"Who is this film for?" As obvious as the question was, it was not, perhaps, quite obvious enough. Why else would it have to be asked twice?
Hinting as it does at self-destruction, Fire in Babylon is the somewhat deceptive title of Stevan Riley's terrific documentary about the West Indies teams that, between the first day of the eighties and May 3, 1995, ruled cricket with an enlightened despotism unmatched, arguably, by any sporting team of any persuasion, in any era. Sports Illustrated, as likely to run an article on cricket as publish a Russian recipe for burgers, bracketed them with the San Francisco 49ers and Liverpool FC as the Team of the Eighties; imagine what accolades might have been bestowed had the editors been able to tell their byes from their leg-byes.
Nor might it seem altogether promising that the director of Fire in Babylon is a pasty-faced Oxford University graduate who studied Chinese, dallied with advertising, shot his first documentary about the underground music scene in war-torn Sarajevo, and turned his second, about a quintet of ambitious Oxford boxers, into a comedy. Fear not. Riley offers us a full x-ray of sporting greatness: the historical and contemporary context, the driving force and the mindset, the soaring talents and the staggering feats. Anyone with the vaguest interest in sport should see it, but none more urgently than the players whose misfortune it has been to follow in those colossal footsteps.
"It's not my gig and I'm not a diehard cricket fan," Riley admitted with disarming and refreshing candour during the early stages of filming, "but if I wasn't inspired by it, I wouldn't do it. I want to look at the civil rights movement, and emancipation, the ancillary stories, and find the universal themes beyond the sport itself." The proof that he has succeeded admirably could be found at the Leicester Square premiere last week: in the applause that rang out from the multi-racial mid-afternoon house and in the ensuing q&a, when every question fired at Riley was prefaced by a heartfelt expression of appreciation or even gratitude. Somewhat pointedly, two members of the audience wondered whether the West Indies board intended to show the film to the current trans-island representatives. Sticking steadfastly to his seat on the fence, Riley said the board had requested a copy, but felt unable to elaborate.
Much if not quite all of Caribbean life is here. The talking heads, naturally and fittingly, are led by Clive, Viv and Mikey, but the storytellers/celebrants also include Bunny Wailer, Lord Short Shirt and other musical figures, their reflections nestling cheek-by-jowl with long-unseen action from World Series Cricket and Tests in the Caribbean, all set to the reggae pulse of Bob Marley, Burning Spear and Gregory Isaacs. The most bracing aspect is the frankness with which the players, Viv Richards, Michael Holding, Gordon Greenidge and Colin Croft in particular, describe the motivation of the black man in a post-colonial world.
"The things that had driven us in the past were no longer important to the newer generation. Black pride and its militancy, the shrugging off of our colonial legacy, Frank Worrell completing the West Indian version of the Jackie Robinson journey, these things have been historically severed" Calypsonian David Rudder on the difference between the 80s and today
Time and again, the word "calypso" is uttered, almost spat out, with understandably bitter contempt. Wielded against them as it was, as a dismissive shorthand for a state of mind in which aimless, harmless fun took precedence over the serious business of winning, Lord Kitchener's fabled homage to "those little pals o' mine/Ramadhin and Valentine" held scant appeal for the more militant generation that followed.
While researching a biography of Desmond Haynes, I asked Clive Lloyd to pinpoint the turning of the tide. The presence on his dressing table of Eric Williams' Inward Hunger - The Education of a Prime Minister hinted at the measured nature of the response. "In my first Test against England in 1968, Jeff Jones called Wes Hall a 'black bastard' or something," Lloyd said. "Wes got uptight at first, then realised he shouldn't let it get to him. You mustn't let these guys get through to you. The minute they upset you they've done their job, because you're going to give away your hand. You're going to want to hit that ball so hard you're going to hit it too hard, so you're not going to time it. The best thing is to stay there and grind those fielders into the dust. That was the West Indies of old - calypso, Carry on Flamboyant, not putting a lot of thought into your cricket. That's how they used to get us out years ago - probably call out some racist remarks and then you get uptight and give your hand away. "After that 1975-76 trip to Australia, we began to change, to get it together. People think it's payback time but that's just so stupid. It's not a matter of paying back. People don't understand the importance of cricket in the West Indies. We were showing people. We were showing the world that we can be just as good as anyone else. That's all. It's a quiet demonstration, if you like."
Helpfully, the first tour after that 5-1 drubbing in Australia saw the England captain engage tongue before brain. "When Tony Greig said they'd make us grovel, I don't know if he understood the meaning of the word," reckoned Lloyd, "but here you had a white South African telling you he was going to make you grovel, and the sort of pride that is in players today made people just go out there and make him eat his words." Fire in Babylon, which concludes with a scroll through the unparalleled run of 29 Test series strung together by Lloyd and Richards' sides, is the tale of how those words, and others of a similar hue, were force-fed to a succession of impotent opposition camps by men for whom collective pride, regional and racial, was everything.
NOW, 35 YEARS LATER, West Indies are preparing to tour Sri Lanka, solidarity dented by the refusal of Chris Gayle, Dwayne Bravo and Kieron Pollard to sign their central contracts. At face value at least, the commitment to the regional cause - one demanded, lest we forget, of no other set of players - is less than complete. Riley acknowledges that times, once again, have changed. "This film," he has asserted, "is about a very specific generation - the generation that overlapped the era of independence. Suddenly, you had this group of youngsters who want to make a firm statement that they'd broken with their colonial past and wanted to put the West Indies on the map. This surge of ambition was, in many ways, peculiar to that generation."
Which is why, 15 years after the empire was finally brought down by Steve Waugh's grimly devoted double-hundred in Jamaica, the ambition is less apparent, the motives so readily questioned. "We need to recognise that the nationalist passions of an earlier time have been significantly weakened and cannot be rekindled by patriotic speeches so long as the actions of the state on a daily basis question its own relevance." Those words were written for The New Ball, a decade ago, by Professor Hilary Beckles, who has articulated the attitudes of the post-Richards generation as ably as CLR James promoted the case for Frank Worrell's ascent to the West Indies captaincy half a century ago. Now, with consistent form a tiny, shrinking image in the rear-view mirror, finances at a near-subterranean ebb, and relations between players and board still light years from uniformly cordial, Beckles' sentiments ring truer than ever.
As do more recent ones conveyed by the world's best-known calypsonian, David Rudder, composer of "Rally 'Round the West Indies", the unifying anthem for a fractured region. To Rudder, attested Joy AI Mahabir in an academic paper entitled "Rhythm and Class Struggle: The Calypsoes of David Rudder", calypso is less about the joy of music than using rhythm "as an ideological language that can be used to engage in class struggle by conveying progressive ideas and inspiring progressive actions". Interviewed last year by Gary Steckles of the Toronto Star, Rudder alighted on the cause, as he sees it, of the cricketers' precipitous decline: "Well, we didn't plan ahead, we took our blessings for granted, the world changed around us, and the things that had driven us in the past were no longer important to the newer generation. Black pride and its militancy, the shrugging off of our colonial legacy, Frank Worrell completing the West Indian version of the Jackie Robinson journey, these things have been historically severed."
Yet for all the eyebrows it raised, the left-field appointment as captain of Darren Sammy has prompted the needle on the optimistometer to flicker to life. It is all too easy to be seduced by the latest well-meaning call to arms by the latest new West Indies captain, wholly unprepared as he invariably is to withstand the full blast of the heat in that particular kitchen, but here, we can safely assume, is no Chris "I'm Not Bovvered" Gayle. Here, it seems, is someone not only aware of that heritage but unintimidated by it. As he put it with some eloquence the other day, "I am taking on a mountain that carries so much legacy, and I will also remind the guys of the great legacy that we carry." The immediate priority, nevertheless, is to "bring back the joy". There are worse places to start.