Season of discontent
On February 26, 1970, a small group of mostly young people marched through the streets of Port of Spain. They were protesting the arrest in Canada of some Caribbean students, who had been part of a sit-in against racism at Sir George Williams University that had turned violent, ending with the burning down of the university’s computer lab.
What started as a protest against the Canadian authorities soon turned into a movement against conditions in Trinidad & Tobago itself. Eight years after the country had gained independence, the social and economic progress expected by the masses, most of whom were living in or close to poverty, had not taken place, and the racial prejudice that had helped define the colonial period still persisted.
The new movement – quickly labelled Black Power – was buffeted by the winds of change that had been blowing in the United States and elsewhere throughout the Sixties. It became the driving force behind a farrago of marches, demonstrations, rallies and other events that would culminate, two months later, in an army mutiny, cause the loss of a number of lives, and leave an indelible mark on the nation.
The story of the Black Power uprising has been told through literature as well as calypso, yet it has never been satisfactorily recounted via film. Four decades on, the documentary ’70: Remembering a Revolution seeks to address that imbalance. Made over three years and coming in at just under two hours, ’70 is not only comprehensive, it is a remarkable achievement, and will probably become the definitive work, in any medium, on what took place during that explosive year.
Underpinning ‘70 are interviews with over two dozen former and current social activists, trade unionists, journalists, academics, military personnel, lawyers, and businessmen – as well as a one-time beauty queen – who either had a direct role in the movement or were witnesses to the events. Calypsonian Brother Valentino also appears, his songs about the uprising forming part of the film’s compelling narrative. (Songs by Lord Kitchener, Mighty Duke and others round out the soundtrack.)
None of the politicians of the day who are still alive appear in the film. In their stead we have the daughter of late prime minister Eric Williams, Erica Williams-Connell, whose combative, unintentionally humorous performance reveals her to be as out of touch with popular feeling now as her father and his government were then.
The talking heads are generously intercut with archival footage and photographs. (The fine editing is by Luke Paddington.) Apart from the obvious qualities this material lends the film, it is fascinating to contrast the potent black-and-white images of some of the main personalities – all angry Afros and clenched fists raised in defiant salute – with their greying, gentler selves.
It’s also interesting to speculate in what other ways these men may have changed. Well, Makandal Daaga, formerly Geddes Granger, is a member of the coalition of parties that came to power in T&T last year. Whether that represents a belated triumph for the revolution or a betrayal of it is left for the viewer to decide.
’70: Remembering a Revolution by Alex de Verteuil & Elizabeth Topp will be screened at the Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival. For dates and times see www.ttfilmfestival.com