AMERICANS would sooner watch a spelling bee than a cricket match. No, really: ESPN’s broadcast of the Scripps National Spelling Bee draws an average of four million viewers, while the network’s online coverage of 2011 World Cup Cricket generated some 1.3 million hits here. So what does that bode for a politics-ridden documentary about a cricket team — from the West Indies, no less, a part of the world that most Americans associate with piña coladas, not postcolonial politics?
Such is the question facing “Fire in Babylon,” which opens in New York Friday. A story of the undefeated West Indies cricket team during the turbulent ’70s and ’80s — the era of Bob Marley, anti-Apartheid movements and London race riots — the film garnered rave reviews in Britain, where a review in The Telegraph called it “joyous and uplifting,” and the premiere was attended by Jude Law and Mick Jagger. But while the director, Stevan Riley, said he aimed to tell “an accessible story for everyone, not just fans of the sport,” he also had much more in mind, delving into complex issues, though not always to the satisfaction of those close to the subject.
Accustomed to strict penalties for pitchers who hit batters, baseball-loving Americans might be surprised by the images, culled from extensive moving and still archives. Cricket in “Fire in Babylon” is a mélange of brutality and grace; with showmanship and etiquette, Windies bowlers insistently take down batsmen as if pins in an alley. “That small ball can damage you,” Mr. Holding said by phone from London. “It can be terrifying.” (Coming from a man whose nickname is Whispering Death, that’s saying something.)
With “Fire in Babylon” set to a soundtrack of bass-heavy reggae music, fast bowling also becomes the film’s prime emblem for postcolonial black liberation: Caliban learning Prospero’s magic, then using it to outdo his former master.
“The film presents a team of predominantly black people trying to dominate a white world, and that wasn’t the case at all,” Mr. Croft said. “You didn’t run up to bowl quickly because the guy on the other end was white. We bowled just as quickly to people from Pakistan or India as we did to England or Australia. It had nothing to do with race. It was about abilities and performance.”
The Windies team, Mr. Holding pointed out, consisted not just of black players but also white and East Indian ones from Trinidad and Guyana. “The film tells a very good story about the elevation of the Caribbean region and Caribbean identity through both music and sports,” he said. “But it overstates the black-and-white racial angle — the way people creating popular movies and books tend to do.”
Harvey Neptune, a professor of Caribbean and Latin American history at Temple University, agreed. He noted that the film’s preference for reggae over calypso — another feature likely to give the film broader appeal — slighted calypso’s longer, more faithful affair with cricket, and accorded with the film’s choice to spin the story in black-power terms; reggae and Bob Marley, after all, offer rhetorical shorthand for a liberated black postcolonial consciousness.
Still, Mr. Neptune emphasized that whatever the players’ conscious intents, Windies victories did have meaning well beyond the cricket field. “Because these were black men winning — and winning in a way that made a style of rejecting much cricketing orthodoxy — their triumphant performances took on a tremendous insurgent significance, no less than the clenched fist of black power.”
For Mr. Riley therein lies the film’s happy ending and the secret to making a sports film that transcends sports. “There’s something intuitively cinematic about sport, the will to succeed and the dedication and such,” he said. “But when you’ve got a deeper purpose, as the West Indies team embodied, sport can become symbolic of something much more profound.”