The Ritzy, a small two-screen cinema in central Brixton must have seemed like a good place to host a special screening of the new film Fire in Babylon. It was in these streets around the cinema – the same streets that hosted the Brixton race riots almost exactly 30 years ago – that the brutal successes of the West Indian cricket team were most happily greeted by London’s black community.
The film-makers and distributors would surely have expected, like I did, that the auditorium would be filled with people who remembered that era, people who lived through the rioting, people for whom the bombing of Tony Greig, the bloodying of Brian Close and, more than that, the victories that came with those bouncers was a source of tremendous pride. This was their opportunity to re-live that.
But that was not the scene last night. Instead, the auditorium was filled with white faces, many of them, like me, too young to remember that era of excellence. The audience loved the film, loved the swagger with which it has been made and loved watching Colin Croft and Gordon Greenidge answer questions on stage afterwards. The story told in Fire in Babylon, it was plain to see, has become just that. A story. 82 minutes of entertainment. Someone else’s distant history.
Younger cricket fans and especially younger West Indian cricketers, it is often said, have forgotten the importance of those years, forgotten what it means to play for the West Indies. Michael Holding said recently: “When the film was shown in Jamaica, Chris Gayle watched it and came up to me afterwards and said ‘I had no idea that is what you went through.’
Holding continued: “The current crop do not realise what went on in the 1970s and 1980s and what it meant to us all. They do not have the same motivation now. I think this film should be watched so that the children of the Caribbean can understand what happened, and perhaps it will give them a greater appreciation of what it means to play for the West Indies.”
After last night’s screening, Greenidge, now a Test selector, took up the baton and bemoaned the attitude of modern West Indian cricketers. The current bunch, he said, were of the opinion that they only needed to play at the top level for a couple of years so that they could earn enough money to retire. Cash, he suggested sadly, was now the biggest motivation to play for the West Indies.
But are the motivations of Kemar Roach and Chris Gayle really so different from their illustrious predecessors? Sitting next to Greenidge last night (and making his chair look like a milking stool) was Colin Croft – a wonderful fast bowler but a man persuaded to play cricket in apartheid South Africa – to the disgust of the West Indian public – because he was offered a cheque for £70,000. In the film, Croft admits that he did not feel he could return to the West Indies after making that decision. He went to live in Florida instead.
I wondered how Croft feels now, listening to Greenidge. And I wonder how they both felt, talking to a predominantly young, white audience about cricket matches that, as Fire in Babylon tells us progressed life for black communities of the West Indies, South Africa and indeed Brixton.
But is it really any wonder that the 15 years of West Indian dominance of world cricket has become intellectualised history? Is Michael Holding mistaken when he says that the film should give young West Indians a greater appreciation of what it means to play for the West Indians?
These days, institutionalised racism is not as prevalent; players are remunerated for their skill. And, as both Croft and Greenidge were at pains to point out last night, it must not be forgotten that the West Indies still exists only as a cricket team and not as a nation.
All these facts mean that playing for the West Indies no longer can mean as much as it did 30 years ago. Fire in Babylon shows that in the 70s and 80s, even if they weren’t playing for their country, Croft, Richards, Lloyd and co were playing for black people around the world; as Viv Richards puts it in the film, equal if not better than their white opposition.
The world isn’t like this anymore and perhaps this does mean that for current West Indian cricketers who are still not representing their country are no longer representing much else either. No matter how fast Kemar Roach bowls, no matter how hard Kieron Pollard hits the ball, no matter how well they all play, they will not be able to make the past proud.
With its bouncers, swagger and reggae, Fire in Babylon is a wonderful, truly glorious film. The director, Stevan Riley (who was also in Brixton last night), should be particularly proud that quite aside from the politics, his film does justice to the cricket. But what Fire in Babylon does better than anything else is show how far the world has come in 30 years. What it now means to play for the West Indies is not what it once meant to play for the West Indies.
Fire in Babylon is in cinemas on Friday, May 20 and available to download and on DVD from June 6. See fireinbabylon.com
Josh Burrows is The Cricketer‘s club editor and a freelance writer