Fire In Babylon

Fire In Babylon


Reviewed by: David Graham

Director Stevan Riley follows up his rousing toff-boxing doc Blue Blood with an enlightening and inspiring chronicle of the West Indies cricket team during their 15-year reign of glory - or should that be terror? The 'Windies' rose primarily out of times of turmoil and upheaval in the Carribbean, struggling against prejudice on the field to ultimately strike out not only in their sport but for black power and politics as a whole. Riley's film casts its gaze far and wide, taking in events that paralleled and informed the action on the pitch, offering an irreverent but sincerely respectful view of a pivotal period in sporting history.

The first thing that should be noted about this film is that it doesn't require the slightest knowledge or appreciation of cricket; Riley avoids focusing on individual games, and even his occasional reference to statistics and strategy is easy to digest, especially in light of the awesome and unmistakable achievements of the team. He's struck gold with his interviewees too; the various sporting heroes on display here all have a glint in their eyes that speaks volumes about the righteous indignation and defiance that spurred them on to victory.

Lengthy spells of the film are devoted to detailing just how deadly this team were; the footage of their 'four horsemen of the apocalypse' slinging bowls with the impact of cannonballs will have you wincing and grimacing as their opposition crumble. It'll also have you rooting for the team even more; the fires of their ferocity were regularly stoked by instances of casual racism from rival players and discriminatory treatment from the authorities. As the Windies stars reflect on their brutality, some deny that it was deliberate, some keep a poker face while others revel in the havoc they wreaked. But the truth of the matter was plain and simple; there was nothing anyone could do, they were just too good at their game.

Riley opens his film up to take in the growing rastafarian movement and the positive attention that the team's popularity was bringing to their homeland. These digressions would seem tenuous and stretched at points if it wasn't so abundantly apparent that these issues were at the root of the players' very existence. As they moved from being oppressed at the outset to exploited after their initial success, to being eventually triumphant and popular worldwide, Riley shows that their journey obviously had emotional, political and spiritual repercussions. In particular, their nominal leader Viv Richards embraced the uprising his team came to represent, forming part of an inner circle linking the sport with Carribbean culture and music through his friendship with Bob Marley and The Wailers.

This feeds into one of Riley's most inspired touches; having Bunny Marley and a variety of other local musicians offer insight and song-based tribute to the team and their travails. The thrilling archival clips and charismatic talking heads alone would make a fabulous documentary in the most traditional sense, but the judicious use of music really brings the film alive, with some of the seemingly off-the-cuff performances captured in magical, intimate locations. It really gives the viewer an impression of the empowering effect these men had on their people, and the clips of Windies mania erupting in the stands all over the world prove how broad their barnstorming appeal was.

The film pushes its envelope a little too far from the field by trying to deal with Apartheid as well; this comes off as something of an unnecessary aside, even though it's obviously related to the worldwide struggle for equal rights at the time. But Riley has really done his noble charges justice with his inspired and accessible treatment of the subject matter. By putting an energetic and imaginative spin on the sporting doc, he's given these powerful voices a platform to reach even more people than they might otherwise, their pride pouring from the screen to make this an utterly absorbing and uplifting experience.

Reviewed on: 20 May 2011
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A documentary about the golden age of West Indian cricket.
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Director: Stevan Riley

Year: 2010

Runtime: 83 minutes

Country: UK

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