American Hustle (2013) – dir. David O Russell

Atlantic City after Hurricane Sandy 2013

Atlantic City after Hurricane Sandy 2013

Seventies fashion gets a lot of stick nowadays, as does the hair that went with it, but films with stories from the 70s are definitely in vogue at the moment (with Behind the Candelabra and Lovelace being two that come to mind). To the ensemble cast of actors that are up for a number of awards in American Hustle you could also add the clothes and even the music.

The Mob, Politicians and Corruption appear so often in the same sentence when discussing US society that it’s not a surprise that they come together here – with the FBI added for good measure.

Like all good stories of this type the surreal nature of the plot and unfolding of the story is made even more so by the fact that it is ‘based on a true story’. In 1978 the FBI hired/forced to cooperate a convicted con man in what became known as Abscam. This was an undercover ‘sting’ which set out to entrap, and succeeded in doing so, the mayor of Camden, New Jersey as well as an US Senator and a handful of other top politicians. Although the FBI was successful in both the film and in actuality this operation ended up being criticised for its tactics and the rules of the game, for them, were changed. Whether that was rightful indignation against entrapment or the politicians just trying to make things more secure for themselves in the future is another matter.

Camden was in the 1970s, and by all accounts remains to this day, one of the poorest inner city districts on the east coast. In real life Angelo Errichetti, the Democratic mayor from 1973-1981, was a bit of a populist and seemed to have a lot of support in his efforts to try to revive the district and bring down the high unemployment rate. The trouble starts when he considers that making gambling legal in Atlantic City (at that time the run down, once popular tourist resort on the coast) would lead to inward investment, regeneration of the area and employment opportunities.

Unfortunately for both the fictional and the real mayor in the US gambling means big money means the Mafia WILL have a share, the only question is ‘how much’. By bringing the gangsters into the affair he brings about his own downfall. When the FBI (when it’s not chasing Reds or getting involved in conspiracies to kill a president) smells the chance of a high-profile arrest of a top Mafioso they’re like a dog with a bone and won’t let go.

It’s interesting what goes around comes around.

This part of New Jersey was once a thriving commercial and industrial area when capitalism needed US workers. Through lack of investment and better opportunities elsewhere where labour was cheaper, in Latin America or Asia (a similar situation was developing at the same time in the UK) once so-called secure jobs just evaporated, almost overnight, leaving in its wake decline, deprivation and despair.

In such circumstances people will clutch at anything, even if the best that can be offered is working as a croupier in a casino – in Atlantic City that would mean working to put more money into the hands of the Mafia. So one set of gangsters is replaced by another, perhaps more honest, one.

Because of the FBI sting in the 70s the plan to develop the boardwalk in Camden didn’t come to fruition. Although a number of politicians were caught up in it (I won’t get into the discussion of whether they did what they did because they thought the best way to achieve what they had promised the voters rather than for personal gain – as far as I’m concerned all ‘democratically elected’ politicians are in it for something, whether it be financial gain or personal aggrandisement) none of the Mafia went down. I don’t know if it’s one of the true stories or whether it was put there for artistic effect but the mob boss threw a spanner in the works by showing a command of languages, even though he had been a cold-blooded assassin in the past. Fear of retribution also meant the Mafia were warned off. So the easy targets were caught but the real gangsters were allowed to go free due to incompetence.

For the people of Camden the debacle of the corruption case didn’t mean that national government looked on them favourably. They had gone through the disaster years of Nixon and Carter and they were about to face two terms of Reagan. If the national leaders didn’t come up with anything their future local ‘leaders’ didn’t turn out any better. Three out of the last 5 mayors of Camden have been convicted of corruption. Perhaps it’s something in the sea air?

I wonder how present day residents of Camden see the film? Even though in recent years the area has been developed there’s a stratification between the fortress like casinos and the ordinary people who live there, as was seen when Hurricane Sandy hit the resort last spring

The resort isn’t as sleazy as it was depicted in the 1980 film Atlantic City but it still doesn’t look any different from Blackpool with the sun – although I’m sure that during winter the Atlantic coast is a forbidding place. However, there are treats in store. February offers a Group Wedding Ceremony on the 14th (so get your booking in quick!). August provides the Grape Stomping Festival and there’s the Miss America Pageant in September. All year around you can ‘explore the world’s largest elephant’ or visit Bare Exposure with ‘over a 100 beautiful naked girls’ with a ‘buy one couch dance, get one free’ deal.

But Camden is still one of America’s poorest cities and suffers from all that accompanies such an economic situation. It has almost 5 times the violent crime rate of cities of a comparable size (giving it number one place in country) and two out every five residents live below the national poverty level. Rather than the situation getting better it seems that law changes in Philadelphia are starting to challenge Atlantic City’s monopoly on gambling so even that ‘boost’ to the local economy might be lost in the near future.

Such is the American Dream.

12 Years a Slave (2013) – dir. Steve McQueen

'Strange Fruit' - Lynching in Indiana, 1930

‘Strange Fruit’ – Lynching in Indiana, 1930

You wait years for a film to come along which addresses the issue of slavery in the United States and then you get two within a year of each other – and both being multi-nominated in the award season that sees the film industry worldwide slapping itself on the back. But these are very different films and perhaps in that way show that there is no real consensus on how to portray one of the issues that determined North American society, more or less from its inception. 12 Years a Slave is the latest offering and it shows there’s still a long way to go before the matter can be said to have been put to rest.

One of the problems of such emotive issues (the Holocaust and the Nazi plan of the ‘final solution’ which led to the murder of millions of Jews being another) is that to criticise a film which portrays slavery as not being very good is seen as tantamount to condoning the practice.

By the end of 12 Years a Slave we are not left with a clear message of the obscenity of slavery or any other exploitative and oppressive means by which a minority of the population use the majority for their own perverse pleasures. At the end of the film Solomon Northup returns to his family (this is not giving anything away as the very title suggests that his slavery was not for life, as was the fate of millions of others) not by an act of defiance, not by risking everything (including his life) to escape but by a legal ploy, by presenting a piece of paper which proves that he is a ‘free man’ – the fact of anyone having to have that piece of paper in the first place being another obscenity within American society at that time, in antebellum USA.

There are gaping holes in the story from the very beginning. Northup is depicted as a ‘fine fiddle player’ but seems to have become exceptionally wealthy from playing a musical instrument. Musicians can make a mint out of their music both in the past and now but surely he’s not in the same league as a Mozart or The Beatles? He is abducted after spending some time playing in a circus which doesn’t have the same resonance as playing in whatever was the Madison Square Garden of the early 19th century. When he doesn’t return home after this circus engagement, his family not having the slightest idea of what had happened to him, how is it they seem to be able to survive very well thank you when the principal bread-winner has disappeared? In a Dickens novel they would have been on the way to the workhouse before Northup would have been put up for auction.

His life pre-abduction is displayed as quite idyllic. He’s respected by wealthy and distinguished whites, he’s fated as a good customer in a white owned shop and generally shown as living in what can only be described as a multi-ethnic paradise. This is not the picture of the United States that seems to fit with what else was going on at the time.

Although slavery in the northern states was gradually being made illegal in 1841 (when the film starts) slaves would still have been common on the streets of New York as they accompanied their owners on trips north. We see an example of this when Northup goes shopping with his family. A southern slave is depicted as astounded that a black man could be free – but in this scene Northup is more interested in buying trinkets than the fact that chattel slavery is evident on the streets of cities north of the Mason-Dixon line.

(Jumping ahead here – during the final credits we are told that Northup became active in anti-slavery movements from 1853. It’s a tragedy that many people don’t see injustice in the world, even though it exists all around them, until it directly effects them personally. Incidences of police brutality, inefficiency and conspiracy or miscarriages of justice are just a few cases in point that are occurring all the time in the UK.)

It also doesn’t fit in with the open racism that existed in the Union Army at the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, only eight years after the period of his forced labour. The film Glory (1989) is a cinematic reference to the racism that existed in a war that, we are generally told, was to rid the country of the scourge of slavery – and it’s also worth remembering that these black only units even existed in the Second World War.

What is also missing from the state sponsored version of the history of that period in the mid 19th century was the real reason for the civil war in the first place. Firstly, the Confederates wanted to secede and that would have weakened the young US in economic struggle with the European capitalist powers – that ‘great liberator of the black race’, Abraham Lincoln, once stated that he would have accepted slavery if it would ensure the Union.

Secondly, and more importantly, slavery was a brake on capitalist development and exploitation. If we ignore any moral repugnance at the institution of slavery we have to accept that it is unbelievably inefficient. Although it was brutal it didn’t mean high levels of productivity and that was what American capitalism wanted, and needed, if it was to play a role on the world stage.

At the same time the film is full of stereotypes. We have the brutal slave owner who gets drunk and forces the slaves to get up in the middle of the night to dance for him, Northup providing the musical accompaniment. He’s also infatuated with one of the young slave girls and regularly rapes her. We have the put upon and ever suffering ‘southern belle’ who knows what her husband is doing but society wouldn’t thank her for leaving him and her petty acts of spite against the innocent slave girl only seems to stress her impotence and frustration.

We have the ignorant and vicious white overseer whose only claim to importance is his brutal control of the slaves and he hits out at any challenge to his ‘authority’ – yet another example of the economic inefficiency of slavery. Then we have a couple of liberals, probably to give ‘balance’. One a slave-owner who’s strapped for cash and the other a free thinking Canadian whose ideas, freely expressed, surely would have made his life impossible in the plantations of the time. He’s Northup’s ticket out. We even have a former slave woman who becomes mistress of her house and gets tea served to her by a slave girl on the terrace of the big house. Now I’m quite prepared to accept that all these stereotypes existed at the time, slavery being such that it was prone to anomalies, but do we need them all in one film?

But the trailer and the film’s poster try to mislead us. Although based on an autobiography this is known to only a few so images of him paddling along through the swamps on a makeshift raft imply an escape attempt as does the figure of him running in the poster. His quote immediately after his capture of not wanting to just to survive but to live is made so that we can see him on the point of breaking when he joins in the singing on the death of one of the older slaves, a religious chant that keeps the slaves in their place – they can suffer the indignities of their slavery if Christ (a black or a white one?) is waiting to greet them at the Pearly Gates standing beside Peter.

We see that he’s really been broken when he viciously whips the young girl who had infatuated the ‘Master’, preferring to beat rather than be beaten. To hurt the innocent on the orders of the guilty is what allows exploitative and oppressive societies to continue to exist and it’s this aspect of 12 Years a Slave I find most problematic.

There is no challenge to the institution of slavery anywhere in the 134 minutes. He looks back when the carriage comes to pick him up with a white friend from New York holding a piece of paper proving his status. That in itself is pushing things as by all accounts these plantation owners were a law unto themselves and we must remember that all this takes place only 8 years before the declaration of the Confederacy – about which we learn nothing at all from this film.

Steve McQueen (one of the few black directors making feature films that get wide distribution) has missed an opportunity if he wanted to really challenge the history of slavery. If he wanted to use a book as a starting place why not choose the brilliant novella The Kingdom of this World by the Cuban author Alejo Carpentier – about the revolt of the Haitian slaves, their revenge against the whites and their lackeys and the establishment of the first Black Republic. Or he could have based his film on The Confessions of Nat Turner, about a slave revolt in Southampton, Virginia in 1831, written by William Styron. This was controversial at the time of its publication but at least the slaves got up off their knees in one of the 250 documented revolts (why so few?). Yes they were defeated and cruelly put down but defeats are there to teach us to make sure of success the next time.

Because failure to get up off your knees doesn’t mean that repression won’t be as vicious. Lynchings of black people (and a few of their white supporters) weren’t an aspect only of the period of slavery. Just look at what happened after the Civil War and the way that Reconstruction was attacked with the growth of the Ku Klux Klan. Billy Holliday’s song Strange Fruit is about whites, men women and children, proudly posing for photographs at lynchings in the first part of the 20th century. And what of later killings of black people in the US, from George Jackson, who was murdered in the prison system on 21st August 1971 or the very recent shooting by a white racist vigilante of Trayvon Martin on 26th February 2012?

Or he could even have attempted something about the history of the Black Panthers where the black population were prepared, for the first time in any organised manner, to defend and protect their communities.

But that would end up asking more questions than it answered. If it’s right to rise up and fight against oppression under the system of slavery then surely it’s equally OK to do so against the system of wage slavery. But that would send a signal that perhaps so-called parliamentary democracy and recourse to the legal system is incapable of ridding the world of exploitation – and that wouldn’t do.

Django Unchained (2012) might have been a fanciful fantasy but at least it depicted a fight back and the exacting of revenge. However, in an age where Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom is the preferred way forward anything further than Tarantino’s comic book representation would probably never get past the pitching stage.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013) – dir. Justin Chadwick

Sharpville Massacre May 1960

Sharpville Massacre May 1960

Considering that the period covered was one of the most dynamic and crucial in the development of Black Southern Africa the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is remarkably pedestrian, slow, ponderous and ultimately unsatisfying. This isn’t surprising when you consider that the whole emphasis is placed on an individual with political events merely being a historical backdrop rather than looking at those events and analysing how any individual relates to the greater whole.

Being based on Mandela’s autobiography (of the same name) published in 1994 (a 750 pages doorstop that seems to have been his primary aim after release as he wrote this prior to his being elected South Africa’s first Black President in April 1994) this perhaps is not surprising but I would have thought that a film based in a period of massive upheaval and conflict should have recognised that social movements have a momentum of their own and that an individual’s role should be measured, for good or bad, in how it progresses that social movement.

The film is basically in three parts.

At the very beginning we are presented with an idealised childhood and youth in the South African bush. When he goes off to study at University Mandela’s wish is only to become a successful and wealthy lawyer. He’s a smart-arse lawyer and we are shown an episode in court where he wins a case by playing on the racism of a white woman. She is so disgusted at having to answer questions from a ‘kaffir’ and having to justify to him that a pair of knickers are hers that she walks out of the courtroom and the case collapses. So we are introduced to the Mandela who is a clever and astute lawyer.

But in this period he’s not especially interested in politics. This is the 1940s, before the formal establishment of Apartheid, and although the formal and legal institution of that system has yet to be written into law we are still dealing with a racist and segregated society. But Mandela, although having contact with the African National Congress (ANC), seems more concerned about using the pistol in his trousers than any true weapon against the State.

When, as a result of the openly racist National Party in the whites only election in 1948, strict segregation of the races is enforced and Mandela moves into a house in the Orlando township he is given a speech were it gives the impression that he is the only one who really understands what is going on in the country – here the film seems to play around with the timeline of events for dramatic effect. This establishes a theme that continues throughout the rest of the film, Mandela knows best, Mandela is the one who doesn’t break when the pressure is applied, Mandela is the clear and thoughtful leader who sees the future whilst others are lost in a wilderness. In this way any voices, either in agreement of otherwise are totally ignored.

We get the start of the hagiography that is the film with demonstrations of his ability as a public speaker, a demagogue who says what everyone else is afraid to say – and throughout the rest of the film very few significant statements are made by any of the other characters. In such street meetings the camera flashes to other ANC supporters who look concerned when Mandela makes a statement that might be construed as inflammatory and going too far and which might bring down the wrath and anger of the white racists. This despite the fact that the film, in an earlier scene, shows that many in the ANC were challenging the system BEFORE the active involvement of Mandela. He was not a leader from the off and, in fact, although not shown in the film, Mandela later became instrumental in side-lining the more radical elements within the movement.

Towards the end of this first third he develops as an egoist and self publicist having the newspaper cameras around when he burns his passbook. This follows the Sharpville massacre of May 1960 in which 69 people were butchered during a Pan-African Congress (PAC) organised protest against the obligatory carrying of identification papers. The PAC was much further to the left than the ANC and the two organisations vied for the mass support of the South African population. In those pictures he’s smiling as if it were yet another photo opportunity and demonstrates how he rode on the backs of others who had taken the initiative – not for the last time.

After Sharpville - Mandela burns his passbook

After Sharpville – Mandela burns his passbook

The only period in the whole of his life where Mandela might be vaguely considered to have followed a revolutionary road was during the first couple of years of the 1960s. Then he followed some military training in Algeria and this period saw the establishment of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, known in shorthand as MK), the military wing of the ANC. This organisation limited itself to sabotage activities in its beginning and rarely went much further for the rest of its existence and it was the activities of MK that led to the arrest and trial of Mandela and others from the ANC leadership.

Much has been made of Mandela’s closing speech at the Rivonia trial of 1964 where his last words were ‘it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die’. This was inspired by Fidel Castro’s speech after the failed attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba on July 7th 1953 and considered the start of the Cuban revolution. Castro’s last words were: ‘Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me’. (Don’t you ever get the impression they were speaking with history in mind rather than anything else?) It is true that they could have been sentenced to death at this trial but the Afrikaaners were to deny them their desire for martyrdom and instead sentenced them to life imprisonment. Fine, stirring and defiant these final words might have been but a better idea of Mandela’s political thinking, which he maintained till the end, can be understood if the whole of the speech is read, where, among other things he speaks of his admiration for the British establishment.

The second section of the film concerns his time in prison. Yet again all the other inmates become mere cyphers. For example, on arrival at Robben Island prison he is shown as the only one remaining defiant as when he shouts out ‘Amandla’ (meaning ‘power’) which would expect the reply ‘Awethu’ (‘to us’) Mandela’s call is met with total, demoralised, silence.

Being a prisoner was the most significant role that Mandela played in the South African liberation struggle and became the symbol for anti-Apartheid campaigns throughout the world. For 18 years he was isolated from the struggle like all the other prisoners on Robben Island and wasn’t aware of or in any way involved in the direction of the struggle as it intensified. Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s one after another of the countries that had been dominated by European colonial powers gained their independence, often after bitter, bloody and determined armed struggles. It was in this way that Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Angola gained their freedom from direct foreign control (but not from international capitalist interference). Things were starting to get out of control in South Africa and fearing the country would move much further to the left after any possible victory in the liberation struggle Mandela was brought back into the political process to create division and promote moderation.

This very selection of someone who had been out of contact with the everyday struggle becoming the representative of the black population says a lot about the failure of the ANC to make any significant inroads during their so-called ‘armed struggle’.

This, third, section of the film plainly shows the attitude Mandela had to any sort of collective leadership and decision-making process. Probably the most significant discussion amongst his fellow prisoners and the clearest political stance (and the only one in the film) they took was totally ignored by Mandela. When they voted that he shouldn’t be meeting with the ‘The Boer’ leadership by himself his response was ‘I take note, comrades, but I will do what I think is right.’ He assumes the inalienable right to be the only capable of making the ‘correct’ decisions!

At the same time we are shown that he is becoming increasingly estranged from his second wife, Winnie Madikizela, who, living and fighting in the townships, had realised that the situation had changed radically from what it had been at the beginning of the 1960s when he had been tried and imprisoned.

In this third part of the film we see Mandela playing everything as a one man show. He calls for unity when it’s his ideas that are being challenged, using his international reputation to beat down his opponents. He accuses Winnie of not following the capitulation ANC leadership as she calls for the struggle to become a true armed struggle and not to continue to throw unarmed children in the battle against machine gun-toting thugs in armoured vehicles.

Despite this open individualism and depicting his political manoeuvring the film still arrives at the general consensus in the end, that of a patient, elder statesmen who considers that peace with the white oppressors is preferable to true liberation for the South African working class, both black and white.

It was for that reason he was so fêted at the end of last year after his death on 5th December. His legacy being a South Africa where the same political and economic forces are in control, albeit with some black faces feeding at the trough, and an increasingly desperate situation for the majority.