The Mayor’s Race follows Labour politician Marvin Rees’s journey to becoming elected mayor of Bristol. This made him only the third Black British mayor in the UK, and the first to be directly elected by voters.
It’s hard to talk about this film without getting into a whole conversation about politics, and I mean what politics is, not just parties and votes. That’s not really the purpose of a film review, so I’ll try to keep it brief and relevant. The first impression Rees gives is one of profound naivety. His optimism, hope, and genuine belief that more representatives from marginalised communities will translate into power being use for the benefit of those communities, is almost not credible. It’s like, have you seen THE WORLD before? You can’t possibly think, as a grown man who’s paying attention, that this is how this works. It made me think of Mamadou Ngela from This Is Congo, where you’re like, do you know what game you’re playing?
Secondly, you watch how much work and emotional labour goes into running one of these campaigns and you just think, imagine if this much energy went into directly solving the problems, instead of going through the roundabout route of party politics. Think of how much time and effort goes into each political campaign, not just the winner’s, and not just from the candidate, but from the volunteers, staff, journalists, activists, and voters themselves. Then think about what might be achieved if that effort went on direct work solving community problems, instead of a competition in which the majority of it will be wasted as only one candidate can win, and even then their job will be to seek permission for the problem to be solved.
Finally, it does seem to dawn on Rees as the movie goes on, that there are widespread systemic issues, that are not solved by changing the face on the front of the machine. The film shows rallies by the EDL, who are the convenient and accepted face of racism in British consciousness, as if they and only they are racist, and the rest of us needn’t worry about racism beyond their monopoly. But then it also shows the police protecting the EDL rally, but attacking the anti-racism counter-protestors. Is that going to change under a Black mayor? Our survey says no.
But. BUT. I don’t think it can be underestimated what it means to have public figures who represent unrepresented or underrepresented communities. Why do we expect one black, working-class politician to change the world, and scrutinise him according to that standard, but are completely indifferent to an upper-class, white political hegemony that is entirely self-serving, and maintains a status quo that is to the detriment of the vast majority of people? Party politics held in such low regard, that we just expect it not to work, and not to represent us, and only save our ire for someone selling an attempt at its elevation.
Perhaps because the film follows Rees and his perspective, it does generally come away with a feeling of hope. Rees is kind of pleasantly surprised by how little is made of his race during the campaign, and how his political rivals don’t use it as part of their campaigns. This was not always the case in Britain, as I probably don’t need to tell anyone. It also doesn’t seem to be much of an issue with the electorate, with class seemingly more of a factor in their mind, and his background as a poor, working class kid from the rough area of the city resonating with a lot of voters.
Which is not to say there isn’t pushback from racist groups, and racist abuse and threats sent by them. Unfortunately those fuckers are a constant cancer.
What’s kinda more interesting is the city of Bristol, who is the second major character in this film. I feel like I really got to know the city through this film, its people, places, and history. In some ways, this story is about Rees as a part of the city’s history, rather than about him himself.
The best parts of this film are with him and Paul Stephenson, a British civil rights leader from Bristol. Rees sees himself as part of the same lineage of change as Stephenson, and he looks upon him as an elder of experience and a bit of a mentor. Stephenson is so fascinating and impressive, he campaigned for civil rights in the UK, worked with Mohammed Ali setting up opportunities for kids from black, working class neighbourhoods, did work against apartheid, and set up an archive of Black British history. Made me wanna see a movie about his life too!
That’s the thing about racism in Britain. Racism is described as an American thing. Americans had slavery, Americans had segregation. And because only Americans have racism, only Americans had civil rights campaigns. Any British child could tell you who Martin Luther King or Malcolm X were. But ask them to name a single British civil rights campaigner, and you will struggle. Because Britain attempts to erase its long history of racism, it equally erases its history of anti-racist activism. Watching this film, I’m seeing footage of Paul Stephenson’s achievements for the first time. Why is that?
Anyway, this is already a screed. Really interesting film.