice style, it asked the reader to answer, for example, “Which noted American became a target of McCarthyism?” and “Which man was honored with the Spingarn Medal, awarded annually for the highest achievement of an American Negro?” The answer to each question was, of course, Paul Robeson, making for a game that was, by question three or four, very predictable but successful nonetheless in its effort to increase knowledge of the month’s namesake. This quick snapshot of both his persecution and his victories began to develop a shared investment in Robeson’s preservation and protection amongst the BCS and their audiences.
Brown-El took advantage of the critical mass that he created through his programming and curatorial work by using it to join in the outrage over the Philip Dean Hayes play Paul Robeson, which premiered in September 1977. Organizing against the play was widespread yet its reach into a federal prison opens up an underdeveloped and undisclosed avenue for solidarity. In the December “petition in support of the actions of the Washington, D.C. Committee to End the Crimes Against Paul Robeson (from Marion),” more than twenty signatories announced their alliance with the celebrities and intellectuals, including Paul Robeson Jr. and writer James Baldwin, who organized the national boycott of the play. The Marion signatories wrote,
This petition is addressed to all people who are concerned with the deplorable assault, “the pernicious perversion of the essence of Paul Robeson” by the farcical play entitled “Paul Robeson” which pretends to depict the life of this heroic giant as it really was. In essence, this unwholesome manure of a play, actually reduces Mount Kilmanjaro [sic] (Paul Robeson) to an insignificant molehill. We, the petitioners, protest.
This is a fantastic document that is not simply additive to the international campaign against the play but revelatory in its own right. Beyond this opening, it goes on to paraphrase Lenin and expose the play as “bourgeois propaganda”, used in service of the long historical practice of making Black revolutionaries small. From these insights and reading practices, we know that these men are dynamically and proactively engaged with events beyond the penitentiary—not simply large-scale national or international events but those that intimately impact the communities in which they continue to love and labour. We know that even though they’ve not seen the play, they’ve read and heard enough about it to have an opinion on its failures and to know that they are joining a collective with the power to adjust current conditions. We know that these men, “the petitioners,” are self-possessed enough to protest and they do it from the prison in the name of Paul Robeson.
In his letter of appreciation to Paul Robeson, Jr., Brown-El outlines his labours for the elder Robeson, including the petition, the film screening, and an additional event on December 1, which he planned to repeat in February 1978. Paul was quickly becoming a recurring presence at Marion—a member of their community and one that they would vigorously defend. Brown-El commits to Paul, Jr. that, “I shall propagate the Great Paul Robeson whenever, however, and wherever I can as there was none greater, there is none greater and there shall be none greater than he…”
The persistence of Robeson’s attendance and influence was made possible not only by the gravity and significance of his labours during his lifetime but also due to the impressions that they would make, even if temporary, at places like Marion Penitentiary. He remained with those vulnerable men and remains with us still, singing and charting new forms of possibility and escape.
Shana L. Redmond is the author of Everything Man: The Form and Function of Paul Robeson (Duke UP, January 2020) and Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora (NYU Press, 2014).
Dennis Broe continues his review of series TV with an analysis of City of Tiny Lights and Hamilton. Image: Tommy Akbar amidst the neon in City of Tiny Lights
Although the highlight and main attraction of most streaming services is always new series and seasons of serial TV, they also attract viewers – and more importantly to them subscribers – by posting high profile films, often with a holiday slant. Netflix premiered Scorsese’s The Irishman at Thanksgiving 2019 in an attempt to have families stay at home and gather around the TV or computer, rather than go out to cinemas at the opening of the Christmas blockbuster season.
For 4th of July weekend, Disney+ served up an exquisitely well-filmed but troubling version of the mega New York theatre hit Hamilton about the country’s founding fathers. For all its gloss, the Disney+ entry took second fiddle to a relatively unknown BBC film, the extraordinary detective thriller about the exploitation of urban minority neighborhoods City of Tiny Lights (available on Amazon Prime in the UK).
In the latter, Tommy Akbar (Riz Ahmed) is a two-bit Pakistani private detective who knows his mixed Anglo-Middle Eastern London neighborhood like the back of his hand. He is hired by a sex worker to find her co-worker and this begins a trail of death and destruction. The trail leads him to the local mullah and a Muslim group patrolling the streets, a real estate developer who he grew up with, an ex-lover also from his childhood, an intimidating American agent supposedly searching for “terrorists,” and the area’s local drug dealers, all against the background of an attempt to “modernize” this turf that Tommy loves and has inhabited all his life.
The script is by Patrick Neate from his Edgar-nominated novel, which he translates to the screen in a way that is pitch perfect. The direction stresses visually the ways the neon of the contemporary London scene is broken down and refracted rather than centralized, casting its eerie transmuted glow on all the inhabitants, continually washing them in a false light they must live under.
Real estate developers remaking neighborhoods in City of Tiny Lights
The master text for this genre of political and economic truth-telling via the detective thriller or film noir is of course Chinatown. City of Tiny Lights has absorbed the lessons of that model, but the sign of that absorption is that it plays them back in non-clichéd ways and tells us something new about the methods employed to “clean” urban neighborhoods of their inhabitants. As with Chinatown there is also a crossing of the political with the personal, with each interacting to reinforce the villainy of the other.
One way to emphasise the extraordinary accomplishment of this film to compare it to another film on the same theme which remains at the level of a preachy thesis film, though its heart is in the right place. Motherless Brooklyn attempts valiantly to recount the way Robert Moses negatively transformed the city of New York in the 1950s, leaving many urban areas blighted.
However, it is an utterly clichéd, pale imitation of Chinatown, complete with a Moses stand-in as Chinatown villain Noah Cross and a personal “passing” plot which never really registers. Ed Norton’s performance as the Tourette’s-afflicted detective is all actorly ticks rather than the lived-in inhabiting of a role, which we find with Riz Ahmed. The end result is a film that seems to be more a Hollywood projection of and imposition on a neighbourhood and a city, than an actual description of a place.
City of Tiny Lights, on the other hand, delights in the sheer breadth of places and people that Tommy encounters, as well as his familiarity with the bodegas, the mosques, the kids on the corner selling what they can, and the memories of his own past in a mixed neighborhood.
All this comes at a time when there is still so much misunderstanding and fear of poorer neighbourhoods, which often are tarred with the “terrorist” label, or dismissed as unsuitable for habitation, in order to be replaced by luxury high rises. In the end the film sides mightily with the community, people like Tommy in his dogged pursuit of an inconvenient truth, and in the best noir tradition helps to transform that community into a collective, redeeming what mainstream media would simply term “denizens of darkness” into a kind of extended family
Hamilton and Settler Colonialism
First, the good news. The 2016 stage version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is exquisitely transformed into a filmed version of the musical. It alternates between close-up views of the individual actors at key moments in their decision-making process of committing to the rebellion against the British, medium-shot views of the ensemble that catch the frenetic energy of the song and dance numbers as the young country struggles to be born and to exist, and long shots of the entire stage which suggest an overview of the moment of the American Revolution and the establishing of the federal institutions.
The hip-hop music tends at times to be a bit too flattened out, as it accommodates to the Broadway musical idiom. On the other hand, the lyrical mastery of the perpetual rapping expands the limited Broadway vocabulary, and opens up the possibilities of not only what but also how much can be said, providing a dense layer of non-stop rhyming and energy that reinvigorates a rather staid musical form.
Snowpiercer’s Daveed Diggs as Jefferson in Hamilton
Miranda as Hamilton, the Caribbean Creole and perpetual insider-outsider, lends a quiet dignity to the role in the last act of the musical, making the character’s redemption and demise both touching and affecting. Elsewhere, Daveed Diggs brings an astounding, pulse-pounding charisma to the role of Thomas Jefferson, which enlivens the second half of the work. The first half is propelled by the seditious struggle of the colonists, but the second half takes on the task of dramatizing Hamilton’s nationalization of the financial system through the Federal Reserve and the battle over state’s rights, more complex and difficult subjects to make work on the stage. Diggs, who is so good in a similar vein as the revolutionary energizer of the class struggle aboard the train in Netflix’ current Snowpiercer, is a showstopper who keeps the second half humming.
Now to the problem. In the light of the Black Lives Matter contemporary protests, the show seems trapped in 2016 – a relic of Obama-era representation where the best African-American’s could hope for was, as the black actor playing Aaron Burr sings, simply to be present in “The Room Where It Happens.” But that somewhat empty phrase does not imply having any power, just simply being present in the room.
It’s unfortunately a phrase that points to the vacuousness of Obama era “change” which in the end has resulted just four years later in African-Americans having to take to the streets en masse to demand that they not be killed by the police.
This is not the main problem though. The show employs “whiteface,” that is African-American actors taking the part of what largely at the time were their white masters, particularly in the forms of Washington, Jefferson and Madison, key characters in the show. The prolific and erudite African-American historian Gerald Horne in The Counter-Revolution of 1776 claims that one of the major reasons for the “revolution” that Hamilton is so keen to lionize is for white slaveholders in the colonies to maintain their slaves. He also illustrates how the British, the Crown, effectively mocked in the musical as cowardly and patronizing, had, four years before the rebellion and as a way of controlling the colonies, acted to free the slaves in the Americas.
Horne’s contention that this attempt by Northern transporters of slaves and Southern owners of slaves to preserve the institution was perhaps the root cause of the American Revolution can be debated. What the book proves though beyond a shadow of a doubt is that the uprising and victory by the settler colonialists, as viewed from the perspective of both African slaves and the indigenous Native or First Americans both of whom when possible fought on the side of the British, perpetuated over 350 years of oppression and inequality for both groups that is still with us today.
Hamilton is full of nasty asides about Jefferson being a slave-holder and immigrants being the ones who really know how to get the job done, but the main line of the musical is a constant validation of an American project which has always systematically disenfranchised the very African-Americans who so cheerfully and energetically lend their voices to revalidating these founding fathers. Thus Washington’s melancholy lament in “One Last Time” as he prepares to retire to Mount Vernon leaves out the fact that his luxurious retirement on the plantation is financed by the work of his slaves.
The falsehood of the colonial settler rationale whereby, as Jefferson – who held over 300 slaves – maintained that all men are created equal, was, as Horne asserts, never sufficiently challenged, and consequently repeated itself in American history. The US has thwarted indigenous movements toward independence and autonomy, which admittedly sometimes appear messy, in Korea, Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s, in Indonesia and Vietnam in the 1960s, in Chile and Nicaragua in the 1970s and 1980s, and today in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Venezuela, while fostering death and destruction in Libya and Syria.
Aaron Burr trying to gain access to “The Room Where It Happens” in Hamilton
Hamilton’s attempt to put one more patch over the myth of American exceptionalism, which sees the country only as a pillar and shining light of freedom, is now, because of the Black Lives Matter movement in the street, fraying at the edges. Hamilton already appears locked in a time capsule, emblematic of an era where simple representation without real change was all that was on offer.
It’s not enough to just be present in “The Room Where It Happens.” To be simply a witness to, as the Black playwright August Wilson said about African-American representation, a “white culture” whose thrust is “to deny us our own humanity, our own history and our own need to make our own investigations from the cultural ground on which we stand as Black Americans.”
Adam Stoneman discusses how public monuments and statues mask the arbitrariness of power. Above: the Edward Colston Statue (photo: Bristol City Council)
“Great monuments are erected like dams, opposing the logic and majesty of authority to all disturbing element; it is in the form of cathedral or palace that Church or State speaks to the multitudes and imposes silence upon them.” - George Bataille
Over 55 statues have been toppled, removed or slated for removal in the United States and 12 in the UK since the protests over the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis began in May. Pedestals are still littered with protest signs and covered in graffiti: Portland stone, cooling from the heat of battle.
Upon these empty plinths there are proposals to erect new monuments to figures worthy of commemoration such as Charles Hamilton Houston, Paul Stephenson,or even Missy Elliott. But before the bronze is cast, it is worth reflecting not only on what we want to memorialise as a society, but how.
There is reason to be wary of repeating the anachronistic aesthetics of the ‘heroic figurative statuary’, as David Olusoga terms it, with a new cast of historical characters. Monuments signify majesty and authority, casting subjects into the canon of History, beyond contestation or reproach. They disavow history, and bestow a sense of permanence — carved into the rock to appear as a natural feature, Mount Rushmore, Trump recently declared, ‘will stand forever as an eternal tribute’. As Henri Lefebvre wrote, monuments ‘mask the will to power and the arbitrariness of power beneath signs and surfaces which claim to express collective will and collective thought.’
Upon its plinth, the statue of Edward Colston claimed its place immemorial in British History. Residing now in Bristol Museum, after a brief spell at the bottom of Bristol docks, it can be properly understood as a historical object — with a relatively recent and controversial history, erected as it was a century and a half after Colston’s death.
Laura Mulvey and Mark Lewis’s film Disgraced Monuments, made for Channel 4 Television in 1994, examines the fall of the USSR through the toppling of Soviet monuments. The aesthetic of monumentalism deployed by the Tsar was reappropriated by Stalin as a ready-made language that could promote loyalty for the Soviet state, with statues and busts in every town square and public building. ‘The cult of the Tsar returns’, notes Mulvey, with Stalin’s cult of personality embodied in monuments; ‘He was a Gorgon Medusa, everything in sight immortalised in stone’. But by leaving the aesthetic regime of monumentality intact, the statues, which represented the authority of the state, eventually fell victim to the forces of popular revolt. In a park above the Kremlin, a statue of Lenin is replaced by a monument to Alexander II, returning to the very spot from which it had been displaced 70 years before.
There is a memorable interview in the film with a sculptor who works in a small Moscow factory, which until recently had made busts of Stalin, Lenin and Marx. Since perestroika the public contracts have dried up and now he produces kitsch figurines of classical sculptures — “whatever people will buy”. Resnais and Marker’s film Statues Also Die also explores this move to commodified production of tourist statuettes in an African context.
To find an alternative vocabulary of commemoration, one that is adequate for dealing with Britain’s legacy of empire, slavery and racism, we must look instead at the practice of memorialisation in the global south and formerly colonised nations, to reconsider memorials to empire from those who suffered under it.
Cradock Four Memorial, Eastern Cape, South Africa
In a remembrance garden in the town of Cradock in South Africa, four vertical slabs of concrete bear witness to four anti-apartheid activists murdered by secret police in 1985. Conventions of Western monumentalism are shunned in the use of plain and everyday material; these were four ordinary people, two school teachers, a railway worker and a childhood friend who was with the group by chance, shot down in cold blood. The monument is stark and insistent, it does not demand reverence or veneration but stands upright in indignant rage at a brutal injustice.
At the foot of Croagh Patrick, in Mayo, Ireland, lies The ‘National Famine Memorial. A bronze ‘coffin ship’ rigged with skeletal figures, it commemorates the Great Famine of the 1840s, ‘and the victims of all famines’. In representing the horror of the famine through symbolic and expressionistic elements, the sculpture does not make a simple indictment but opens up a space for a more complex process of collective mourning and loss.
The National Famine Memorial, County Mayo, Ireland
On 22nd May in Martinique, Emancipation Day, two statues of the French abolitionist Victor Schoelcher were pulled down and smashed in the capital of Fort-de-France. “Schoelcher is not our saviour’’ sang the crowds. Though Schoelcher negotiated the bill that abolished slavery in the Caribbean in the 19th Century, he also decreed that slave owners be financially compensated to the sum of over one and a half million francs for the loss of their human captives.
Away from the fray, in a quiet field on the south west coast of Martinique a triangular arrangement of fifteen hunched figures look out onto the sea, at the spot where in 1830 a slave ship sank with 40 slaves shackled on board. The very site of Anse Cafard Slave Memorial encourages contemplation — this is not the municipal site of power of the town square; visitors are encouraged to walk among the eight foot statues. The sculpture focusses on the dignity of the lives who were enslaved by traders like Colston and ‘freed’ by men like Schoelcher.
Anse Cafard Slave Memorial, Le Diamant, Martinique
The examples above provide an alternative vocabulary to memorialise the incommensurable violence and suffering caused by colonialism and empire. They emphasise the collective over the individual, contemplation over veneration, human loss over heroic triumph.
Occupying the symbolic realm, statues help us frame and interpret the material world we live in. Over time they tell us which stories and which lives matter. The appropriate aesthetics for this historic moment are not those of triumphalism and heroism, based on historic delusion, but memorials which encourage reflection and confrontation with Britain’s imperial past.
Keith Flett considers Black Lives Matter, slavery, the history of the ‘Beerage’ and beer in 2020
Following the police killing of George Floyd the Black Lives Matter movement has exploded across the globe. It is nothing to do with beer, but that doesn’t mean that beer isn’t involved.
Take an immediate example. Lots of individuals and large companies have shown support for BLM. Some large companies have half-decent policies on racism, but a lot of statements from this area of corporate capitalism are more about reputational promotion.
I looked at a few Twitter accounts of some of the better-known craft brewers. A handful had said something. Quite a few had not. Perhaps if they knew about the strong associations of the history brewing in the UK between both slavery and abolitionism they might have spoken up.
On beer social media there was strong support for BLM but very little reference to the links between brewing and the history of slavery, and hardly any ideas about what it might and indeed should mean for the future of brewing and drinking beer.
The subject was discussed by two veteran beer writers however – Martyn Cornell and Roger Protz. Both drew attention to aspects of the brewing industry and slavery that have been in the public domain for a long time, but not previously thought worthy of further discussion in the present day.
The ‘Beerage’, a term used to describe brewery owners who sat in Parliament, is usually seen as being part of the Tory Party. This is because the Liberals were in the main the party of temperance and often strongly anti-drink. Yet matters were more complex than that, because not just politics but religion was also important here.
Cornell draws on the Dictionary of National Biography entry for the Greene family, a central part of what is still Greene King, albeit owned by a Hong Kong Property Company. He looks at the difference between the Greene’s religious beliefs and their business practices.
Perhaps the key paragraph in the DNB entry for the Greene Family is this one:
Benjamin Greene had thrown himself with enormous vigour into representing the interests of the West Indian slave proprietors at a critical juncture of their affairs. To effect this he acquired the Bury and Suffolk Herald in 1828. For six years he ran this ultra-Tory provincial newspaper during the heady period surrounding the Reform Act and the abolition of slavery amid mounting controversy, involving himself in no fewer than three libel cases. Utter reaction to these key pieces of legislation was a strange position for a one-time prominent Dissenter to occupy and the third case heaped such obloquy upon him that he left Bury in 1836 to found a sugar importing and shipowning firm at 11 Mincing Lane, London. He died at Russell Square on 26 November 1860, was buried in Highgate cemetery, and left an estate sworn under £80,000.
Cornell’s piece and perhaps other publicity got Greene King to act in mid-June. They acknowledged that the brewery had been involved in the slave trade. The BBC reported:
Nick Mackenzie, Greene King's chief executive officer, said:
It is inexcusable that one of our founders profited from slavery and argued against its abolition in the 1800s. While that is a part of our history, we are now focused on the present and the future. (We will)…….make a substantial investment to benefit the BAME community and support our race diversity in the business.
Its own website now states after changes were made:
Benjamin Greene handed over the Greene’s Brewery to his son Edward in 1836. After founding the brewery, Benjamin went on to own cane sugar plantations in the West Indies where he was a slave owner. Even in the 1800s, his views on slavery were extremely unpopular and in the brewery’s home of Bury St Edmunds he wrote columns in his own newspaper that were critical of those campaigning for the abolition of slavery.
Given that all the details have been in the public domain for a very long time it is surely appropriate to ask what took them so long? Perhaps it was only concern about possible protests and reputational damage from people avoiding their beers that got them to do something.
A bit of a better bitter from the Beerage
Other leading parts of the Beerage, notably Whitbreads and Truman, Hanbury and Buxton had a rather better record.
Samuel Whitbread was an MP for Bedford from 1768 to 1790. His DNB entry notes that he spoke mainly on brewing matters but also was a supporter of the abolition of the slave trade. That of course is not the same as the abolition of slavery in Britain’s colonies but that didn’t become a central issue until after Whitbread’s death.
The history of Hanbury, Buxton and Truman take the matter further. Thomas Fowell Buxton (1786-1845) became an MP and worked with William Wilberforce to end the institution of slavery in the British colonies. He was for doing so gradually and no doubt criticism can be made, but there was certainly not any benefit being gained from slavery.
This history is important, and worth knowing and reflecting on. It begs the question of what is to be done now?
A statement by the Chief Executive of the Campaign for Real Ale, Nik Antona on 10th June set a welcome benchmark. It makes it clear that the experience of drinking beer should be an inclusive one and urges attention to beer and pub names that hold objectionable associations with the past as a first step.
Calling for action beyond fine words is important here. The statement attracted some criticism including comment by some racists but also a good deal of support. Even in making it, CAMRA revealed the scale of the challenge in addressing racism and racist attitudes in beer.
One concrete example of action is that of a Wetherspoon’s pub name in Wrexham - the Elihu Yale. Yale’s connection with Yale University is well known and had lived in North Wales from 1699 until his death in 1721. He made his money from the slave trade with the East India Company. In response to a local campaign to change the name, Wetherspoon’s have agreed to review the matter.
We took a stout recipe and decided to call on our peers in the brewing industry to collaborate in unison for equality and inclusion amongst people of colour. All proceeds from the purchase of these releases will be donated to local funds that support police brutality reform and legal defences.
Most of the breweries participating are US based but there are some in the UK including Brewdog, Cloudwater and Crafty Devil.
The Black Lives Matter movement continues to spark protest and change worldwide. When it comes to beer and brewing I’d suggest three things:
1. Understand the history of the links between slavery and brewing, and which present-day companies bear some responsibility for reparation.
2. Breweries and pub companies should embrace the positions of Black Lives Matters, particularly in terms of equality of employment and encouraging an inclusive culture in their pubs.
3. Actions speak louder than words. CAMRA’s focus on pub and beer names and associations is a good start.
John R. Eperjesi outlines the connections between techno, COVID-19, and Black Lives Matter. The article is in memory of Mike Huckaby
So we make music. We make music about who we are and where we’re from. - Jeff Mills
We need images of tomorrow; and our people need them more than most. - Samuel Delany
Techno music is global music. Every city around the world, big or small, has a techno scene, and there are more than a few countryside techno crews out there. Seoul’s vibrant underground techno culture was recently on display, literally, with the online streaming event “VFV Club” (www.vfvclub.live/about), which brought together 22 DJs from the city’s three underground techno clubs, Vurt, Faust, and Volnost, giving people who tuned in from around the world some much-needed machine music to help them get through the coronavirus pandemic, while donations helped struggling artists and venue owners earn some desperately-needed income.
Club Directors: Yoojun (Vurt), Marcus L (Faust), Jungtak Moon (Volnost)
But while techno is now global, this music first emerged in the early 1980s in local African American communities in and around Detroit, Michigan. Detroit is a predominantly black post-industrial city that is still recovering from the flight of well-paying auto industry jobs, first to the white suburbs starting in the 1950s, and then overseas. Population and job loss, combined with racist segregation and job discrimination, has resulted in racialized patterns of inequality in which black people experience significantly higher rates of poverty and unemployment. Economic inequality, combined with underfunded public schools, health and other social services, has made cities like Detroit especially vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic.
And yet despite all of this, African Americans from Detroit created one of the most exciting and important genres of music to emerge in the past 40 years. A recent viral YouTube video (above) shows a motley crew of Black Lives Matter protesters in Detroit marching and chanting through the streets while techno beats blast from a stereo, similar to the way that Korean pro-democracy protests are energized by the singing, dancing, and percussion of pungmul. A handmade sign declares, “Techno is Black! Police are Wack! Ravers 4 Racial Justice!” Black Techno Matters is a local community organization that works to remind people that, “the very roots of techno were planted by black artists in Detroit”. So who are some of these artists?
There is some debate over which African American artists from Detroit created the first techno song, “Sharevari” by A Number of Names, or “Alleys of Your Mind” by Cybotron, both of which came out in 1981. The title of the former refers to an upscale clothing shop and party club (spelled Charevari), and captures the Europhile fantasies of upward mobility and conspicuous consumption – fine wine, Vogue, Porsche – that characterized the African American high school party scene in late 1970s and early 1980s Detroit. The latter takes dystopian tropes of science fiction, paranoia and government mind control, and unleashes them on the dance floor.
In contrast to Motown, the pop soul music institution that grew up in Detroit and left a cultural void in the city when it departed for Los Angeles in 1972, these two songs offered a new style of post-soul electronic music which drew inspiration from the robot pop of Kraftwerk, the synthesizer-driven Eurodisco of Giorgio Moroder, and the futuristic funk of hometown heroes Parliament-Funkadelic.
Also in 1981, a DJ collective, Deep Space Soundworks, began to play an eclectic mix of dance records at parties around Detroit. Three members of this collective, Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson, are routinely venerated as the founders of Detroit techno, often referred to as the “Belleville Three,” a reference to the high school outside of Detroit where they met. But any narrative about the origins of Detroit techno that excludes Eddie Fowlkes, who was also a member of Deep Space Soundworks along with Art Payne and Keith Martin, is incomplete.
Juan Atkins had already been producing electronic music as a member of Cybotron, along with Vietnam War veteran Richard “Rik” Davis. Deciding to go solo, Atkins renamed himself Model 500 and quickly created his first solo hit, “No UFOs” (1983). This track was a hit on dance floors both in Detroit and in Chicago, where a new genre of dance music, acid house, was also incubating. After gaining attention in Chicago, the electronic music produced by Atkins, May, Saunderson, and Fowlkes began to travel across the Atlantic to dance floors in the UK and Europe. Fowlkes’s banging “Goodbye Kiss” (1986), May’s euphoric “Strings of Life” (1987), and Saunderson’s soulful hits “Big Fun” and “Good Life” (1988), all became anthems in the new rave culture that began to emerge across the Atlantic during the late 1980s.
Inspired by the immense popularity of the music coming out of the Motor City, a compilation for 10 Records in the UK was initially going to be called The New House Sound of Detroit, but when Juan Atkins’ delivered his contribution, “Techno Music,” the title of the compilation was changed to Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit (1988). For music critics, this new dance sound contributed to an older tradition of Afrofuturism which connected Detroit techno to the free jazz explorations of John Coltrane and Sun Ra, to the space rock of Jimi Hendrix, to black science fiction writers like Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler, and to films like John Sayles’s Brother from Another Planet (1984). On the question of why black science fiction, and by extension Afrofuturism, is important, Samuel Delany explains, “We need images of tomorrow; and our people need them more than most.”
Often described as the Public Enemy of techno, the Underground Resistance music collective and record label was started by Jeff Mills, Mike Banks, and Robert Hood in the late 1980s. Underground Resistance wanted artists to have complete artistic independence and to be protected from exploitation by record companies, and their music is wide-ranging, including everything from the gritty dystopian loops of Revolution for Change (1992), to the jazzy outer space utopianism of Galaxy 2 Galaxy (1992).
Techno DJs, producers, and fans around the world are inspired by the militancy and authenticity of Underground Resistance, and the UR symbol has become rebel chic, a Che Guevara for techno heads. The militant style of UR has been linked to the Black Panthers, an association confirmed by Jeff Mills in a 2006 interview:
All the black men you see in America today are the direct result of those actions: all the freedoms we have, as well as the restrictions, refer back to the government and the Black Panthers in the '70s . . . So we make music. We make music about who we are and where we’re from. - (Daily Yomiuri)
The title of Riot EP (UR 1991) alludes to the 1967 Detroit Uprising, also known as the Detroit Rebellion or 12th Street Riot, when the histories of racism and economic inequality erupted into clashes between black communities and the police that lasted for five days. Ideological conflicts over the naming of this event, whether it was an uprising, a rebellion, or a riot, is something that the people of Jeju and Gwangju can definitely relate to. With Black Lives Matter protests emerging all across the United States, Riot EP is once again in heavy rotation.
Mike Banks often appears in public wearing a mask, as does UR artist DJ Stingray. The mask is a symbol of resistance to the promotion of egotism and narcissism in commercial dance music culture, and visually alludes to the Mexican insurgent and former Zapatista and Indian resistance leader, Subcomandante Marcos. Mike Banks has two legacies of oppression and resistance in his family background, as his mother is Blackfoot Indian and his father is black, a biographical detail that can be heard in a song like “Ghostdancer” (1995), which refers to a resistance movement first practiced by Nevada Northern Pauite Indians in 1889 and quickly spread across the Western United States. Underground Resistance proves that you can be anti-racist and anti-imperialist and still rock a dance floor.
Protests and Pandemic
On April 24, 2020, the Detroit techno community lost one of its most beloved figures, the DJ, producer, and educator, Mike Huckaby, to complications resulting from a stroke and COVID-19. He was only 54 years old. The pandemic has devastated African American communities around the United States. Black people account for 13% of the U.S. population, yet 24% of COVID-19 deaths, nearly twice their proportion of the population.
While African American communities are fighting to survive this novel virus, a very old disease, the extrajudicial murder of black people by the police, has once again surfaced, this time in the form of an 8 minute and 46 second video of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin methodically choking the life out of George Floyd, confident that he can calmly execute a black man in public and not be punished. The murder of Mr. Floyd has triggered one of the largest protest movements in the history of the United States, led by the movement Black Lives Matter.
With historic Black Lives Matter demonstrations gathering in streets and parks across the United States, and around the world, people who care about techno music, whether at home or at the club, as a critic or dancer, as a producer or DJ, should take some time to understand both this movement to end systemic racism and this history of techno, because it is all connected. The roots of techno were planted by black artists in Detroit, but those artists have often been aggressively utopian in working to imagine racially and economically egalitarian futures.
From Detroit to Seoul
Local music scenes matter too. Underground, independent, non-commercial music, from folk to techno, and from jazz to house, is the heartbeat of every community. People often go to underground dance music clubs to escape their everyday lives for a brief period of time. As the soulful disco group Sparque sang in their 1981 hit for West End Records, “Let’s Go Dancin’:”
Working hard just ain’t no good
Do something else if we only could
The only chance we get to come alive is after our nine-to-five.
As Ernst Bloch taught us, fantasies of escape are serious business, as they often contain utopian dreams of a better future. But while some people go to clubs to escape work, for others the club is a place of work. From musicians and DJs who often live gig to gig, to sound and lighting engineers, cleaning staff, door people, security, bar staff, managers, interior and graphic designers, promoters, a massive amount of labor – physical, emotional, artistic – goes into the functioning of a club.
DJ Stingray at Contra in Seoul. Photo: John Eperjesi
With clubs in Seoul and other cities around the world shut down due to the COVID-19 crisis, venue owners who have devoted their lives and pocketbooks to their passion for underground music are really hurting. But there are some signs of hope. Earlier this month, the German government announced 12-month “Restart Culture” funding initiative which will provide the coronavirus-affected creative sector as a whole with €1 billion in assistance. $56m of that total will go towards grassroots venues. Hopefully the South Korean government, which has shown remarkable compassion and leadership during this difficult time, will find a way to devote some resources toward keeping the heart of the local, underground music scene beating.
Dennis Broe focuses on the global drug pandemic, dealt with in different ways in three new series
Three new series deal variously with the drug pandemic, that byproduct of the despair that has grown in the wake of neoliberal capitalism. As opportunities shrink because of a global upward redistribution of wealth away from both the working and middle classes and the socially responsible agencies of the state, more people turn to the powerful opioid fentanyl, the old reliable cocaine in both its middle-class (sniffed) and working-class and underclass (heated) form as crack, and to new imagined drugs to remove that pain.
These are the drugs du jour of three series, Hightown, Amo and Homecoming which deal in various ways with the culture, lifestyle and repressive mechanisms which surround their intake. However, because drugs are useful palliatives in societies that do not welcome change, for the most part the series, while offering detailed descriptions of the problem of drugs, do not offer constructive solutions on how to eradicate them.
Drug Dealers in Corporate Suits: Homecoming
First and foremost is Amazon Prime’s Homecoming, whose second season stars Harriet, the film about the black abolitionist, Harriet Tubman. The first season had Julia Roberts – in this second season still exec producing – playing an at first compliant psychotherapist fronting for a drug and biochemical company, the Geist Group, which used veterans as guinea pigs to test a memory-erasing drug. Her mind was wiped also and she slowly started to wake to the callousness of the drug company’s exploitation of humans, who were already casualties of the corporate war machine.
The series’ first iteration was as a 20-minute podcast and it is exceptionally tightly structured, cramming more storytelling into a half hour than more series manage in an hour.
The second season begins with Tubman, also having lost her memory, waking in a rowboat and desperately attempting to piece together who she is and what has happened to her. There is a fractured storyline, as in the film Memento, that when ironed out is actually quite simple. The strength of the second season though is its laying bare of the ambition of the Geist Group which amplifies its first season program of expunging the memories of ex-soldiers to expand and join with the military to weaponize its memory-erasing drug to use on the battlefield and on the homefront. The effort is led by Joan Cusack’s Pentagon official whose utter lack of morality or responsibility, couched in corporate-military jargon, is striking.
As the series unfolds, we watch a grab for power by Hong Chou’s put-upon underling who quickly grasps that to get ahead in the biological and pharmaceutical corporate world what is required is an innate ruthlessness and a disregard for how the drugs being developed actually affect the users. She also imbibes a milder form of the drug which the company manufactures, a red roll-on – a “take the red pill and chill” – that allows her to live with the anxiety produced by her lack of conscience.
Stephan James’ dogged war veteran pursuing the truth
Fittingly, it is If Beale Street Could Talk’s Stephan James as a war veteran who doggedly pursues the truth who enacts a karmic revenge on the company that is unfortunately more wish-fulfillment that fact, but welcome just the same. A second strong season from one of the few shows to deal with the drug epidemic caused by the seldom discussed corporate and capitalist pharmaceutical industry.
High Times in Hightown
More problematic by far, but a reliable guilty pleasure, is Starz’s and Amazon Prime’s Hightown which describes its locale as Provincetown or P-town, as utterly riddled with drugs to the point that only users, sellers, cops and informers inhabit the space. The series focuses on the struggle of a lesbian Latina working-class addict, Jackie Quinones, who barely holds down his duties on Cape Cod patrolling the coastal waters for illegal catches. Her job is described mockingly by the macho cop she wants to impress as a “fish detective.”
Fish Detective Turned Real Detective in Hightown
She hits bottom in her addiction early in the series, and we watch her in her twin attempts to get and stay clean and to become an actual detective, a job for which she shows an aptitude. Jackie is constantly late on the rent for her dishevelled apartment, uses relationships to secure a next high, and sees nothing wrong with her oversexed life in P-town which she describes to a councillor as a “lesbian Shangri-La.” She finds the body of a young fellow addict and is the first to realize that another young female addict witnessed the murder and is in danger.
The plot cleverly intermixes her struggle to move up in her career with the detritus of her addict life, so that, in tracking a lead on where the witness might be she has to lie to a former lover to borrow her car and then drive carefully, since her licence has been suspended. Jackie’s struggle is intermixed with that of the macho cop she is trying to impress, who begins a relationship with the stripper-girlfriend of the drug dealer he is pursing, and an older-brother type fisherman caught also in dealing and using.
It’s an addictive mix, and the series well illustrates how drugs and drug culture have seeped into every aspect of life in the US, and how their use and pursuit propels the young adults in this series, informing every aspect of their existence.
Now the problems. The series is exec-produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, responsible for C.S.I, one of the most conservative of all series on television, where supposedly unerring but actually highly suspect forensic science negated any use for juries or trials and like Dragnet in the 1950s meant the cops were always right.
This is the new, updated Jerry Bruckheimer but some basic premises remain. The first is that, although treatment centres are a feature of the series, they are largely seen as useless, overruled by the need for drug use to be policed.
The second is the nature of the villains. The series takes the “daring” tack of having black and Latino dealers as its heavies. Daring because Hollywood will usually throw Caucasian dealers in the mix so as not to draw flak, but here we have simply unadulterated racism. The series can point to the prominence of drugs distributed by impoverished communities as an alternative source of income as a rationale for its characterization, but the problem is that the focus stays on the street dealers without any attempt to portray the wider socio-economic environment of a global and highly profitable drug trafficking economy which is sanctioned if not encouraged by many governments.
Recently, because of the Black Lives Matter protests against the police, Cops was cancelled. It was one of the television monuments to racism, a series that launched Murdoch’s Fox network and which viewed poor and minority communities entirely from the front seat of a squad car. Hightown has a lot going for it, most especially the engaging struggle of its Latina lead, but it would be better if it told some larger truths about why drug culture exists and why it is perpetuated, instead of sometimes falling back into C.S.I. police supremacist mode.
Drugs and the Duterte Death Squads
One of the Philippines’ better directors, a global darling of the film festival circuit, is Brillante Mendoza who of late has taken as his major subject the drug crisis fueled by President Rodrigo Duterte. Like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Duterte has used the omnipresence of drugs in the slums of Manila as a pretext to wage war against its inhabitants.
Two of Mendoza’s films on the subject present wildly different points of view, and both are in evidence in Amo, his series for the independent TV5 in the Philippines, distributed globally by Netflix. Ma’ Rosa, a nod to Pasolini’s Ma Roma, details the mom and pop desperation of an elderly couple who must sell drugs in order for their shop to survive and whose family is then brutally beset by the police.
Alpha, The Right to Kill, on the other hand, is told almost entirely from the police perspective as we follow a “daring” raid on the heart of the Manila slums that goes wrong. The right of the police to terrorize the populace is affirmed, while one lone cop is chastised for corruption. It is most likely that with the success of Alpha Mendoza was commissioned to undertake Amo, a series about a teen drug dealer and his uncle, a corrupt cop.
Why was Mendoza, whose own perspective seems to mesh with Duterte’s, chosen to fashion a series on this topic? Instead of (for example) the other most well-known Philippine filmmaker Lav Diaz, whose filmmaking style is more oblique but who has proved himself in films like The Halt and The Woman Who Left to be a far more strident and nuanced critic of the contemporary regime? The answer lies probably in commercial reasons, and government censorship.
Nevertheless, Mendoza is an extraordinary filmmaker incorporating in his series aspects of Italian neorealism, in his gritty portrayal of the slums, and European modernism. For example, in a reflexive joke where raps about the desperate situation of the populace appear on the soundtrack and then feature the band themselves as the teenage protagonist walks by them on the street.
Showrunners frequently describe their series as “like a long movie”, but that is seldom the case since they are mostly broken into plot-heavy smaller pieces. The style though that Mendoza employs, using an immediate and intimate hand-held camera and disdaining any kind of explanation, easy identification, or judgement of his characters does make this more like a movie than a series.
The 13-episodes are mostly in Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines, and follow first the high school student Amo, or Joseph, as he falls further into the amoral lifestyle of a dealer. He begins by skipping school and employing a young girl as a drug runner to escape a police barricade, and then moves to distributing all kinds of exotic party drugs at a club where when the drug turns lethal the English-speaking owners disavow him. He ends alone and on the run. It is in this first half of the series that the Duterte line rules, because we watch Amo’s casual corruption turn deadly and contaminate everything he does. This half of the series functions almost as a rationale for tough and lethal police action.
Corrupt Cops and the Drug Trade in Amo
The second half of the series follows Amo’s uncle, a cop himself, as he and his squad carry out a brutal kidnapping of a Japanese drug dealer, coordinated by their superior, the most ruthless of them all. This half functions much more as a criticism of the police and their invovement in the overall corruption that drugs and money generate. And here it is not a lone wolf cop but an entire squad on the force, connected ironically with the anti-kidnapping unit, that plans the kidnapping and subsequent executions.
This is a very mixed series by an extraordinary filmmaker who has brought both his creative talents and his political baggage to television. What the series indicates in actuality is that Philippine filmmakers themselves are not above being corrupted – in this case not by drugs but by the general manipulation of drug culture by those who are not interested in solving the problem, but in profiting from it.
Dennis Broe reflects on the recent attacks on European colonialism and support shown to Black Lives Matter, through the defacement and removal of statues
The first week of European and particularly French and Francophone protests in the wake of the US Black Lives Matter movement concerned parallel police actions against French minorities. This included the death on his birthday of Adama Traoré, held down by three French cops in a hold similar to that executed on George Floyd. Traoré was pronounced dead on arrival at the police station. The official verdict claimed that asphyxiation was caused by the presence in his blood of marijuana. But the family medical examiners reached the conclusion that he died as a result of the chokehold.
Last weekend protestors memorializing Traoré swarmed the streets, despite the Covid prohibition forbidding gatherings of more than 10 people. In the wake of the protests, the Interior Minister announced the chokehold was now banned. The protests were peaceful and most of the marchers wore masks and maintained social distancing. One effect though was that they broke the embargo on street demonstrations which were in full force before the confinement, opposing President Macron’s underfunding of hospitals and his attempt to reduce worker pensions.
This week the protestors widened their approach and took aim at the legacy of European colonialism, most prominently by scrawling “I Can’t Breathe,” George Floyd’s last words, on the Belgium statue in Ghent of Leopold II who presided over the genocidal exploitation of the Congo, referred to at the time erroneously as The Belgian Congo. Across the continent memorials fell, including the statue of Edward Colston, a Bristol slave merchant at the time when the British empire amassed a good deal of its wealth by transporting slaves from Africa to the Americas.
In Bordeaux, the city removed plaques on David Gradis Street which proudly proclaimed that between 1718 and 1789 Gradis’ company had powered 221 boats carrying African slaves to the Americas. Nantes, the center of embarkation of slave boats in France, was already ahead of this movement, having created a memorial to the cruelty of the slave trade. It’s an impressive monument – but so is the at times ostentatious wealth of the city, built on the slave trade, the legacy of which may outlast the memorial. All of which brings up the question not just of memorials but of reparations, a question that has so far not been raised here.
French president Macron was quick to take advantage of the situation having already proclaimed his African soft power policy of redressing colonialism by promising to restore some of the art the French looted from West Africa over the years which resides in prominent museums like the Louvre. The French policy in Africa though includes the carrot and the stick because the French army is still in Mali, Mauretania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad.
This tearful history was also recounted in Statues Also Die, Alain Resnais and Chris Marker's 1950s film about the theft of this art and its repositioning as colonial booty in French museums. In the film the statues, wrenched out of their cultural context, appear to tear up, wither and die in the asphyxiation of colonialism.
The colonial tradition endures, however. Laurent Joffrin, the editor of the supposedly left French paper Liberation, which published Sartre’s salvos against French terrorism in Algeria, turned his back on that legacy in decrying the tearing down of colonial statues as partaking in the dangerous work of erasing history. Joffrin wished instead that the statues remain as markers of the colonial legacy. But most are not mere markers – they are celebrations.
Joffrin needn’t worry. France’s colonial history is very deeply rooted and will unfortunately endure beyond the statues. But this week a first salvo was fired across the bow against that legacy, both in France, in other cities in Europe, and across the globe.