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When it’s just a movie

Esther Phillips

When it’s just a movie

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“. . . TO READ WHAT THE NEWSPAPERS HAVE TO SAY, you would swear I had top billing: local calypsonian featured in foreign movie. Yes. And now when I walking the road people looking at me, the Feature, the Featured, pointing me out to their friends. Woman who never talk to me waving at me, going out their way to come and ask me for my autograph: nice woman. Local movie star. Me.”
There’s only one problem: “The role they give me, the same one they give the locals, is a role to die. Local talent. Our role is to die. The rest of the people, they bring from America. They is the stars, the ones that have lines to speak, lives to live, in the movie, of course.”
Earl Lovelace’s latest novel Is Just A Movie is rich in humour, much of it satirical. The historical period is the 1970s in Trinidad after the Black Power rebellion. King Kala, a freedom fighter and former calypsonian, who has been released from detention and left now without a cause, tries to re-enter a society that he discovers has changed. His calypso is no longer needed: “I their poet and prophet was now a stranger.”
King Kala, desperate for an outlet and some means of recognition, decides to audition for a movie that some Americans have come to shoot in Trinidad. For this audition, he selects a piece from the Midnight Robber speech written in full braggadocio style: 
In the same skin, I am villain and hero . . .
I show the oppressors themselves misshapen, gros toto, gros titi, gros bondage . . .
I reduce the powerful by ridicule . . .
I was reborn to a new vision/ I had to find histories to write, ignored heroes to celebrate/I began afresh to sing . . .
The film director is full of praise for King Kala’s skill in rendition, but gives him no higher role than that to which he has already been assigned.
One is cognizant of the political implications of power and subjugation at work; the plight of small countries at the mercy of superpowers with handouts to dispose of as they wish. But the account of our new hero’s dying is told with the greatest hilarity, in true Lovelace style.
The setting is a jungle scene with the natives wearing headdresses of coloured feathers and grass skirts. Natives and donkeys are toting bwana packs over the mountains. The enemy is another warring tribe crawling on their bellies in the bushes.
The trouble is that this warrior tribe is shooting with expert marksmanship: “They just shoot you and you supposed to fall. These shooters ain’t missing at all.”
King Kala reasons that this is unacceptable.
He casts his mind back to the “stick-em-up” games he played as a boy where the rules of the game allowed you to fall, dodge bullets and escape; there was room for negotiation on the question of whether you wanted to be dead or not. Nothing was reasonable about this present situation; you were shot at and you died.
The only persons being missed were the stars from the States.
King Kala makes up his mind. He is firm in his resolve. Even as a boy there was poetry in his dying:
in those moments his imagination could summon a cornucopia of images of the lush vegetation and the vibrant dance of life around him and he would respond appropriately in his movements.
Now here he was, “dying like ah arse, like a fool”.
Inspired by one other local character, Sonnyboy, King Kala flings out his arms in the beautiful movements of the dance of his childhood and begins the exquisite choreography of his dying.
“Cut!” the director says.
“We dying too slow. We wasting too much of the white people time.”
For all the humour, there is something sad or even pathetic in his debate with Max, the director, that follows. King Kala feels that he has been robbed of a chance to make any real mark in his life and that now, even with this chance to die, he is denied yet another important right. “What else do I have but style?”
Lovelace writes about a society in its struggle towards self-expression and liberation. King Kala’s question is one that echoes throughout the novel with its emphasis on carnival, performance, politics, religion and love.
• Esther Phillips is head of the Division of Liberal Arts of the Barbados Community College. She is also a poet and editor of BIM: Arts For The 21st Century. Email [email protected]