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New York honours Makandal Daaga

Wednesday, June 29, 2011
Makandal Daaga, right, receives his award.

Makandal Daaga stood and the applause was sustained. For sure, he remains a lionised figure in many quarters. It’s Thursday evening at the landmark Presbyterian Church in South Oxford Street, Brooklyn. Scores had just witnessed the screening of ’70: Remembering a Revolution. Earlier, its director, Elizabeth Topp, revealed the innate power of the ’70 narrative. “As a director, I am drawn by the potential for a story to excite, to be visually interesting,” she told me. She expressed some concerns though—the film’s lengthy running time. I allayed those reservations, convinced that what I saw was nothing short of gripping—film making at its very best. ’70: Remembering a Revolution chronicles the events and principal players in one of the most tumultuous times in Caribbean history—played out on the twin island state of T&T. It is chaos and confusion, driven by the ghosts of “Che” on one side, and the ideals of Adam Smith on the other.

Mob rule and would-be saboteurs are juxtaposed with a clueless elite class; the Regiment is pitted against the Coast Guard; and a lanky Dashiki wearing young man squares up against a masterful political craftsman. It’s a clash of two worlds, two prisms. Inject elements of race and prejudice, and the result is a cauldron—“Trini” style. Revolution of any kind is a grave matter and the social apoplexy of 1970 had all the markings of an island teetering on anarchy and bloodshed. The movie soars in its rawness, authenticity, and originality. The director deftly uses a collage of black and white footages—interspersed with a minute by minute account, culled from indelible memories. It never nudges the audience to side with any of the warring factions—a journalistic triumph. The pace is relentless as viewers are jolted by the sincerity of Emile Elias, Peter Ames, Conrad O’Brien, and the power brokers of that era. They are believable as they recount their fears and uncertainties—reaching a climax as employees at one private interest are given pistols to defend themselves—as demonstrators surge through Port-of-Spain, the capital.

We are glued to their testimony—They are Trinidadians, not foreigners bent on raping the island. They express alarm at the expletives hurled their way—“Honky,” and “White Cockroach.” Theirs are echoes of Rodney King’s famous plea as the infamous Los Angeles riots raged: “Can we all get along?” Amid their consternation, the political apparatus appears crippled. Not according to Erica Williams, daughter of the nation’s political leader. She states that Dr Williams was hoping that the demonstration would run its course and fizzle. It did not play out that way. A State of Emergency had to be declared—effectively defanging the rebellious movement. In fact, it is Erica Williams’ account that stuns the audience. She remains highly emotional and unrepentant, to this day. She recalls intimate moments at the PM’s residence, as she sleeps—gun in hand—the “last line of defense” for her embattled father. Hers is a damning and provocative indictment on the uprising. They were willing to kill her father in the very (Woodford) Square where he brought education and democracy to T&T, she impugns. 

Unfortunately for black power apologists, ’70 is hardly a hagiography of Makandal Daaga. We are presented with more imposing figures. The charisma of the mutinous Lieutenant, Raffique Shah is undeniable. And the mystique of Dr Eric Williams—a political puppeteer, making decisive decisions at the right time, is ever present, though subtle. Their showdown is anti-climactic as Lt Shah abrogates the core teachings of “Guerilla Warfare,” the Bible of revolutionaries, and returns to base. His lame rationalisation is an affront to the spirit of “Che” and his international acolytes. ’70: Remembering a Revolution is a classic exposé on revolutionary ineptitude and youthful idealism. Seizing political power, even when palpable, is an art that eluded the motley crew of trade unionists, black power agitators, and “delusionists” at Tetron. Short of political clarity, the revolution was turned on its head. In the end, ’70 raises enduring issues on social conscience, elitism, greed, entitlement, and the perennial struggle for justice and equanimity. Whether it’s the Black Power movement of yesteryear, or the Arab Spring of today, radical change can be a bloody mess. But it’s a sacrifice many have, and will continue to pay, for dignity.

• Dr Glenville Ashby is a foreign correspondent for the Guardian Media Group

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