Archive for Film & DVD Reviews

The Alleys (2021)

The Alleys takes us deep into the residential alleys of Amman, Jordan. These narrow streets, where buildings stand so close together, become the backdrop for a tapestry of interconnected lives. Bassel Ghandour, the writer-director, makes his feature debut with this film, which has garnered attention on the festival circuit. However, upon closer examination, The Alleys struggles to withstand scrutiny, despite standout performances by Maisa Abd Elhadi and Nadira Omran.

The narrative revolves around Ali, a small-time opportunist who leads unsuspecting tourists to the vibrant nightlife of the city. Simultaneously, someone clandestinely captures Ali and Lana’s intimate encounters on video, subsequently using it as leverage to blackmail Aseel. Desperate for a solution, Aseel turns to the local kingpin, Abaas, and his formidable right-hand woman, Hanadi. While the film sets the stage for an intriguing story, it ultimately falls short in delivering a satisfying conclusion, leaving various plot points unresolved.

Despite its potential, The Alleys fails to fully realize its promise. The intricate performances by Maisa Abd Elhadi and Nadira Omran elevate the film, breathing life into their respective characters. Their portrayals are a testament to their talent and add depth to an otherwise lackluster narrative. However, the film’s inability to tie up loose ends and provide a coherent resolution leaves viewers feeling unfulfilled.

The setting of the residential alleys of Amman creates an immersive atmosphere that captures the audience’s attention. The closeness of the buildings and the intricate connections between the characters mirror the confined nature of their lives. Yet, this rich backdrop cannot compensate for the film’s shortcomings in plot development and resolution.

The Alleys showcases potential but fails to deliver a compelling and satisfying experience. While it benefits from strong performances, particularly by Maisa Abd Elhadi and Nadira Omran, the film’s unresolved plot points and lack of a cohesive conclusion hinder its overall impact. The Alleys ultimately falls short of its promise, leaving viewers wanting more.


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All The Money In The World (2017 film)

“All The Money In The World” is a gripping and intense drama based on the true story of the 1973 kidnapping of John Paul Getty III, the grandson of the wealthiest man in the world at the time, J. Paul Getty. Directed by Ridley Scott and released in 2017, the film stars Christopher Plummer, Michelle Williams, and Mark Wahlberg.

The film follows the harrowing ordeal of John Paul Getty III’s kidnapping, and the frantic efforts of his mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams), to secure his release. However, she faces an unexpected obstacle in the form of her former father-in-law, J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), who refuses to pay the ransom and seems more concerned with his wealth and reputation than his own grandson’s safety.

The standout performance in the film is undoubtedly Christopher Plummer’s portrayal of J. Paul Getty. Plummer stepped in to replace Kevin Spacey, who was originally cast in the role, and delivers a powerful and nuanced performance that earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Michelle Williams also delivers a strong performance as Gail Harris, portraying a mother’s desperation and determination to save her son.

The film’s direction by Ridley Scott is masterful, with tense and suspenseful scenes that keep the viewer on the edge of their seat. The cinematography and production design are also noteworthy, transporting the viewer to the opulent world of the Getty family and the dark underworld of the kidnappers.

“All The Money In The World” is a compelling and well-crafted film that tells a riveting story of greed, power, and family. The dark humour arises from John Paul Getty’s obsession with his fortune, making him a target of criticism. Despite the astronomical ransom demanded for his grandson’s release, Getty haggles and tries to negotiate a lower price, showcasing his extreme miserliness. This behaviour goes beyond a simple explanation of wealth, suggesting deeper emotional and mental issues. Gail’s restraint and Williams’ performance capture her frustration while navigating Getty’s callousness.

The film provides a throwback to the 1970s, featuring recognisable human beings dealing with tense situations based on true events. Ridley Scott skilfully balances realism and Hollywood fantasy, creating a film that feels genuine. The film acknowledges that liberties were taken with the historical record, particularly in placing Gail and Fletcher Chase, Getty’s business manager, in dangerous situations. This approach adds a layer of intensity to the narrative.

“All The Money In The World” stands as a testament to Ridley Scott’s work ethic, as he replaced Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer after Spacey’s misconduct allegations. Plummer’s exceptional performance as J. Paul Getty transcends the film, depicting a character emblematic of an era where money seems to hold more value than mercy.

“All The Money In The World” is a must-see film that combines a compelling true crime narrative with outstanding performances, masterful direction, and captivating production design. It explores themes of greed, power, and family dynamics while shedding light on the dark side of immense wealth.

Reviewed by Pat Harrington

Poster attribution: The poster art can or could be obtained from the distributor. Fair use,

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Review: American Psycho (2000 film)

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American Psycho (2000) is a psychological thriller that follows the life of Patrick Bateman, a wealthy investment banker in New York City during the late 1980s. Bateman’s obsession with materialism and status symbols is portrayed through his fixation with his physical appearance, possessions, and the people around him. The film critiques the shallow and empty values of consumerist culture prevalent in the 80s and delves into the dangers of being consumed by the desire for wealth and material possessions.

In addition to his materialistic obsessions, Bateman’s character is also highlighted through his unique analysis of music, as he spouts like a music critic analysing the complexities and deep meanings in songs by Phil Collins and Whitney Houston!

Bateman’s fixation on material possessions and lack of emotional connection with others lead him to treat sex selfishly and without any emotional connection. He doesn’t mind taking his sexual fantasies out on street prostitutes or “high-class” call girls. He believes that his fiancée Evelyn Williams (Reese Witherspoon) is probably having an affair, which, in his mind, justifies his sleeping with her drugged-up best friend, Courtney (Samantha Mathis).

While the film is a chilling and thought-provoking critique of the dangers of materialism, there is also something perversely funny about it. However, just when one becomes comfortable with the notion that the “Psycho” of the title refers only to a rich weirdo, Bateman shocks us with his brutal acts. The film serves as a stark reminder that true happiness and fulfilment come from connections with others and a sense of purpose beyond the accumulation of wealth and material possessions.

Reviewed by Pat Harrington

Mary Harron
Bret Easton Ellis, Mary Harron, Guinevere Turner
Christian Bale, Justin Theroux, Josh Lucas
Runtime: 1h 42m

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Film Review: Silence (2016)

Before the release of Silence in 2016, Martin Scorsese already had form when it came to questions of God and Religion. 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ had caused huge controversy when it was first released, and the 1997 movie Kundun, based on the life of the current Dali Lama, makes for a loose ‘spiritual’ trilogy.

Indeed, pre-production for Silence began only two years after the release of Last Temptation, shortly after Scorsese had first read Shusako Endo’s original 1966 novel, upon which the film was based. It would take almost a quarter of a century, substantial re-writes, years in ‘production hell,’ court actions and threatened court actions, before the film finally went into production proper. Scorsese, who was himself raised a Roman Catholic and still acknowledges the influence of Catholicism on his work, has described Silence as ‘Passion Project’ and a film that ‘had to be made,’ and has spoken of it in terms of it being a part of his own spiritual quest, a quest that he believes naturally grows more urgent as we humans reach the latter part of our natural life-cycle.

Last Temptation had ben attacked as blasphemous by many Christians, largely by the type of fundamentalists who had also denounced Monty Python’s The Life of Brian from 1979 in a similar manner. The line of attack on Last Temptation rested mostly on the scene towards the end of the film where Jesus is depicted as having a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene. In fact, this scene forms part of a form of dream sequence, where Jesus on the cross, having chosen the path of self-sacrifice on behalf of humanity as a whole, imagines what it could have been like had he chosen to deny his Divinity and live out his life as a normal man, a man who marries, produces and raises a family. I don’t pretend any great expertise in the field of Theology, but from the limited understanding I do have, it would seem to me that the clash between the human and divine aspects of the figure of Jesus, between Jesus the man and Jesus the Christ, a clash that arguably also takes place within all of us, would seem to be pretty central to the Christian message, and thus ripe for artistic exploration. In addition, the righteous, angry, proto-socialist firebrand Jesus who expels the money changers from the Temple in Last Temptation is a Jesus who is closest to how I like to think the actual Jesus would have been.

Silence is not a film that, as far as I’m aware, has given any grounds for attack on the blasphemy front, and seems on the whole to have been well received amongst Christians.

It is worth mentioning here though a little of my own history with the film, and with Christianity itself. I have never been a believing Christian, but have at times defined myself as ‘Culturally Christian’, which has in turn led to sporadic periods of fairly regular church attendance. The release of Silence in the UK happened to coincide with one of these periods, and it was through the vicar at my local Anglican (Anglo-Catholic to be precise) church that I first heard of the film. It was raised when our regular Thursday night discussion group turned towards matters of the treatment of Christianity in modern literature, film and television. This vicar happened to have read Endo’s novel, and to have recently seen the film. His criticism of the latter was that although the movie was relatively faithful to the novel (the very last scene was an entirely cinematic, auteur decision, I would later learn), he felt it was unnecessary to show so graphically the gory torture and violence suffered by the Japanese Christians, brutality that is apparently only implied in the novel. Inevitably, the discussion then turned to Mel Gibson’s ultra-blood-fest, The Passion of Christ, a film that I believe gets an unnecessarily bad press, and is required Easter viewing, though this is not the place to discuss this.

Silence is indeed a very violent film, certainly not for the feint of heart or weak of stomach. Having not read the novel, I’m not in a position to compare the two, but having watched the film on the big screen shortly after that Thursday night discussion, and twice more on the small screen since, I believe that the subject matter entirely justifies the degree of violence depicted. In the hands of a great filmmaker, and Scorsese is right up there with Kubrick, Hitchcock, Chaplain, Ozu and Eisenstein amongst the greatest filmmakers of all time, the cinematic form need not be entirely devoid of subtlety and implication. But is a visual medium in a way that literature simply is not.   

I won’t give away too many spoilers in this review. Silence is a film that reached a relatively small audience, and is well worth seeing without knowing too much about it. But the central story, loosely based on real-life events and characters, concerns two seventeenth century Portuguese Jesuit priests, Sebastiao Rodriguez and Francisco Garupe, played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver respectfully., who set off for Japan from the then Portuguese colony of Macao (now in China) in order to discover the truth concerning their former mentor Cristovao Ferreira, played by Liam Neeson, after word has reached them that Ferreira has committed apostacy, gone native, and has taken a Japanese wife. Ferreira is a legendary figure within the Jesuit order at this point, known for his devotion to spreading the Word to the Heathen Japanese, and the idea that he has renounced his Faith and is living in this way is simply unthinkable to the young priests.

Without going too deeply into Japanese history, which is there for those who wish to discover it, the action takes place in the early days of the ‘Edo-Era’ period, when Christianity was being brutally suppressed, creating what are today known as the ‘Hidden Christians’, groups of Japanese believers forced to practice their Faith, in as much as this is possible at all, in secret. This had followed a relatively brief period under the previous ‘Tokugawa Shogunate’ when a relatively relaxed attitude had existed towards this new spiritual import, making open missionary work possible, work that had proven successful in creating a small but growing and apparently devout Japanese Christian community.   

The film thus centres upon Rodriguez and Garupe’s journey to Japan from Macou through rough seas, assisted by the untrustworthy but complex figure of Kichijiro, played by Yosuke Kubozuka, a Japanese fisherman and Christian, whose own spiritual journey sees him swing wildly between deep faith and betrayal, and who at this point is seeking redemption after abandoning his religion in order to save his own life whilst members of his own family were put to death for their belief. After their arrival in Japan, we follow Rodriguez and Garupe as they search for Ferreira and assist the beleaguered, desperate, underground Japanese community, until they finally do discover the whereabouts and truth concerning their former teacher and his current life in Japan.

The film is indeed very violent. The punishments for those Japanese, and foreign, Christians who refuse to renounce their faith include being burnt alive, being beheaded, and being tied to raised wooden posts in the blazing sun without food or water, until they are eventually enveloped and drowned by incoming tides. After this latter prolonged and terrifying death, they are then cremated, and thus denied the full bodily burial demanded by their religion.

The movie spares nothing in showing the horrors that face those who refuse to renounce Christ, an act which is made visual in the film by the demand that his followers literally trample on an image of Jesus, are subjected to.

Silence explores themes such as Faith, Martyrdom, whether it is permissible to demand the martyrdom of others, the proselyting nature of Christianity, and also the possibility of what might be called Spiritual Imperialism.

It is this last point that I found most interesting in the film, and it is one explored powerfully through encounters between the Jesuit priests and the fascinating figure of The Inquisitor, played by Tadonobo Asano. This character, the most interesting in the entire film to me, combines supreme cruelty with righteous Japanese Nationalism and a keen wisdom and intellect. Through his words we see the possibility of doubt being sown in the minds of the devout priests, and also perhaps in the minds of those Christian viewers who may otherwise have been inclined to see the conflict in the movie as a simple one of ‘Good’ versus ‘Evil’. At one point, the Inquisitor says simply ‘Japan has its own religions. But you failed to notice this.’

This is of course true. Japan at this time already had its own longstanding spiritual traditions in the form of its national, pagan religion of Shinto, and of a form of Buddhism that had begun as an offshoot of another pagan religion, that of Hinduism in India, travelled to China where it’s encounter with Taoism produced Ch’an Buddhism, and then on to Japan where it became what we today know as Zen.

Without for a moment excusing the extremities of torture that Japanese Christians were subjected to, or of diminishing the heroism of all who have been, and in many places still are, prepared to sacrifice and suffer for their faith, the question of whether or not western Christians had/have a right to allow the implantation of their own belief system into other cultures to go unchallenged is certainly one worth thinking about. Marxist historians have been amongst those who have pointed out that in the development of Western Imperialism, the appearance of the gunboats was often proceeded by the appearance of the missionaries.

At one point, one of the Jesuit priests points to the growth of Christianity in Japan in the years before its repression, as a means of showing that many Japanese were prepared to freely choose this religion over their own indigenous traditions. Again, the Inquisitor casts doubt, this time on what he thinks the Japanese really understand by the teachings they have given, suggesting, for instance that when the priests talk of ‘the Son’, their Japanese congregation interpret this as ‘the Sun,’ the Sun of course being of such importance in Japanese history and culture that the name of the country literally means ‘Land of the Rising Sun.’ I’m not sure how well this suggestion works linguistically, given that we are dealing with issues of translation from Japanese to Portuguese to English, but this did make me think about how well religious ideas have and do translate from one culture to another.

Christianity itself of course emerged from Judaism in the Middle East a little over two thousand years ago, reaching Europe through the power of the Roman Empire a couple of centuries after that. Greater minds than mine have wrestled with the problem of trying to navigate as closely as possible backwards towards the original teachings of the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth, but there can be no doubt at all that these teachings were changed by their encounter with western thought, most obviously of its encounter with the giants of Greek philosophy who were retrospectively claimed by and merged with the Christian tradition, despite their own pagan origins.

I myself, as well my periodic periods of ‘Cultural Christianity,’ attend a Zen Buddhist group here in Liverpool, and have done so on and off since first moving here twenty years ago. I’m in no doubt that Zen ‘Just Sitting’ meditation has had very positive benefits in my own life, but I’m also under no illusion that it has much to do with Zen as it is taught and practiced in Japan, either today or many centuries ago.

It is also perhaps worth mentioning that, even in the modern age, when Christianity can flow freely towards Japan, unhindered since at least the end of the Second World War and the final defeat of the Japanese Imperial tradition, and assisted by the most modern means of mass communication, and also no doubt with many billions of dollars spent on its propagation, only around 1% of modern Japanese citizens identify themselves as Christians. Shinto and Zen still reign in the hearts and minds of the Japanese people, and have proved to be remarkably adaptable, despite the massive changes Japanese society has undergone in recent decades.

Anyway, a fairly lengthy digression, but these were the main thoughts that the film brought out in me. Others may see different themes to these, themes I have missed, or indeed may see the story as simply a ‘Heroes Quest’ coupled with the enduring power of the Christian Faith and the Christian message. This is entirely legitimate also.

In closing, I’ll say simply that Silence is a powerful, thought-provoking film that looks great, is superbly acted by all the principal players, and has a great musical score by Kim Allen Kluge. It was a flop at the Box Office, and will no doubt long, and perhaps forever, remain one of Martin Scorsese’s lesser known works. That said, it is a work well worth seeking out.

I should mention that, prior to Scorsese’s version, there had already been a 1971 movie adaptation of Endo’s novel, though I have yet to see this.

Reviewed by Anthony C Green

Martin Scorsese
Jay Cocks(screenplay by)Martin Scorsese(screenplay by) Shûsaku Endô (based on the novel by)
Starring: Andrew Garfield (Sebastiao Rodriguez), Adam Driver (Francisco Garupe), Liam Neeson (Cristovao Ferreira), Tadonobo Asano (The Inquisitor), Claran Hinds (Alessandro Valignano) Shinya Tsukamato (Mokichi), Yosuke Kubozuka (Kichijiro)
2 hours 41 minutes

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Mr Jones (2019 film)

This is a superb and deeply moving film – and at the same time one of the most depressing I`ve seen for a very long time. Produced by a Polish film company, it is the true story of Gareth Jones, a brilliant Welsh student from a humble background who read Russian at Cambridge but who was denied a posting at the Foreign Office (presumably because, unlike Philby, Burgess, McLean and their friends, was not “one of us”). Instead he was recruited by his fellow Welshman the former Prime Minister David Lloyd George, to act as his adviser on foreign affairs. In this capacity Jones made a name for himself by securing an interview with the aspiring young German politician Adolf Hitler.

As a young man, Jones was a great admirer of Stalin, believing that Soviet Communism was the way forward for the progress of humanity. Using his connection with Lloyd George, Jones travelled to Moscow in 1931 hoping to secure an interview with Stalin himself. He failed, but in the course of his visit he encountered a cadre of western journalists sympathetic to the Soviet experiment, most prominently Walter Duranty, the correspondent in Moscow for the “New York Times”. Intrigued by rumours of a famine in Ukraine, Jones, suspicious of a ban preventing journalists from travelling there, managed to defy the ban in order to see for himself. What he found was truly horrifying and the film pulls no punches. A starving population in the countryside, bodies piled up in the streets, when all the while the plentiful supplies of grain were being transported to the cities in order to feed the workers delivering Stalin`s Five Year Plans. This man-made famine, known in Ukraine as the Holodomor, resulted in the deaths of up to 5 million people whilst all the time Duranty and his colleagues were filing denials to their readers in the West. Duranty was even awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 – never rescinded despite being totally discredited once the truth was revealed many years later.

When Jones returned to Britain he was accused of fabricating his account of what he had seen. Stalin had many admirers on the Left who regarded Hitler, not unreasonably, as the real enemy. In their view any attack on the Soviet system amounted to pro-German propaganda. Discredited in the eyes of progressive opinion, Jones undertook a journalistic assignment in Mongolia in 1935 where he was murdered by bandits. It later transpired that the guide assigned to protect him was a Stalinist agent. But there was some ultimate vindication. He had become acquainted with Eric Blair (George Orwell) on his return and is credited with being one of the inspirations for “Animal Farm”.

A post-script. The rehabilitation of Stalin in modern Russia is obviously an insult to the now-independent Ukraine, equally obviously compounded by the current invasion. Not unreasonably, Putin is seen as a re-incarnation of Stalin

Reviewed by Henry Falconer

Agnieszka Holland
Andrea Chalupa
James Norton, Vanessa Kirby, Peter Sarsgaard
2 hours 21 minutes

Poster by IMP Awards, Fair use,

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Film review: Superman: Red Son

What if baby Kal-El’s ( the future Superman) rocket landed, not in Kansas, but in the Soviet Union? That is the premise of this Elseworld’s tale from DC Comics. Review by Antony C. Green.

I watched this the other night, having picked up a copy in CEX for £6. I hadn’t actually realised there was a film version, though it’s been several years since I read the graphic novel.

I love the basic premise that baby Superman crash-lands into a small town in the USSR rather than in Smallville, USA, and thus ends up fighting for the cause of International Communism rather than for ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way.’ However, in the book, as with the film, the idea is much better than its execution.

Inevitably, this still being a part of the DC Universe, albeit an alternative version, Superman, in both the film and the book, ends up renouncing communism and embracing American ‘freedom.’

In some respects, the film is better than the book, although my memories of the graphic novel are admittedly hazy. We do see the terrible poverty of the United States, and the inequality, which led so many to embrace socialism, though in much greater numbers in the movie than in reality. And, through the use of ‘Brainiac, a form of artificial intelligence which allows for the central planning of the economy free from human error and the difficulty of micro-managing the complexities of a modern economy given the limitations of the human mind, we do see the Soviet Union make giant strides forwards, quickly surpassing the leading capitalist economies once Superman, disgusted by his discovery of the existence of the Gulags, eliminates Stalin and takes over the leadership of the Soviet Super-power himself. The creation of Brainiac, which I don’t remember from the book, is I think a particularly good innovation, with some basis in reality. In the 1960’s, during the Brezhnev years, the CPSU did look at the idea of using modern computing power to assist in the planning of the economy. Allende in Chie is also said to have looked into the feasibility of this, before his Popular Unity government was overthrown and replaced by the brutal proto-Thatcherite Pinochet government in the early-’70’s. In both these cases, computing was still at stage that was too primitive to be useful, but Brainiac does make one think what might be possible today, given the exponential growth in the scope and power of information technology…

There are some glaring weaknesses in the movie, however. Batman makes a rather pointless appearance as a sort of Soviet vigilante counter-revolutionary, and Wonder Woman is there only to mouth the words of uber-utopian-feminism, expressing profundities like: ‘Even a Superman is still just a man, and as long as men are in charge, there will always be violence and war.’ Haven’t we had enough equally war-like female world leaders by now to make such comments sound ridiculous: Thatcher, Golda Meir, Benazir Bhutto, Aung San Su Ki, Hilary Clinton, the super-hawk who fortunately never quite made it to the very top job?

Superman shows human morality in closing down the Gulags, but is also shown as possessing human frailties which illustrate the old truism that ‘…absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ Given this, it’s never quite clear why he doesn’t simply use his superpowers to decimate the United States and with it international capitalism. Nor is it clear why, other than that it is led by a genius of a President in traditional Superman adversary Lex Luther, the United States not only recovers from its dire economic woes, but does so to such an extent that it begins to outstrip communism, leading to the type of demonstrations that result, as in the real world, to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the People’s Democracies of Eastern Europe. Superman accepts this and, like Gorbachev, is himself finally complicit in the dismantling of the USSR.

Thus, by the early ’90’s, we are back in a Universe that is recognisably our own (apart from the existence of Superman of course. Wonder Woman, giving up on men completely, has long since returned to her hidden women-only island).

Towards the very end though, we get a real laugh out loud moment when President Luther says words to the effect that ‘We will not act as victors in the Cold War, we will extend the hand of friendship to the Russian people, and assist them in building a land of freedom and prosperity.’ Yeah, right. In the real world, the ‘West’ imposed ‘Big Bang’ shock-tactics on the former people’s of the USSR, selling off their industries and public services for peanuts to multi-national, mainly American led corporations, assisted a few ex Soviet bureaucrats to become billionaire oligarchs, decimated living standards and caused a massive decline in life-expectancy. Within a decade, the Russian people had had quite enough of western-style ‘liberal democracy’ and turned to strong man Putin to set things right and restore a little national pride. We are still living with the consequences of western capitalism’s rape of the former Soviet economy, and it’s telling that the only serious internal opposition to Putin today comes from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation…

But I digress. Red Son is full of holes and weaknesses, but for anyone who combines some knowledge of modern history with an interest in the super-hero genre, it’s well worth watching, and might even make you think about how, in the real world, the geopolitical and economic order could have been, and could still be, so very different.

Reviewed by Anthony C Green

Picture credit: Fair use,

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Film Review: Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

“I’d rather be a free man in my grave, than living as a puppet or a slave” – Jimmy Cliff – The Harder They Come

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is a historical drama film directed by Shaka King, released in 2021. The movie is based on the true story of Fred Hampton, the charismatic and revolutionary chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s. The film explores the events leading up to Hampton’s assassination by the FBI and the Chicago Police Department.

Daniel Kaluuya stars as Fred Hampton, who is depicted as a visionary leader who fights for the rights of black people in America. He inspires and unites the community, organizing various social programs and raising awareness about the inequalities faced by black Americans. However, the FBI, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover, sees Hampton as a threat and starts a covert operation to neutralize him.

The US establishment saw the Black Panthers as a threat due to their revolutionary rhetoric and the fact that they were armed. The tactics used by the police to neutralize the Panthers were often shocking. In the film the FBI allowed one informant who had been involved in a murder to go on the run and visit various Panther offices as an excuse to raid them. They even went so far as to drug Panther leader Fred Hampton and plot and carry out the killings of Panther members with the help of informants. One reason the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover were frightened of Hampton was because he had the ability to reach out to poor whites as well as blacks with a message that transcended cultural and ethnic divides. Hampton was a charismatic leader and a powerful speaker, which made him a formidable opponent in the eyes of Hoover and the FBI.

The film also features LaKeith Stanfield as William O’Neal, a petty criminal who is coerced into infiltrating the Black Panther Party by the FBI. O’Neal is tasked with gathering information on Hampton and reporting back to the FBI. He ultimately becomes embroiled in the events leading to Hampton’s death and must confront the consequences of his actions.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is a powerful and thought-provoking film that sheds light on a critical chapter in American history. It highlights the government’s brutal tactics in suppressing the Black Power Movement and the fight for racial justice. The film is a tribute to Fred Hampton, who continues to inspire and influence future generations, and serves as a reminder of the ongoing struggle for equality and justice. In contrast William O’Neal ultimately met a sad end, consumed with guilt his actions brought him only a legacy of infamy going down on the wrong side of history as a traitor and a puppet.

Reviewed by Pat Harrington

Judas and the Black Messiah
2h 6m
Shaka King
Will Berson (story by )Shaka King(story by) Kenneth Lucas(story by)
LaKeith Stanfield Daniel Kaluuya Jesse Plemons

Image attribution: By IMP Awards, Fair use,

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Mrs Merton and Malcolm Revisited

The Show that Stunned the Nation: Reviewed by Anthony C Green

“The most disturbing program on television’Time Out Magazine.

One of the major delights for me of the recent Christmas/New Year period was discovering that this short-lived 1999 Sitcom’ was available to stream in its entirety, all six episodes of it, free of charge, on You Tube. Last time I looked, maybe three or four years ago, it wasn’t available. For some reason, I also had it in my mind that it’d never had a physical release. In fact, a cursory glance at its Wikipedia page reveals it to have been released on DVD back in 2008, nine years after it was broadcast for the first and last time on BBC One, and is still easily available to buy from third-party sellers on Amazon. Why I hadn’t thought to check this out before, is frankly beyond me.

So, why have I long had a fascination for this almost forgotten by-water of British situation comedy? Well, firstly, precisely because it is all but forgotten. The late Caroline Aherne’s comic creation Mrs Merton is of course remembered by everybody, its spoof chat show format recalled perhaps most fondly for her question to magician’s assistant and celebrity wife Debbie Magee: ‘So, what was it first attracted you to millionaire Pau Daniels?’ But very few seem to have any recollection of its sitcom spin-off.

Episode One

The second reason for my interest is simply that I liked it at the time, despite it being near-universally panned. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, my interest is down to the way I make my living. Already at the time the show was broadcast I’d been a support worker in the field of learning disabilities and mental health for five years; and much of the criticism of Mrs Merton and Malcolm centred on the idea that the show was poking fun at the cognitively impaired. I didn’t think that then, and now, almost a quarter of a century on, I still don’t think that.

A little background: The show was written by Aherne, Craig Cash and Henry Normal, the same team behind The Royle Family which had first aired a year earlier, and starred Aherne and Cash, with Aherne as the mother and Malcolm as her thirty-seven-year old man-child son. Each episode takes place solely within the pairs’ home, over the course of a single day, and apart from the two of them the only constant, visual character is the forgetful neighbour Arthur, played by Brian Murphy who is best known for playing George Roper in Man About the House and George and Mildred. Arthur pops in to see the bedridden Mr. Merton upstairs on a daily basis. Mr. Merton is never seen or heard, existing only as a shape under the bedclothes in the Merton’s marital bed. Steve Coogan appears in every episode, but apart from the final episode where he plays the vicar visiting the house after Mr. Merton’s funeral, he does so only as a voice on the radio or on Malcolm’s motivational tapes. The only other characters to appear in the series are the local pharmacist Mr. Malik who appears in two episodes, his assistant Judith, whom Malcolm hopes to take on a date, who appears once, and Malcolm’s obnoxious friend, a boy called Justine who, although his age is never stated appears to be around eleven yeas’ old. He also appears once.

When preparing to rewatch this series, two comedy parallels sprung to mind. One, the 1980’s Ronnie Corbett vehicle Sorry, and Ricky Gervais’ creation Dereck, which was screened initially over two seasons on Channel Four between 2012 and 2014.

In the first of these cases, it was only after listening to the two episodes featuring Sorry on the excellent British Sitcom History Podcast, and by watching a sample episode, that I realised the parallel doesn’t at all stand up to scrutiny. It’s true that the life of Timothy in Sorry is, like that of Malcolm, dominated by his mother. But whereas Malcolm accepts this as totally normal with no indication, apart perhaps from the thwarted hope of a date with Judith, that he would want his life to be any other way, Timothy constantly seeks to rebel, in small ways against the clinging, some might say Satanic embrace of his mother. Indeed, much of the humour in that show stems precisely from Timothy’s desperate, forlorn attempts to break free of her influence.

In addition, away from his mother, Timothy lives a perfectly normal, modestly successful, middle-class life, with a job as a librarian and his own circle of friends. Malcolm’s job in the pet shop is referred to in each episode of Mrs Merton and Malcolm, but only in the context of his mother offering to ring in sick on his behalf the next day, because he’s been over-excited by his birthday party (to which no one but him, his mum, and Arthur the neighbour attended), or because he’s worried that he may be asked to handle a snake which is due to be delivered. It’s never sated whether this is a paid or a voluntary position.

Gervais’ character of Derek is much closer to that of Malcolm, in that he too is a man-child and, were we to meet them, we would most likely conclude that he did indeed have a mental impairment of some kind. The main difference is that, within the care home setting where the two seasons of Derek almost entirely take place (apart from a single trip to the seaside, as far as I remember), Derek’s world is much wider than that of Malcolm. He is loved by the care home manager, by the other workers, by the elderly residents and visitors. Derek is a gentle soul who would never wish anyone any harm, and this does sometimes lead the show too far in the direction of sentimentality, though I did enjoy the series much more second time around. This gentility isn’t to be found in the much darker Mrs Merton and Malcolm. Derek is devastated whenever one of the elderly residents of the care home passes away. Malcolm’s only apparent upset at the death of his father in the final episode stems from the fact that it reminds him of the death of his pet hamster some years earlier.

It’s perhaps not the place to discuss it here, but I agree with the critic who said that Derek would have been much better had Gervais stuck to writing and directing. He’s not actually a good enough actor to pull off the lead-part, too many times slipping out of character, becoming Ricky Gervais rather than Derek. Conversely, Cash’ performance as Malcolm is note perfect.

One comedy parallel that didn’t occur to me, either in 1999 or at the tail-end of 2022, was that of the character of Frank Spencer, played by Michael Crawford, in the hugely popular Some Mother’s Do ‘Ave ‘Em which ran on the BBC between 1973 and 1978, including Christmas specials. And yet, according to the BBC website, this was the character that was apparently closest to the model the writers were aiming for with Malcolm. This was one of the reasons Aherne and co. were so shocked by the negative response to their new show. After all, nobody as far as I’m aware anyway, ever accused the creators of Frank Spencer of belittling the cognitively challenged.

Of course, the similarities between Malcolm and Spencer don’t really stand up to close scrutiny, any more than do those to Timothy or Derek. Each episode of Some Mothers’… is marked by bizarre and often highly dangerous adventures, for which Crawford generally performed his own stunts. In the case of Malcolm, we never see him leave the family home, and the most dangerous thing he ever does is embark on a series of competitive children’s games on the day Justine comes to visit. In addition, whilst Malcolm can only dream of an innocent date with dowdy Judith, Frank somehow manages both to marry and father a child with Betty, played by the rather lovely Michelle Dotrice.

Aherne/Cash/Normal’s creation Mrs Merton had already been on our screen in her faux-chat show for four years at the time the sitcom spin-off was made. Her son Malcolm had frequently been mentioned by Mrs Merton, and had appeared briefly on three occasions, played by Cash. So, further development of the idea seemed, on paper to be a good idea. At over seven million per episode, viewing figures weren’t bad either. It was the damning critical reception that killed off any idea of a second season, and even the scrapping of a planned and already partially written Christmas special.

Assuming the character of Malcolm, like Derek, does indeed have some form of mental developmental disability, should that necessarily put it be the bounds of acceptable comedy?

With the proviso that it’s done well, I would argue not. And in Mrs Merton and Malcolm, it is done very well indeed. What I like most about the show, is that the writers have created a surreal, alternative reality, that exists on its own terms with only a tangential relationship to the real world. For instance, Malcolm is indeed a man-child who likes to play childish games, seem mainly in the episode with Justine, but these are games that were popular with children when I was growing up in 1960’s or ‘70’s, and even then they were seen as a bit dated, not the games that were popular with children as we approached the turn of the millennium. Malcolm’s main hobby is making Airfix models, something again that harked back to the days of childhood-past. It is almost as if Malcolm has remained trapped in his childhood of twenty-five or thirty years earlier, and this is also noticeable in the old fashioned clothes he wears This can and does happen with some people with learning disabilities. Some parents will continue to dress and treat them as a child throughout their life, which only adds to their ‘otherness’, to use a trendy, modern phrase, and their exclusion from mainstream society. We can’t ignore the possibility that the behaviour of Mrs Merton has, whether consciously or not, added to or even perhaps caused her son’s issues of arrested development.

This is another thing I really like about the show. The suggestion of dark themes beneath the surface. I don’t quite get the suggestion of a possibly incestuous relationship between mother and son, a possibility that was apparently raised in some contemporary reviews. This idea seems to rest solely on Mrs Merton’s comment that ‘if I was only thirty years younger….and not your mother,’ which was said really as a perhaps misguided means of raising Malcolm’s spirits after Judith failed to turn up for their planned date at the cinema. It wasn’t a theme that was further pursued.

But there are two other possibly very dark suggestions that occurred to me at this second time of watching.

The first of these is the idea that Mr. Merton’s bedridden state might not be caused entirely by necessity. At one point, Mrs Merton hands Malcolm a piece of ‘junk’ mail, saying ‘put this in the bin Malcolm. I do wish Mr’s Merton would stop sending off for these stairlift brochures.’ Does this suggest the possibility of a deeply depressed Mr. Merton cowering under the bedclothes dreaming of escape? It’s certainly possible.

Secondly, one of several great running gags used in the show is that the neighbour Arthur will gently provide some musical entertainment to Mr. Merton by his bedside, after he’s been reminded of the purpose of his visit by Mrs Merton. In episodes one and three he sings the kind of old-time songs you would expect of this generation, respectively Oh What a Lovely War and If You Were the Only Girl in the World. In episode two he simply plays the spoons. In episode four this musical entertainment has somehow morphed into Starman by David Bowie, and has come yet more up to date in episode five with The Drugs Don’t Work by The Verve. In episode six, Arthur sits by the empty bed of the recently deceased Mr. Merton and quietly, sadly, sings Seasons in the Sun by Terry Jacks. Given that we know that this is a song that deals with the subject of suicide, is there a suggestion here that Mr. Merton’s death may not have been entirely of natural causes: assisted suicide, perhaps? Or maybe I’m radically overthinking it.  

After the undeserved critical lambasting of Mrs Merton and Malcolm, Caroline Aherne and her co-writers decided to concentrate their efforts on The Royle Family. It’s worth mentioning that both of these shows broke with the convention of canned/studio audience laughter, still a brave, if not entirely unique, move at the time. It would be another two years before Ricky Gervais’ and Stephen Merchant permanently made old school situation comedy seem outmoded with their invention of the comedic ‘mockumentary’ with The Office.

Aherne and co. had certainly helped pave the way.

The Royle Family was, and is, of course hugely popular, genuinely landmark television; and it is for that that Aherne, along with the character of Mrs Merton, will best be remembered.

In her personal life, she certainly had her demons, like deep depression, alcoholism, and the cancer that killed her at a mere fifty-two years old. But she was a unique talent, and Mrs Merton and Malcolm was in my opinion a weird and wonderful, experimental expression of that unique talent. Even if it were to be regarded as a failed experiment, given its short-lived nature and critical hammering, then in my opinion it was definitely an experiment that was worth conducting.

Revisiting the show was a revelation. It was funny, it was dark, it was very strange, and very, very good. It deserves to be better known, and demands to be remembered.

“We’ve been accused of all sorts…from incest to insanity. But we honestly didn’t mean it to be. We didn’t think there was anything offensive about it.”

Craig Cash.

Mrs Merton and Malcolm is currently available to steam free of charge on You Tube

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Review of Muhammad Ali, the Eight-Part BBC television series, currently streaming on the BBC iPlayer

Big George and the Nature of Religious Conversion

When the then twenty-nine-year-old former World Heavyweight Champion George Foreman was laid out on the treatment table in his dressing following a shock twelve round points defeat by Jimmy Young (not that one), in March 1977, exhausted, suffering from heatstroke and feeling himself close to death, he had a full-blown spiritual experience, complete with visions of Jesus and the voice of God Himself. From that moment on, he decided to dedicate himself to the spreading of the Christian message, first on street corners, and then by forming his own church, the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, in is hometown of Houston, Texas. Within this church he performed the role of both ordained pastor and chief fundraiser. It would be another decade before, and at around three-stone over his old fighting weight, he returned to the ring. When he did so, beginning with small-hall fights against what are known in the boxing world as ‘trial horses,’ code for fighters who can be relied upon to put up a decent performance but almost invariably lose when facing decent opposition, he stated three clear goals for his unlikely comeback: 1) to continue to raise money for his church; 2) to defeat Mike Tyson, then not yet twenty-one yea’s old and at his seemingly invincible boxing peak, having just won the World Boxing Council version of the Heavyweight title from Trevor Berbick; and 3) to regain the Heavyweight Championship he’d lost to Muhammad Ali in the famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle,’ in Kinshasa, Zaire, now the Republic of Congo, back in November 1974.

The first of these tasks was always going to be relatively easy. George still had his name, and was always going to make more money bowling over mediocre opposition than he would by passing around the begging bowl following his sermon in his little Houston church every Sunday morning. But defeat Mike Tyson? Regain the championship? Not even the most hopeful of long-shot-gamblers would have bet serious money on either of those things occurring…

Well, after his ten-year retirement, George continued to compete between March 1987 and November 1997, a second career lasting more than a decade, during which he scored a total of thirty wins from thirty-three fights, twenty-six inside the distance, and made enough money to build a whole empire of the kind of Super-Churches which would have made Billy Graham feel like he was slumming it. So, first task accomplished… But he never did get to fight Mike Tyson.

The story goes that as an up-and-coming, powerfully built but problematic teenager Tyson would spend his downtime between training and fighting watching old fight films with his manger Jim Jacobs, and his legendary trainer Cus D’Amato. Jacobs, in these days before VHS tapes were common, and when nobody had yet begun to compile old fights onto them in any case, was said to own perhaps the most extensive collection of reel-to-reel old fight tapes in the world. One of the fights Jim and Cus would regularly ask the young Tyson to watch and study was footage of Foreman’s six-knockdown, two round demolition of the great Joe Frazier in Kingston, Jamaica in January 1973. By this time, of course, circa early to mid ‘80’s Foreman had been long retired and the likelihood of him ever squaring off with the prodigious Tyson was unlikely to say the least. Nevertheless, as George once again pummelled Smokin’ Joe to the canvas up there on the flickering white screen in a darkened room, old Cus, who sadly died a year before Tyson beat Berbick for the title, would nod sagely, turn to Mike, and say ‘Of course, we’d never have taken a fight with Foreman, ‘cos you’d never have got past his jab…’ This advice seems to have stuck with Tyson, and he never showed the slightest interest in fighting Foreman even when Big George was in his forties and the true lineal heavyweight champion. Apparently, when the legendary promoter Don King tried to make the fight in the spring of 1990, after Tyson had suffered his first loss to James’ ‘Buster’ Douglas in Tokyo in one of the biggest upsets in boxing history, and Foreman the biggest win of his comeback so far, a two-round knockout of one-time Great White Hope Gerry Cooney, Iron Mike, despite being offered a purse in the region of ten million dollars, is said to have screamed at King ‘Look, if you love George so much, you fuckin’ fight him…The man’s a monster!’

But although he never did get to fight Tyson (and for the record, I think old Cus was right, that even an aged Foreman would have kayoed Tyson within three rounds), he did, in November 1994, with a tenth-round knockout of Michael Moorer, regain the Heavyweight Championship of the World at the astonishingly advanced age of forty-five, and a full twenty years since he’d lost it to Ali.

As far as comeback goal-setting goes, as Meatloaf long ago pointed out, ‘two out of three ain’t bad…’

Those of you who’ve been interested enough to have read thus far will probably be wondering why, in what is apparently a review of a BBC documentary series about Muhammad Ali, I’ve spent the first nine hundred words or so talking about George Foreman. Well, I do have a reason, and here it is.

After initially coming up with a litany of excuses for his Kinshasa defeat by Ali , including being ‘drugged’ and given a ‘fast count,’ Foreman, good Christian that he became, learnt humility, made his peace with Muhammad, admitted he fought the wrong fight through over-confidence after too many quick wins (he hadn’t been taken beyond the second round by anyone for over three years at the time of the Ali fight), and now says that he is simply ‘proud’ to have been part of the amazing story of Muhammad Ali. But, and this is the main point here, he also compared his religious experience following the Young fight, with Ali’s embracing of the Nation of Islam (NOI from now on, though were more usually called them the Black Muslims back in in the sixties and seventies.) George’s assertion was that he didn’t believe Ali ever had aa spiritual/religious experience comparable to his own, that Ali’s decision to involve himself with a militant, segregationist, and frankly metaphysically crackpot form of Islam (though he began to quietly embrace more conventional forms of the religion from the time of the death of NOI leader/’Messenger’ Elijah Muhammad in 1975 onwards, before formally and publicly declaring himself closest to the Sufi tradition in 2005) was essentially a political rather than a religious decision, a response to the racism he saw around him in America in the 1960’s, and a riposte to what he saw as the inadequacies of the mainstream, integrationist civil rights movement as led by Dr. Martin Luther King and his co. thinkers. Foreman himself of course rejected Black Nationalism of all kinds. After he won his Olympic Heavyweight Gold Medal in 1968, whilst other black American athletes gave the clench fist salute on the podium, George showed his patriotism by walking around the ring waving a small Stars and Stripes flag.

The Importance of Being Ali

Although we can’t ever know for sure, my own research on the subject suggests that this observation of Foreman is true. Even if it isn’t, the then Cassius Clay’s embracing of the NOI is of vital importance in understanding the life of Muhammad Ali, in particularly how he became such a massive, global cultural icon. Had he remained ‘Cassius Clay,’ a name of which he’d once been proud (‘don’t I sound like a Roman Gladiator?’) but which rejected as his ‘slave name’, officially the day after his first heavyweight championship victory over Sonny Liston in February 1964, although it seems he’d been on the periphery of the NOI for around three years prior to that. Indeed, research showed that his Great-Great-Grandfather had indeed been a slave owned by a man named Clay, though his original name and point of origin in Africa are unknown. First, and briefly, Clay became ‘Cassius X’, largely in homage to his then friend and mentor Malcolm X, before Elijah Muhammad renamed him Muhammad Ali (literally ‘Beloved of God’, or sometimes translated as ‘Worthy of Praise’ and ‘Most High’). Had he stuck with the consortium of eleven white Kentucky businessmen who signed him following his victory at Light-Heavyweight in the 1960 Rome Olympics, then he’d still have become a great champion. He’d likely have reigned for close to a decade, maybe beat Joe Louis’ record of twenty five successful title defences. He’d have had big fights at Madison Square Garden, the Inglewood Forum in LA, stadium appearances at the likes of the New York Yankee stadium. Unlike Louis and most American heavyweight champions, he may even have defended his title in Europe from time to time.

But he definitely wouldn’t have become what he was to become. Without the influence of the NOI, he would have accepted his draft into the US army and no doubt spent his years of service not fighting the Vietcong in the jungles of South-East Asia but, like Louis during the Second World War, entertaining the troops by boxing exhibitions at army camps around the world. He may have made it to ‘Nam, but it would’ve been more likely in order to clown around on stage with Bob Hope than to wield a rifle in the service of American Imperialism.

Refusing the draft made ‘Ali’ become something ‘Clay’ could never have been, a controversial world-figure, both loved and hated, a spokesperson for Black America and the scourge of what his leader/messenger referred to as the ‘White Devils’ who’d kept his people in servitude long after slavery had formally ended.

He wouldn’t have toured Africa soon after beating Liston for the title. He would never have fought in the likes of Zaire, Manilla, Kuala Lumpa, because heavyweight championship fights weren’t staged in such places. He wouldn’t have had illiterate black Africans who’d perhaps never even seen him fight on television, chanting his name: ‘Ali, Bomaye!’, ‘Ali, kill him’ as they shouted in Zaire, often joining him in the searing heat on his morning road-runs as they did so, treating him as a returning hero whilst Foreman brooded in his training camp and complained about the heat and flies.

No, Muhammad Ali became a true champion of the whole would, from the Americas, to Europe, to Africa and Asia in a manner that could never have happened had he remained plain old Cassius Clay.

The three-and-a-half-year ban from boxing, during which the American government took away his passport so that he couldn’t even fight abroad (and those who claim Britain is and always has been a ‘racist’ country should be reminded that we would have welcomed him here with open arms in the late sixties, as would much of Europe, had he been free to travel); and the threat of a five year prison sentence that fortunately he never had to serve, added extra layers to his legend, and made the achievements of his comeback possible and all the more extraordinary.

The BBC series

The documentary series is particularly strong on the cultural/political/religious/spiritual dimensions of the Ali story, more so than on the strictly boxing aspects, and it’s all the better for that. After all, if you’re merely a casual boxing fan who wishes to relive those great Ali fights, or perhaps even to experience them for the first time, then they’re all available to you free of charge on You Tube. You even get a choice of watching the British television coverage with the Harry Carpenter commentaries I remember so well from my childhood and youth (‘Oh my God, he’s won the title back at thirty-two!’), or the American coverage, often featuring the great Howard Cosell, which weren’t a part of my own cultural landscape and are all the more interesting for that.
This Ali documentary series offers something different, something more, something better and of greater importance, demonstrating that Ali was bigger than boxing, as Ali himself often stated.
Boxing in my Blood

I’d like to say a little about my own history with Ali, about how his life and career were to a large extent intertwined with that of my own. I come from a boxing family. My dad told me the story of how, during the Second World War, in trouble again for arriving back late and rather the worse for wear after a spot of Rest and Relaxation, away from camp, he was given a choice by his commanding officer: ‘It’s either thirty days in the glass house, or we need a Bantamweight for the boxing team. You look about the right size, so…? Unsurprisingly, my dad chose boxing. He also told me that after the war, already in his mid-twenties and preparing to marry, he wrote to the Boxing News asking if they felt he’d left it too late to consider a professional career. They replied that, if he was prepared to put in the training, it wasn’t necessarily too late. But it never happened, and it’s not something my dad ever seemed to have regretted, not publicly at least.

But I do have wonderful memories of us watching the big fights together, almost always on delayed recording the night after the fight in those days, though occasionally proceeded by live, as-it-happened radio commentary in the early hours of the morning. As far as Ali goes, I can go as far back to his first comeback fight following his enforced lay-off, against Jerry Quarry in October 1970, when he won on cuts in the third round, followed by all those memorable Ali fights/occasions of the seventies, Ali v Frazier 1-3, Ali v Norton, also 1-3, v Ernie Shavers, v Ron Lyle, v British contenders Joe Bugner and Richard Dunn, and most of all that incredible victory over Foreman in Zaire, when Ali produced what I still regard as the greatest display of improvised sporting genius at any sport, ever.

We’d look forward to these fights for ages, read all the newspaper and magazine build-up and preview articles, and make little bets on the likely result. I’m still proud that, as a precocious twelve-year old boxing-fanatic who’d been subscribing to the Boxing News weekly since I was ten, I took £2.50 from my dad by correctly predicting that Ali would defeat the seemingly indestructible Foreman. How clearly I remember my dad coming into my bedroom a few hours earlier after the fight had ended, transistor radio playing in his hands as Ali held court for the world’s press, my dad saying, understated and happy to have been proven wrong, ‘Ali knocked him out in the eighth.’

All good things come to an end of course, and I, with my best friend then and now, Michael Anderson, was on the overnight train from Grimsby to Aberdeen, en route to Lerwick, Shetland via the St Clare ferry, on the night of October the 2nd 1980, annoying fellow travellers by fiddling with my little Elvis Presley transistor radio, attempting to find commentary, or at least news of, what turned out to be Ali’s disastrous attempt to regain the Heavyweight title for an unprecedented fourth time against the underrated Larry Holmes; and we watched a recording of that sad, sad fight on the boat the next night, before the two of us strapped on our guitars and took to the stage for a drunken and shambolic unscheduled live performance…

And fourteen months later, now back in Grimsby, not long after becoming a member of Militant and the Labour Party Young Socialists, I skived off our usual Saturday lunch time town centre paper sale in order to watch the delayed recording of what turned out to be Ali’s very last professional fight, a brave but ultimately futile ten round points defeat against the afore-mentioned Trevor Berbick in the largely undramatic ‘Drama in the Bahamas’.

And, around and a decade after that, I had the pleasure of seeing the great man himself, at St. Ann’s square in Manchester, a shadow of his former self, but still a magical, magnetic presence. I was even moved to write a poem about the occasion soon afterwards, for a creative writing course,l, a version of which is available here Going to Muhammad • Tony Green (

I do regret that for whatever reason, perhaps simply because Olympic Games’ opening ceremonies are generally dull affairs best avoided, that I didn’t get to watch live as Ali lit the torch to signal the beginning of the Atlanta games in the summer of 1996. But it still brings a tear to my eye, the footage of that white clad figure, struggling to accomplish his task with hands that shook almost, but not quite uncontrollably, his mask-like face a study in concentration as he, willed on by the tens of thousands of people in the stadium and the untold millions watching at home, finally did what needed to be done in what was perhaps his greatest victory of all, a victory, albeit temporary as all such victories are, over sickness and Time. As the British boxer and fellow follower of Islam Naseem Hamed would later observe, Muhammad Ali, at that moment, was the most recognisable and loved figure on Planet Earth.
And of course, when I awoke on the morning of the third of June 2016 to find that Muhammad Ali had quietly slipped away at the age of seventy-four, surrounded by his family, after a noted Iman uttered the final words he would ever hear in this life – ‘Muhammad Ali, your name has inspired millions, now take your place in Paradise!’ – it was to a day of quiet reflection, of the intersection of my life with that of Ali, of memories of my dad, of watching the fights and documentaries on You Tube, of reading the online obituaries and talking with online boxing or simply Ali fans. ‘A life well-lived,’ although a cliché, perhaps best sums up the life of this incredible man.

The Greatest, not always the nicest…

Muhammad Ali was a flawed human being however, as are we all, and the BBC, thankfully avoiding hagiography, does not shy away from a discussion of his many faults in this eight part documentary series. Here, leaving aside the more general topic of his support for racial segregation, which in the 1960’s found him in alliance with the likes of the notorious white separatist Governor of Alabama George Wallace, which is a whole topic in and of itself, I will mention three that are covered in the series.

Firstly, there is no doubt that Ali was a serial womaniser who cheated on all of his wives,’ with the possible exception of Lonnie, the fourth and final Mrs Ali, on an epic scale. Angelo Dundee, his legendary trainer from shortly after his Olympic triumph until the final Berbick fight two decades later, was once asked if Ali followed the old-school fighter’s routine of abstaining from sex for a period before a big fight, so as not to weaken their body, and in order to build up reserves of tension, rage and determination that required physical, and in this case violent release. Dundee replied with words to the effect that Ali did not follow this routine. In fact, he’d been known to have sex not only in the build up to a big fight, but actually in the dressing room before his ring walk began.

His first wife, Sonji,, was a beautiful, normal, sixteen-year-old all-American black girl who liked to dance and to party, and had aspirations to be a pop star, when she first met the new heavyweight champion in the summer of 1964, and was no doubt proud to show off her tall, brash, incredibly handsome, rich, super-fit athlete boyfriend to her girlfriends. After their marriage, only a few weeks after they’d met, his heavy-handed attempts to mould her, following the strictures of the NOI, into the perfect, good Muslim wife, were not what she thought she’d signed up to, and were not exactly amongst his most edifying moments. Nor was his introduction to the press of his third wife Veronica in the build up to the Thriller in Manila with Frazier in October ’75, whilst still legally married to his ever-loyal, and exemplary Muslim, second wife Khalilah (formally Belinda), as Khalilah herself recounts during the series.

All that can really be said in Ali’s defence on the subject of his treatment of women, is that at least Ali doesn’t seem to have been a hypocrite as regards the racial aspect of his adopted belief system. Once he joined the NOI, which is of course strictly opposed to any form of miscreation, there doesn’t seem to have ever been any suggestion, despite his prodigious sexual appetite, that he ever had a sexual relationship with a none-black woman.

(It’s worth mentioning that Ali’s final wife, Lonnie, who’d known Muhammad from being a little girl, is herself an impressive, formidable woman who finally banished the large entourage of hangers-on from Ali’s life, sorted out his finances, and did more than anyone to help build the brand ‘Ali’ into both a hugely marketable commodity, and the man himself into a figure who was almost universally revered and loved. A valid criticism of her however is that the price paid for this transformation in the public perception of her husband was to make him ‘safe’ For mainstream society At the dawn of the twenty first century, Ali saw in the new millennium as an honoured guest amongst the super-rich on Wall Street. As one journalist at the time noted, in previous times he would more likely have celebrated within the poorer neighbourhoods of his home town of Louisville, Kentucky, or perhaps of Harlem).
Perhaps more serious than how Ali conducted his private life, is the way he treated Malcolm X.

As mentioned earlier, Malcolm had been his mentor, the man perhaps most responsible for guiding Ali towards the NOI. He was also a close personal friend. However, soon after Ali joined the NOI, Malcom quit. After making the obligatory Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, he realised that contrary to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, Muslims actually came in all colours. As well as rejecting the racial aspects of the NOI, he was also, more and more, partly under the influence of the socialist experiment on the island of Cuba, only a short boat ride away from Miami, becoming more and more drawn to the conclusion that revolutionary change he believed necessary was best brought about through the unity, not the separation, of the poor and oppressed of all colours.

Malcolm soon paid for his change of direction, and for the charismatic challenge he posed to the leadership of Elijah Muhammad, with his life, being assassinated in New York City on February 21st, 1965. Though it’s never been definitively proven, the leadership of the NOI have long been suspected pf involvement in his killing, with the possible connivance of the USA deep-state.

Sadly, Ali commented at the time that ‘Malcolm X and anyone else who attacks, or talks about attacking Elijah Muhammad will die. No man can oppose the Messenger of Almighty God.’

To his credit, Ali later acknowledged the wrongness of his treatment of Malcolm. In his 2005 memoir ‘Soul of a Butterfly’ he described him as a ‘great thinker and even greater friend,’ going on to say that ‘Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life…’

Thirdly, we turn to Ali’s treatment of his greatest rival, ‘Smokin’ Joe Frazier.

Frazier established himself as the best active heavyweight in the world during Ali’s enforced absence from the ring between 1967 and 1970, cementing that position by flooring the come-backing Ali in the fifteenth and final round en route to a close but deserved points decision in the Fight of the Century in March 1971.

Though he’d known far greater poverty in his early life than the young Cassius, who grew up in a relatively stable and happy environment, Joe was an old school American patriot who, if he held any particular views about the civil rights movement and other political matters of the day, tended to keep them to himself. He’d opposed Ai’s decision to refuse induction into the US army, but he’d also opposed the decision to take away his license to box: ‘If his punishment is prison, then let him serve his time. But while he stays free, you don’t take away a man’s right to earn a living, to feed his family. You don’t take away a man’s tools.’ This was a principled, honest position to hold, and in addition, at a time when Ali, a man who always seemed incapable of moderating his spending according to changed circumstances, was so broke that he accepted a relatively paltry sum to take part in the staged ‘computer fight’ against the forty seven year old Rocky Marciano (and in one of life’s sad ironies, Rocky would die in a plane crash only a week after his filmed sparring with Ali ended, never even learning whether the ‘computer’ had decided whether he ‘won’ the ‘fight’ or not), Frazier is also said to have lent Ali money.

Ali repaid this support and kindness with a constant stream of invective, deriding him as ‘dumb’ and an ‘Uncle Tom’. This abuse reached its pinnacle before the third, epic, brutal fight in Manila, where in addition to the usual insults, he also routinely described Frazier as a ‘gorilla,’ an epithet that had it come from a white fighter would undoubtedly have been viewed as unforgivably racist.

Ali, who collapsed in the ring shortly after Frazier’s trainer Eddie Futch forced a reluctant, and by now almost blinded Frazier to remain on his stool before the bell to start the fifteenth and final round sounded in Manila, and who described the fight as ‘the closest thing to death,’ would later express nothing but admiration for Frazier as a fighter and as a man. He would always say that his pre-fight abuse of opponents was never about anything more than selling tickets, a trick which, along with his general ‘I am the Greatest’ boast-fullness he always said he learnt from the 1950’s/1960’s white wrestler Gorgeous George, and was nothing personal. Frazier, however, never did forgive Ali for his treatment of him. Whilst, after their careers were over, the two would often appear on television or at various boxing functions together, shaking hands and even on occasion embracing, and praising the fighting prowess of one another, in unguarded moments Frazier was also heard to express pleasure at Ali’s sad physical decline, going so far as to take pride in the role his punces had undoubtedly played in that decline. On another occasion, he also said that the only way he could finally defeat Ali now was to outlive him. Sadly, for Joe, this proud warrior who never quite quite escaped from the shadow of his greatest rival, he didn’t achieve this final wish, dying of liver cancer at the age of sixty seven in 2011, five years before Ali.


So, yes, Muhammad was undoubtedly a man of many faults; and we could add to that the obsessive love of the limelight which caused him to fight on too long, when he could have walked away with his health intact. Defenders of boxing, of which I am obviously one, seeing in it the most primal and basic of all sports, will often try to claim that Ali was simply a victim of Parkinson’s Disease, and will point to fellow famous sufferers like the actor and fellow sufferer Michael J Fox, whose job did not involve being regularly beaten about the head, as evidence that Ali’s contacting of Parkinson’s was nothing more than bad luck. This is a position born of either ignorance or dishonesty. I love boxing and all combat sports, my eleven year old son even does Mixed Martial Arts, but I know and admit their dangers.

‘Parkinson’s’ actually refers to a set of symptoms, the slow, whispering, slurred way of speaking, the stumbling gate when walking and other motor impairments, the trembling hands, and so on, all of which Ali was beginning to display even before his boxing career ended. One of the causes of these symptoms is indeed Parkinson’s Disease. But Ali never was diagnosed as suffering from this disease. Other causes include drug and alcohol abuse, never an issue for Ali, or trauma to the brain, either by a single devastating incidence, or by repeated blows over a prolonged period of time. It’s 99.9% certain that this was the cause of Ali’s poor health during the last thirty-five years or so of his life.

And Ali had plenty of warning that his continuance of his boxing career was putting his health at great risk. Angelo Dundee told the story of how, when the young Cassius Clay was training in his Miami gym in the early ‘60’s, a broken down ex pug came over to converse with him, slurring his words badly as he did so. Clay treated him with his customary playful kindness, but when he had gone he turned to Angelo and said ‘Angelo, if I ever start to slur like that, tell me, and I’ll quit.’ Years later, following the fights in Zaire and Manila, Dundee was driving Ali somewhere or other, and Ali was talking, as he usually was. Dundee said to him: ‘You now champ’, you’re starting to slur.’ Ali just laughed and continued to talk.
It wasn’t just the 108 amateur and 61 professional fights, against some of the hardest punchers in heavyweight boxing history, either . His sparring sessions, especially in his later years,, would often consist of Ali lying on the ropes absorbing punches. They may have been wearing headguards and big gloves, but even in sparring these punches impact on the brain, shaking it about in its encasement within the skull. Thousands and thousands of punches to the head over almost three decades of competition and training, from twelve years old to almost forty: how could these not have a detrimental effect on a man’s health?

Ali actually had a rationale for this method of sparing. He was seeking to disprove the old boxing adage that the one thing you can’t train a fighter to do is to withstand big punches. A fighter either can do this, or they can’t. Ali believed this was wrong, that by deliberately putting himself into what he termed the ‘twilight zone,’ a state where conscious is almost but not quite lost, he could learn to fight on instinct alone, until his head cleared, remaining upright and fighting back when lesser mortals would have been down and out. George Foreman has an example of this from Zaire. He says that when he landed one of his haymakers, and Forman was undoubtedly one of the hardest punchers in history, he saw Ali’s eyes close. He was to all intents and purposes knocked out, George was as certain of this as he was ever certain of anything, apart perhaps from the existence of God. Yet, somehow, Ali remained standing, close to the ropes from where he’d conducted much of that incredible fight, and from somewhere deep within, he willed himself back to consciousness and continued the fight, taunting to George with such comments as ‘Is that all you got, sucker? They told me you was a big puncher, George…’

As his career continued and his speed and reflexes, once his greatest assets, slowed, Ali more and more came to depend on his incredible resilience, punch resistance, courage and determination to win fights at all cost. It was the primary weapon for his greatest victories, but it was also his undoing as far as his health was concerned.

And over the years, once his boxing career was finally over, as his biographer Jonathan Eig put it in his book ‘Ali’, he got quieter and quieter and slower and slower, until finally he could talk no more, and his public appearances, encouraged by Lonnie as a means of keeping him motivated when perhaps a quiet withdrawal from public life might have been kinder, was eventually reduced to a slumped, sad figure in an electric buggy, his eyes shielded from the sun, and his tendency to spend much of his life sleeping from public view, by omnipresent dark glasses.

Always Ali

But, as Frazier once commented, partly motivated by envy and continued bitterness, ‘He’ll always be Muhammad Ali, always have people chanting his name wherever he goes.’ And it seems that, although he might have had increasing trouble expressing it, he continued to enjoy being who he was, the brash kid Cassius Clay, disliked more than liked, who became Muhammad Ali, perhaps the most famous individual on the planet, almost universally loved, who would often, whilst it was still possible, walk the ten miles, at his glacially slow ‘great-grandaddy’ pace (as he himself described it) from his rural Kentucky home to the nearest shopping area, simply to be around ‘his’ people, to sign his name, by now simply ‘Ali’, with shaking hands, on the inside cover of Islamic tracts and hand them out to anybody who wanted one.

Michael Parkinson, who interviewed him three times, described him as ‘the most remarkable individual I have ever met.’ And Parkinson interviewed the likes of James Cagney, Bette Davis, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Jimmy Stewart, George Best, Jason Donovan…’

A remarkable man indeed, and this BBC documentary does the best job of doing him justice I’ve yet seen.

Reviewed by Anthony C Green

Picture credit, Ali. This work is from the New York World-Telegram and Sun collection at the Library of Congress. According to the library, there are no known copyright restrictions on the use of this work.

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Review: David Bowie: Finding Fame (2019)

“David Bowie: Finding Fame” is a BBC documentary that explores the early years of David Bowie’s career, from his time with the band The Lower Third to the development of his alter ego Ziggy Stardust. The documentary features archival footage and interviews with Bowie’s friends and colleagues, including Lindsay Kemp, Mick Ronson, Woody Woodmandsey, and Trevor Bolder.

The documentary offers a fascinating look at Bowie’s early struggles as an artist and his transformation into a boundary-pushing, genre-defying musician. It also delves into his personal life, including his relationship with his mother Peggy and his half-brother Terry, who struggled with schizophrenia.

While there are certainly some tough moments for fans of Bowie’s later work, such as his novelty single “The Laughing Gnome” and early miming routines, the documentary ultimately portrays Bowie as a heroic outlier and trailblazer. It highlights his ability to persuade his bandmates to embrace makeup and unconventional fashion and his willingness to push musical boundaries, even when it wasn’t popular or fashionable.

Overall, “David Bowie: Finding Fame” is a must-watch for fans of the iconic musician and a great introduction to his early career for those unfamiliar with it. It provides a deeper understanding of the man behind the music and the events and experiences that shaped him as an artist.

Reviewed by Pat Harrington

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