Fields of fire
By Georgia Popplewell
Fire in Babylon, directed by Stevan Riley (87 minutes)
West Indies players celebrate during the 5th Test vs England at the Oval, 1976. Image courtesy the trinidad+tobago film festival
At the end of the 1990s, during my brief career as a producer for a television sports magazine programme, I had cause to immerse myself for the first time in West Indies cricket. Odd timing, perhaps, for a Caribbean citizen who came of age in the early 1980s: as one of the cricketing greats I used to meet in the commentary box once said to me, I was fifteen years too late. Even with Brian Lara still several years from retirement and the legendary fast-bowling pair of Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose still terrorising batsmen, the West Indies were clearly on the wane, and so was the game’s centrality to West Indian life.
Fire in Babylon, the stylish documentary by British filmmaker Stevan Riley, focuses on the period from 1975 to 1984, the years of the West Indies’ rise to glory. It’s an inspiring story, well known to any cricket fan, featuring fine protagonists, a good dose of conflict both on and off the field, and an “ending” that validates discipline, love of region, and the value of teamwork and sound leadership. The film focuses on the handful of key moments that are widely acknowledged to have transformed the West Indies from a side better known for its entertaining “calypso” style of play than its winning ways, into a world-beating unit that dominated cricket in a manner that no team in any sport has done since.
The story is told almost exclusively through archival footage and snappy soundbites from former players Michael Holding, Clive Lloyd, Colin Croft, Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Deryck Murray, Andy Roberts, and Joel Garner, with appearances by historian Hilary Beckles and quirky colour comments by Jamaican musician Bunny Wailer, Barbadian calypsonian the Mighty Gabby, and a handful of groundsmen and figures such as Antiguan deejay Chickie. The bulk of the narrative, however, is carried by two Antiguans: Viv Richards and Rastafarian writer Franklyn “Ras Frank I” Francis. Richards, who captained the West Indies during the second phase of the glory years (1984–1991), is a central figure in the story of West Indies cricket and an acknowledged batting great (in 2000 he was voted one of Wisden’s five Cricketers of the Century), but he’s also at the centre of the documentary on account of his attractiveness and charisma. One could argue that the avuncular Clive Lloyd was the true architect of the West Indies’ rise, but it was Richards, a species of Caribbean hyper-male, whose style and swagger captured the hearts and attention of cricket fans in the 1970s and 80s.
Richards is also a convincing vehicle for the thread of the story that the film takes as its unifying concept: cricket as a vehicle for black West Indian liberation and self-determination. It’s one of the overriding themes of West Indies cricket, but Riley gives it a Rastafarian spin: cricketing supremacy as a fight against “Babylon,” the Rastafarian term for systems that oppress and discriminate against the dispossessed. From a thematic standpoint, “Babylon” works well, and there’s a sense in which it’s less of a theme than a nomenclature; but it also lends the film a Jamaican/Rastafarian flavour that’s liable to give a moment’s pause to Caribbean viewers seeking a more nuanced approach to the region’s cultures and geography, or to those weary of the conflation of the Caribbean with Jamaica.
From the beginning of Fire in Babylon, it’s evident that the factor at the heart of this Babylon-destroying “fire” is bowling. The title sequence comprises a set of moody juxtapositions: young, physically impressive black men in what are meant to be iconic Caribbean settings — beach for Jamaica, canefield for Barbados, and oddly, a scrapyard for Guyana — running up to bowl, intercut with grainy match footage of batsmen crumpling in the face of the West Indies’ famed bowling attack. It’s not an unreasonable emphasis: the configuration known as the “four-pronged pace attack” is considered a West Indian innovation, and was for many years the team’s signature, not to mention every opposing team’s greatest nightmare. It might also be true that the physicality and martialness of pace bowling makes for a more Babylon-friendly narrative. But even with a batsman — Richards — as the ostensible “star” of the film, and several others, including the remarkable opening pair of Greenidge and Haynes, among the interviewees, there’s scant discussion of the contribution of the West Indies’ batting lineup.
No eighty-seven-minute documentary is going to capture every aspect of a story, however, and Fire in Babylon isn’t trying to be that kind of history lesson. The film moves us rapidly through an overview of the political and social context of the post-independence period leading up to Clive Lloyd’s assumption of the captaincy, an era with “sparks and flashes of genius” but lacking in “winning combinations.” The humiliating tour of Australia in 1975–76 that gave Lloyd the idea for the four-pronged pace attack is examined in some detail, followed by the team’s testing of the new strategy at home on an unfortunate Indian side. In the summer of 1976, during a tour of England — the ultimate opponents — the team is spurred to action by a declaration from England’s South Africa-born captain that he planned to “make them grovel.” Then comes Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, which woos top players to Australia with the promise of decent salaries for the first time in their careers. The West Indies Cricket Board bans them from playing, but this has a positive effect: this ragtag band of citizens of different territories, exiled in Oz for two years, cohere into an unbeatable side that goes on to perform feats such as the famous “blackwash” of 1984 — the film’s finale — when the West Indies beat the England team 5–0 on their own turf.
Fire in Babylon also touches on the question of apartheid South Africa, which loomed large at the time because of the 1977 Gleneagles Agreement, under which Commonwealth nations agreed not to engage with South African sports teams and sportspeople. While most West Indies players were firmly in support of a ban — players like Richards vocally so — eighteen of them did accept lucrative contracts in South Africa. Among that group was Colin Croft, one of the interviewees in the film and one of the few “rebel” cricketers still publicly connected with the game — one of the few, in fact, who was not in some way destroyed by the experience. Croft is also the only rebel who has spoken publicly, if not exhaustively, about his time in South Africa; generally speaking, that moment in the history of West Indies cricket not been satisfactorily examined. Fire in Babylon doesn’t alter that state of affairs, nor does it address what is an admittedly thorny issue with particular deftness. After appearing as an authoritative voice earlier in the film, Croft is thrust into the awkward role of spokesperson for the rebel cause; his take on the matter is unconvincing, and even less so juxtaposed with commentary from Richards and Holding.
Other rough spots in the film include the two or three bits of voice-over narration by Michael Holding, evidently added to fill gaps in the story that couldn’t be conveyed through available sound bites, and which stand out like a sore thumb, more so on account of the poor sound quality. And both Bunny Wailer and Mighty Gabby at moments carry portions of the story that they lack sufficient authority to relate convincingly.
But these are things that many viewers, swept up in the flow of this inspiring and beautifully paced film, are unlikely to care about. For Caribbean people especially, watching the West Indies team at the top of their game is always an exhilarating experience, and the testimonies by the players of the time are exceptionally moving. As one of them says, “we were playing to show our people we were going to make them proud.”
This review is part of a special section on recent Caribbean film, supported by the trinidad+tobago film festival 2011
Georgia Popplewell is a Trinidadian media producer and writer. She is managing director of the international citizen journalism project Global Voices.