Angelou on Burns

That was surreal. I love Maya Angelou, I read her poems and books. I used to sit in my wee part of the world and reach out through the pages to her world, and think on her extraordinary life and extraordinary spirit. So to watch Dr. Angelou step out of that world into mine, to visit my home town of Kilmarnock, and stand by the Burns statue at the cross, where I used to eat a poke of chips for lunch, feels deeply weird. From where she’s standing, she can turn and look up through the Burns Mall, towards Killie Academy, in whose library I first lifted a Maya Angelou book off the shelf. There’s a feeling to watching this like being brushed by a ghost.

How did no one ever tell me Maya Angelou visited the town? That would have been big news. And I wasn’t fully grown, but I was already a reader back in 1996, you’d have thought I’d be aware. Especially because she was here making a documentary about Burns, Kilmarnock’s only claim to fame and thus its favourite subject.

It is so weird to see THE Maya Angelou kick about Dundonald. And she visits the Burns cottage, boring school trip staple of every primary in Ayrshire. She sits reading the Kilmarnock edition of Burns poetry in the Burns room at the Mitchell Library, and I was like, I’ve been there!

I mean you have to understand, this woman worked with Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement and Malcolm X. She was part of history.

Yeah, so there’s almost an eerie element for me, watching this. Seeing her setting down in Glasgow airport, everyone in the background cutting about in their best 90s shellsuit. And listening to her resonant melodic voice, with its measured meter, wrap around Ayrshire Scots words. Rolling her Rs and roughening her vowels.

It’s great she finds such communion in the work of Burns. With this country’s teatowel obsession with him, you always wonder how he’s viewed from the outside, in the more global scheme of things. But Dr Angelou finds a universality to his work, and great sensitivity and brotherhood. She talks about him writing The Slave’s Lament, despite never being in either America or Africa, but just from being touched by the plight of those transported in the slave trade.

It’s unreal to me that this documentary doesn’t get shown and isn’t widely known. I’m so glad I got the chance to see it.

Tree Fellers

Tree Fellers is a documentary about the Belize lumberjacks who came to Scotland as part of the war effort during WW2. When bombs were falling on homes and factories, a lot needed rebuilding, but all the men were off at war, so they recruited men from Belize for the forestry. It was wonderful to see men in their 80s and 90s reminiscing about their contribution. Many felt like they’d hit gold because the work was easier than back home, the pay was better, and the women were desperate for company. Despite experiencing some racism, especially once they were in a mixed race relationship, many settled down and made Scotland their permanent home. And it is just lovely to see them with their families, being able to tell the story of their war work to their children and grandchildren. Such a nice look at a story that’s not as well known as it should be.

The X in Scotland

The X in Scotland is a short film looking at what the life and words of Malcolm X means to young Black and Muslim Scots. Shot in the 1990s, many interviewees mention the racist murder of Axmed Sheekh, who was attacked and killed on Edinburgh’s Cowgate. Nowadays it would be Sheku Bayoh’s name they would say, who died in police custody with a number of injuries. The film, unfortunately, has a timeless quality.

The interviewees often lament how Malcolm X’s name and image has been co-opted as a meaningless fashion statement appropriated by white people. He is a tshirt or hat to them, that edgy type of cool associated with interactions with objectified blackness. A symbol to signal some cultural capital that is completely divorced from actual anti-racism work. It’s depressing.

This film seeks to reclaim Malcolm and his message for the people it was intended for, and who it was life-changing for. And hopefully that will keep the flame burning for the next generation to see it. God knows, we still need it.

Welcome II The Terrordome

Okay. So… Welcome II The Terrordome is the first ever feature film to get a theatrical release that was made by a Black British woman, and would remain so for nearly a decade, so its existence at all is an achievement. That being said it was clearly made on a budget of £3.50 and hasn’t aged well in a lot of regards. So I would come to this with an interest in it as a piece of cinematic history rather than an expectation of something slick.

It is set in a dystopian future, in a massive ghetto whose inhabitants refer to it as the Terrordome. It is 1995’s idea of a bleak future, so everything looks like 1995 but shoddy. It’s a future setting, but not overtly futuristic, if you know what I mean. The same problems as always exist and have just become more entrenched, racism, poverty, police brutality and the scourge of drugs and gangs.

One family struggles to survive. The granny trying to hold it all together is Rosa Parkson (did I mention that one of the film’s problems is that it’s heavy handed?) Her daughter Anjela McBride is trying to raise her kids right, and not take after their gangster father Rad. Anjela’s brother Spike however, works for Rad selling drugs, and Anjela’s sister Christele is hooked on them. There’s tension in the family because Spike has got himself a white girlfriend, Jodie, and everyone is sure this will result in disaster. Spike doesn’t care, he and Jodie are in love and she is carrying his child.

The first half of the film establishing all of this is … not great. The dialogue is cringy, and a lot has to be explained through narration. But because it’s the 90s, there’s a lot of rap narration. You can kinda see the ambition the director has for the film, but it’s overleaping the ability to produce it.

The second half of the film begins when Jodie’s ex-boyfriend Jason catches up to her. He and his cronies want to make her pay for leaving him for a black man, and in a truly brutal scene, even for its low-budget limitations, he beats her until she miscarries, then forces her to eat her womb’s blood. Unbeknownst to Jodie, Anjela’s son has snuck out of the house and has witnessed all of this. Jason and his pals chase the boy until he falls off the building. Both Anjela and Jodie lose their kids on the same night.

It’s here the film starts to pick up, as Anjela, upon discovering the body of her son, goes on a killing rampage, getting her revenge on Jason and his crew, but also the cops. Again, as a piece of cinematic history, Welcome II The Terrordome is unique for being a 90s movie with a cop-killing spree that is portrayed as both sympathetic and justified. And while there are plenty of films of white men cracking in murderous frustration, like 1993’s Falling Down, I can’t think of any where a black woman is the central figure.

Rad makes peace with the rival gang to take a united stand against the forces of oppression in the Terrordome, leading to violent riots. Unlike the frantic lawlessness that race riots are dominantly portrayed as in the media, this is shown as collective black resistance towards the systems of white supremacy and oppression, both just and righteous, and necessary for their dignity as an insistence of their own worth as human beings.

What I quite liked is that Jodie is not treated as “the good white person”. As granny Rosa says, “Are we suppose to be grateful? Are we suppose to raise up our hands and say, “Thank you missy! Thank you very much for getting your hands dirty!”?” She is given no more sympathy than anyone else for suffering in this ghetto just because she is white. She is widely viewed as a liability, and blamed as the sparking cause for Anjela’s demise. Despite how she is spoken about by the characters though, the director does soften than somewhat, showing Jodie placing her stillborn fetus on the chalk outline of Anjela’s son, just another mother of a black child taken from the world by racism and indifference to black life.

The story is bookended by the portrayal of the Ibo Landing resistance, in which transported Africans refused to submit to slavery on the American shore and chose to walk into the sea en masse. This collective suicide was seen as the only act of defiance open to them, but also has been wove into legend that they attempted to swim back to Africa, either way taking their fate in their own hands. The same actors playing the main cast play the shackled Ibo.

At the end, as the Terrordome burns, and Anjela is led in chains to be hanged for her crimes, the Ibo are seen emerging from the water on the opposite shore, breaking their chains, finally free.

It’s a film with a lot of interesting ideas, and I would say the ending really works. It is obviously being looked at again now, now that we have reached that future seen from the 90s, and it is a lot closer to Welcome II The Terrordome than a raceless and moneyless utopia like Star Trek: Next Generation. Our issues did get more entrenched, more brutal. And the message of uncompromising defiance rings as more necessary than ever, even unto bloodshed. The rage at widespread injustice must be acknowledged and felt by all. For all its faults on a technical level, Welcome II The Terrordome tries to say something that people even 25 years on are not willing to hear.

A Family Called Abrew

Fascinating documentary about the Abrew family, recounting their history in the early 20th century. There’s Lottie Abrew, a dancer, contortionist, stage performer, and activist. Her brother Charlie is a boxer and war veteran. Her other brother Manuel was also a boxer, beating Benny Lynch 3 times but forbidden from competing for the title because he was black.

It’s strange because usually a career in showbiz or sport is coveted because of its celebrity, but as different family members point out, it was really the only sector in which Black Brits could get work, and their ambitions in much more mundane professions were frequently thwarted by racism. Accordingly, Manuel’s wife Clementina Abrew is very proud that she manages to make it as a dressmaker. This despite the fact that Clementina acted in small roles in films, sometimes alongside her husband, like in The Proud Valley starring Paul Robeson. You would think meeting and working with a big Hollywood star would be your goal, but to her, the fact she is able to make her living in an ordinary job is what gives her a great sense of achievement.

This is a repeating theme throughout the family’s stories, that work could be found playing “the exotic”, but it was much harder just to be accepted as an everyday person. In that way the contribution and history of Black Scots is erased, because they are always seen as coming from ‘away’, or seen to be exceptional. Playing an African village native in a movie fits in with the British idea of black people far more than being a dressmaker or engineer whose family has been here for generations.

Still, the story of the Abrews is one to be celebrated, tracing their tenacity and resourcefulness. It is also fascinating to hear about black community life in the inter-war era, a subject that is not given much attention. Really great that this oral history was captured.

Expensive Shit

Excellent and powerful short about a toilet attendant who is pressured into manipulating women for the amusement of men behind the bathroom’s two-way mirror.

No doubt inspired by local scumbag Stephan King’s two-way bathroom mirror in the Shimmy Club, where women and girls were unknowingly displayed to paying men, something I still can’t believe wasn’t illegal. The Glasgow nightclub in Expensive Shit shows Tolu, vulnerable to the pressures of her employer as an undocumented worker, as she struggles to find any way out of complying with the demand that she persuade a club regular to drink from a water bottle likely spiked with a date rape drug.

In only 15 minutes, the film says so much about power dynamics, across gender, race, and migrant status. You never feel like you are being talked at. Everything that happens in the film is something that happens in life, just brought to one place. A film really evocative of the true cost of the male gaze.