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  • Writer's pictureSouvik Ghosh

Fire In Babylon - A Short Review

Updated: Sep 6, 2020

This documentary about the 1970s-1980s West Indies cricket team may seem like it would be specific for fans of the sport. But by looking at the bigger picture, the film finds a lot to say about the world beyond the sport.

When the British Empire was shedding colonies in the postwar decades, new nations emerged in South Asia and Africa, as well as the West Indies of the Caribbean. During the 1960s, islands that once depended on slave labor to produce sugar and rum shucked off their former owners. Stevan Riley’s rambunctious documentary Fire in Babylon doesn’t get much into the details of how native populations gained their independence.

Instead, it focuses on the immediate aftermath, on the creation of a sports dynasty.In the late 1970s, the West Indies team developed an iconic style of playing that would dominate the sport for the next 15 years, the longest winning streak in any sport. And this spark was a massive blow to racial tensions around the world, most notably for their former colonial rulers in Great Britain. The story is told completely from the perspective of the West Indians themselves, with lively anecdotes, pointed observations and, of course, great music.

Like all the great sports films, Riley’s isn’t really about sports at all. Rather, in telling the story of how the West Indian cricket team, the Windies, achieved a remarkable dominance, it also shows how a people long relegated to the shadows asserted themselves as people of substance and skill and pride. The phenomenon of a former colony besting its one-time master at a game of the master’s invention is not a new one.

But Riley’s film achieves a rousing energy in showing how West Indian islands like Trinidad, Barbados, and Jamaica fielded a pan-West Indian team of cricketers who won title after times seem little more than a clip show, but given the drama of that footage, there is little to complain about in that characterization. Cutting interviews with former Windies players in between images of great test matches with formidable rivals like the Australians, Riley shows a team of men so thoroughly focused on excellence that it’s borderline frightening.

Faced with an Australian team whose bowlers were whipping the ball so fast that it could leave deep purple bruises or crack a jaw, the Windies decided to beat the Aussies at their own game. Once derided as lightweight entertainers, the “Calypso Clowns,” the Windies new aggressive style inspired another sort of name-calling, as the team was branded “terrorists.”

Labels or not, the Windies cranked through year after year of victories. Back home, fans thrilled to watching their team manhandle opponents, a feeling summed up with admirable succinctness by former Bob Marley bandmate Bunny Wailer: “This is like slaves whipping the ass of their masters."

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