By Usman Mushtaq, with files from Ajay Parasram
(Oct. 3) – Fire in Babylon captures the athletic adrenaline, island music, and anti-colonial ecstasy surrounding the incredible rise of the West Indian national cricket team.
The film is a highly entertaining 2010 British documentary film about the West Indies cricket team of the 1970s and 1980s. Fire in Babylon does justice to the symbolic importance of cricket in building regional esteem in the early period of independence in the Caribbean.
It documents the rise of West Indies cricket from a team of disjointed players to a cricket powerhouse set within a global milieu of racism, wars of African independence, and apartheid. From 1980 to 1995, the West Indies did not lose a single Test match.
In a particularly climactic scene, Tony Greig, captain of English team in 1976, proclaims his intent to make the West Indies team “grovel.” Having endured unspeakable racism at past matches with England and Australia, an enraged West Indies cricket team responded to Greig with their trademark “fast bowling,” deeply bruising English pride as the West Indies dominated their former colonial masters 3-0 in the Test series.
But at the heart of it all, the movie is about the politics of the West Indies, the birth of black pan-national movements, the fight against South African apartheid, anti-black racism in England, and the struggle of former colonized peoples to regain pride on the world stage.
The film follows the team and its players, using the sport of cricket as a lens through which to explore the history and politics of the 1970s and 1980s. The film does a good job of exploring the politics around these many issues. For example, the decision made by some players to play in South Africa is handled fairly as the film points to criticisms levelled against players who participated in South Africa thereby supporting the Apartheid regime. But, it still shows those players in their own words explaining how the game is their livelihood.
South Africa offered players high salaries, which the West Indies cricket team could not afford, being unable to match the financial power of white countries. Though not explicitly stated, this clearly harkens to the neo-colonial economic conditions of the Caribbean. Weaving in between these lessons of history and the excitement of cricket matches, the film shows how politics and history can be both accessible and entertaining.
The tone of the film is set early on in with an interview with Bunny Wailer (of Bob Marley and the Wailers fame) rhapsodizing about cricket in the West Indies when a dog interrupts him. Rapid-fire patois follows as Bunny shouts to the dog (and maybe its handlers) to keep it down and give the dog a good “clapping.”
The fact that the filmmakers decided to use this hilarious scene speaks to the approach they took in their interviews with cricket players, cricket fans, historians, and musicians. The filmmakers decided to let their subjects speak freely, capturing their idiosyncrasies and unique energies, having West Indies style shine through, and inviting fans to talk about their favorite subject — cricket.
The film’s narrative is punctuated with vibrant West Indian music, including reggae, hip-hop calypso, and Island-specific forms of music. The film often cuts to musicians singing cricket-themed songs that they obviously memorized in their childhoods about their cricket heroes. All of these musicians, such as Bunny Wailer, add style to the film by showing a slice of musical life from the West Indies. Most charming though is the way these musicians are invited to speak about West Indies cricket and reminisce about hanging out with the West Indies cricket players.
The music outside of these scenes excellently dictates the flow of the sports portion of the movie — playing sadder music when the West Indies cricket team is in a slump and then blasting Bob Marley’s Jammin’ as they start to rack up wins. The soundtrack of the movie is worth checking out on its own.
This interweaving of music, politics, history, and sports is not a story often told, and Fire in Babylon does it critically through an anti-colonial lens. As Bunny Wailer opines, it’s the “real deal.”
This article first appeared in The Leveller, Volume 7, Number 1, Ottawa, Ontario