It’s time… for a film about CLR James

The story of James's life and works deserves to be told.

Ceri Dingle

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‘It’s time.’

These words feature as part of 20th Century Fox’s promotion of Steve McQueen’s film 12 Years a Slave to potential viewers, and perhaps more cynically, Oscars voters. Perhaps 12 Years a Slave does deserve an Oscar for its cinematography or its acting. But that’s not what the film’s makers are suggesting with the ‘It’s time’ slogan. They’re saying that the film deserves acclaim because ‘it’s time’ to recognise that wilfully ignored part of the black experience: slavery.

They might have had a point, except for one thing: slavery today is probably the most widely and frequently acknowledged instance of barbarism in the West’s history. We might not want to dwell on slavery, but it’s hardly an absence. Moreover, 12 Years a Slave is hardly a realistic corrective to the slavery narrative. It barely shows the real horrors slaves endured and, worse still, the kidnapped-freeman-turned-victim-slave Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is saved by Brad Pitt playing the good white-man saviour. This is entirely in keeping with the prevalent view of slavery in the West, especially in the UK. Here, schools teach pupils that all slaves were hopeless victims saved by the great William Wilberforce, who out of the goodness of his aristocratic heart abolished slavery.

There is good news, however, as a figure far more potent than Northup is also in the spotlight this month: Trinidad-born revolutionary, writer and historian CLR James, who died in Brixton 25 years ago. To celebrate his achievements, James’ works are the subject of a pioneering 12-hour read-a-thon taking place on Friday 28 February. Many volunteer readers taking part will be reading aloud from his seminal work, The Black Jacobins. In it CLR James tells the story of the Haitian revolution, the only successful slave revolt in history. James details the true horrors meted out to slaves and provides acute analysis of the forces at work in this unique historical moment. In James’s telling, we learn how the slaves, under the inspiring leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture, overthrew slavery themselves.

Now this story is worth a movie. And the charity WORLDwrite aims to produce a feature-length documentary on the man who brought the truth to light: CLR James.

Hollywood, however, are unlikely to chip in. This, after all, is the story of a lifelong Marxist who not only told the truth about slavery but also campaigned against America’s attempt to recruit black Americans to its Second World War effort, despite the fact they were still denied access to democracy at home. He also opposed all compromise with British colonial power in Ghana, the West Indies and beyond and steadfastly believed in the capacity of us all to make history. No doubt, James would have enjoyed 12 Years A Slave, as he liked great films. He even thought highly of DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a film reviled for making heroes of the Klu Klux Klan. As he put it, his strategy was to watch it in the morning and picket it in the afternoon.

If it’s time for any story to be told, it’s time for CLR James’s – not as a missing part of the ‘black experience’ but because his life and works can be an inspiration to us all.

The CLR James Read-a-thon is open to the public and is taking place on Friday 28 February from 10am to 10pm at the Museum of London Docklands, and from 5pm at the WORLDwrite Centre, 201 Millfields Road, London E5 0AL. For details and to add your support, click here. The full read-a-thon programme is available here. The Read-a-thon will be streamed live here.

Ceri Dingle is the director of the education charity WORLDwrite, citizen TV station WORLDbytes and the film-to-be, Every Cook Can Govern: the life, works and impact of CLR James.

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