MFR Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Normally a summer of cricket presents itself with the dulcet tones of Aggers and Boycott, but this year it arrives in all its glory and pristine whites on the big screen. A bit like English Ashes victories, two cricketing documentaries have emerged back to back. Along with From the Ashes (revisiting the famous 1981 Ashes series), Fire in Babylon doesn’t just provide a healthy dose of test match nostalgia, but goes beyond its Wisden-reading audience. Run rates and Duckworth-Lewis this is not, riveting and culturally illuminating this most certainly is. Director Stevan Riley may well have bowled us a bit of a googly.
Babylon documents the rise of the prolific and unbeatable West Indies cricket team of the 70s and 80s amidst racial and poltical adversity. The first black West Indies captain was crowned in 1960 and from then on cricket was allowed to become a unifying force for black solidarity and liberation. It’s a story of how cultural togetherness can transcend historic degradation. Sport is a tool of power, and such power requires strength and great responsibility to bring a sense of union, pride, self worth and a feeling that people can shape their own history.
The film documents the West Indies’ demolition at the hands of Australia’s pace attack in 1975-76 as the turning point in not just West Indian cricket, but in establishing post-colonial pride throughout the Caribbean. The West Indies learned from their defeat and played the world at their own game. No longer would they not be taken seriously but they would return power for power. They might get massacred in the press for playing the Aussie’s at their dangerous game (think 90mph pace with rarely a helmet in sight), but by developing their own ferocious attack they became truly empowered and an unstoppable inspiration for black unity. The media backlash is just one of many interesting cultural conundrums presented by this film: it was OK for the Aussies to try and knock their heads off, so why can’t the Caribbeans have a go just because they’re even better?
Stevan Riley does a terrific job, not only with his choice of interviewees but also in the pace of the editing and the creation of a real energy and vigor often hard to capture in a documentary. Not only do we have all the big names of Michael Holding, Viv Richards, Clive Lloyd interviewed, but also the friendly local faces of the groundsmen and the likes of Bunny Wailer from Bob Marley’s ensemble to form a real cultural richness to the film. The music is expertly chosen and used persistently to really bring this documentary to life and colour. The music is a treat and certainly illustrates how the combination of cricket and music runs through the veins of the West Indies. There’s a real feeling of inspiration behind this film, by demonstrating how a combination of physical and mental strength can bring with it a genuine sense of honour.
There is of course the risk that Babylon will only have a limited release and be considered a bit of a niche film. This would of course be complete nonsense, as it’s a real story that needs to be told. Sport permits an inherent power by allowing people to prove themselves and demonstrate prowess and this strength is undoubtedly captured here. Non-cricket fans must not be put off and instead should jump at the opportunity to be informed, entertained and enlightened. There might be silly-point trying to slip Babylon into the local multiplexes, but I’ve got a feeling this all-rounder might clear even the deepest backward cover for six.
Fire in Babylon open 20 May in the UK. Running time: 87 mins. Certificate 12A.
Review By David Rank (who would like to apologise for any bad puns)