Genre: Sports Documentary
Year Released: 2010
Distributor: New Video/Tribeca Films
Running Time: 82 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: 13+
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Out of the Ashes (cricket documentary), Trobriand Cricket, Death of a Gentleman, The Iran Job, Salute, Crossing the Line
-Fire In Babylon was directed by Stevan Riley who is known for his work on Rave Against the Machine, Blue Blood, and Listen to Me Marlon.
-Bunny Wailer makes multiple appearances in this documentary. This Jamaican musician (real name: Neville Livingston) is a solo artist and was also a backup singer/percussionist for Bob Marley & The Wailers. Interestingly enough, both Bunny and Bob were friends since they were toddlers and they lived together in the same village.
-Passion Pictures did some production work on this film such as graphics and a bit of animation. That British animation company has contributed to multiple Gorillaz music videos, The Lost Thing (which they won an Oscar for), Searching for Sugar Man, and their most recent project is 101 Dalmatian Street. Yes, they are helping Disney right now with this TV sequel to the original 101 Dalmatian movie that takes place in modern-day London.
-One of the top players featured is Sir Viv Richards. This Antiguan cricketer was actually knighted by the British and Antiguan governments (note the “sir”). In his home country, there’s a stadium named after him. Richards also has multiple cricket records to his name. He was the first player in history to score a test century over 150, the first player to score 1000 runs as well as take 50 wickets, and he and his Jamaican teammate Michael Holding (also featured in this documentary) are tied with the ODI (short for One Day International where the game is a day-long with 50 innings) highest wicket partnership.
-The West Indies cricket team is represented by sixteen countries and territories. They are Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent & The Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, Saint Kitts & Nevis, Anguilla, Montserrat, British Virgin Islands, Sint Maarten, and the US Virgin Islands.
Even though I’m not the sportiest or most athletic person in the world, I have certainly covered my fair share of sports documentaries and none of them have been from ESPN. That would be me taking the easy way out and ESPN is SOOOOOO mainstream if you can forgive me for sounding like a hipster even if it was in a joking sense. You see, I’ve covered sports documentaries from unlikely places and with unique topics. I’ve covered two examples of parasports (Beatrice being about an amputee fencer and Francesco about a swimmer with atrophied muscles), ski jumping with Noriaki, the Iranian basketball scene with The Iran Job, Olympic wrestling with Zion, Laamb wrestling with Senegal’s Warrior Cop, and if you count pro wrestling as a sport I covered two documentaries involving Welsh wrestlers (Eddie Dennis: A Five Year Old’s Dream and Road Back to Malice). This next example only adds to the trend of me watching atypical sports documentaries. For those that remember my review of the Barbadian short film Mermaid, I mention in passing that I’ve been getting into the Caribbean cricket scene. I heard that those island nations in the Americas have come up with world-class players and it was fun checking out the matches from last season in the Caribbean Premier League. After doing some research, I wanted to know the history of cricket and how it got crazy popular there.
Will this score some runs?
Fire In Babylon is about the history of the West Indies cricket team AKA The Windies mainly in the 70s and 80s. The history of cricket in regards to the Caribbean was quite complicated. Since many nations were former British colonies, the English colonizers would use this as whites-only leisure as they enslaved those of African descent on the island. Even when slavery ended, they still oppressed the black population under minority rule. The Caribbeans decided to try the game not just as another form of sport, but also as a symbolic weapon by using the colonizer’s tools against them. This led to a united cricket team that infused multiple Anglophone Caribbean nations. They had a nickname of “Calypso Cricketeers” which had mixed and problematic connotations. Sure, there was the positive aspect of calypso music from the islands, but the negative aspect involved the team being there for entertainment and rarely winning matches. The players wanted to shake off that preconceived notion and wanted to be taken seriously as they did international tours. After facing Australia’s hardball method of cricket play, the Windies wanted to put their own spin on it with a more smash-mouth type of play against other countries. The Windies decided to step their cricket game up by having tougher training and fitness. Their first goal was to beat England, the very country at oppressed their home nations with their new style of play. In this tumultuous climate of anti-black racism (they had Civil Rights protests in the Caribbean as well as America) and neo-colonialism, The Windies will do whatever they can to be a class apart from the top teams across the world as they saw this sport as a way of liberation.
I knew next to nothing about cricket until very recently and all of this was an eye-opener for me on so many levels. The philosophy of these players coming together regardless of what country they were from and doing their best to be taken seriously was very inspiring to me, to say the least. It also surprised me how hardcore the sport can be. Starting with the Australia/Windies match, it was insane seeing these bowlers just whack the players and you would see blood and bruising. Seriously, some of those pitches out of context looked like attempted murder, and seeing the Windies use that strategy against the other teams got even more intense especially when they went to England for the first time (more on that later). Anyone who thinks that cricket is a wimpy sport needs to get hit by these fast ballers without any padding before getting whacked by those bats. Oh, I can remember a bully in my high school days having that kind of assumption, and seeing him get doled out by some top players would be quite…Oops! Sorry. I need to get back on track with the review. AHEM!
Anyways, I enjoyed seeing some of the connections between cricket, Panafricanism, and reggae music tied together. In between some segments, some reggae musicians will sing songs about the team or the players which was actually a common song topic back then in many of these nations. Hearing these stories from the songs, the cricketers, groundskeepers, coaches, and fans was very insightful. They brought up so many things that one wouldn’t think about when it comes to the game like the colonial history against these countries, Apartheid in South Africa, the Windrush generation where many Caribbeans moved to England while facing racism there, black pride with multiple athletes in America, and other things. Even Bob Marley himself was a big fan of the Windies and part of his musical success came from that team’s success in the 70s and 80s which instilled a sense of pride instead of self-hatred for their skin colors. Going back to the topic of them starting out on the world stage, their first match against England was such a watershed moment. They saw their compatriots in the crowd, the propaganda in the streets, but the straw that broke the camel’s back was when England’s captain Tony Grieg said in an interview that he wanted the Windies to “grovel” that inflamed them on so many levels because of the dog whistle language about slavery/colonization and since Grieg was a white South African (he got UK citizenship thanks to having a Scottish dad), there were HUGE connotations of Apartheid that people would’ve known about in that time. The Windies played that hardball style by striking the English on their own home turf and wiping the floor with their opponents from the country that literally invented that sport. One quote that Bunny Wailer mentions late in the film was that the Windies winning in cricket was (pardon the language) “like the slaves whipping the ass of the master”. Besides the enthralling story of the team’s rise, the production was crisp. The mix between modern footage and several instances of archived footage with the cricket games worked quite seamlessly. They even add match graphics and scores which was a nice touch for this documentary. The music was mainly based on reggae and soca to name a few and with one instance of African choral music during the South Africa chapter of the film. Those were all nice choices. Yes, it was a real-life underdog story, but things were pieced so well that it’s hard not to root against them.
Fire in Babylon does strike out a few times. As someone who is a novice to cricket especially since it’s not popular in America, I had trouble finding out about certain aspects of the game. I’m sure in the film’s native England or any part of the commonwealth where it’s popular like these West Indies nations, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, etc, that’s a nonissue, but I think just a brief how-to-play guide in the beginning would’ve been nice. My pet peeve of over-relying on talking heads interviews certainly shows up here with many of the former Windies players and their coach Clive Lloyd. It was great hearing things from the perspectives of the Caribbean players, faculty, and fans which I really appreciate, but I do wish there would’ve been more insight from let’s say fans from multiple parts of the world or other teams who know about their progress. I did wonder about the South African segment. I get that the “rebel” Windies players were shunned due to playing in Apartheid South Africa in the 80s (reasonably so), but it neglected to mention that Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu were inspired by the original team, so I thought that was strange and they blew past that in under two minutes. That was something they could’ve easily expanded upon.
This cricket documentary was something I never expected and I learned a lot more about the Caribbean cricket scene. The history was so captivating and this underdog story made them incredibly sympathetic as they were doing their best to destroy the shackles of racism and neo-colonialism. The production and footage were certainly good here. I do wish that there would’ve been more of an effort to hook people who know nothing about cricket and experimented with different camera angles with the interviews though. The story of the Windies was incredibly inspiring and empowering on so many levels to me. Now if you excuse me, I have to go find some good sales on some bats, gear, and a Windies jersey or at least the jerseys of the teams in the Caribbean Premier League.
Adjustable Rating System:
Add 1 point if you really like the Caribbean cricket scene or just cricket in itself .
Subtract 1-2 points if you feel really uncomfortable hearing about racism and colonialism in your documentaries.
-Phenomenal underdog story with the West Indies cricket team
-Great connection with cricket, colonialism, and culture
-Great video production and post-production
-Can go over the heads of those who know little or nothing about cricket
-Too many talking headshots
-The South Africa controversy gets overshadowed and underdeveloped
Final Score: 9/10 points
Content Warning: Fire In Babylon would be a medium to hard PG-13. While the F-word is censored via a jump cut and players censoring themselves, the language does get strong at points including multiple usages of racial slurs spoken. The cricket games with the fast bowling get intense with players getting bloodied and battered. One player gets medical help on-site to see if their jaw was broken. The themes of colonialism and racism get severe as there’s footage of black people getting abused in the Caribbean and in South Africa, bigoted propaganda in England with “Keep Britain white” graffiti and posters with apes on them, and Grieg’s aforementioned “grovel” comment has horrific implications especially with him being a white emigre from South Africa to play for England’s team. There’s some drinking, smoking, and one interviewee mentions in passing that some of the shunned rebel players who played that South Africa game resorted to using cocaine when they came back home.
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Fire In Babylon is property of New Video and Tribeca Films. The poster is from Amazon and is property of New Video and Tribeca Films.