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Review

Previously published by Red Pepper.

assata-autobioAssata Shakur is the US government’s hangover. Many black political activists of the 1960s and 70s were systematically targeted by the FBI, falsely convicted and at times killed in order to destabilise the black power movement. However, after being convicted of killing a police officer in 1977, Assata’s escape from a similar fate remains a defiant and symbolic act of resistance. Though the evidence of the murder trial, both forensic and medical, is overwhelmingly in Assata’s favour (there were no traces of gun residue on her fingers, no fingerprints on the gun in question and with the injuries sustained from being shot at three times it would have been impossible to shoot at the police officer), she is considered a threat to the US government and is on the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list. Forty years on, Assata Shakur is still a dangerous woman.

With this in mind, it’s clear that Assata: An Autobiography, republished by Zed Books in July, is as imperative a read and powerful a defence against the FBI’s ongoing claims as it was in the year of its original publication in 1987. The autobiography begins at the shootout involving the police officer and from there Assata takes us through her subsequent legal battles. This is interspersed with emotionally charged poetry and recollections of formative experiences throughout her life, which lead up to her political awakening and involvement in the black power movement. In the final chapter, she brings us up to the 1987 present day – having escaped from prison, she is living in Cuba.

Through Assata’s experiences, we are invited to look directly into the mechanisms of power and the measures the US government has taken to uphold its winners and subjugate its losers. She shows us how the police, backed by the FBI, operate with impunity under the guise of neutralising ‘black nationalist hate groups’, while Assata, much like her black radical counterparts of the time, is systematically targeted and vilified for an array of fictitious crimes. The language used by US officials offers a critical case study in systemic power and denigration. The parallel between the public depiction of Assata and her eloquence and compassion is palpable throughout the autobiography. Words used by the police and media to describe her, such as ‘threat’ and ‘enemy of the state’, create a reductive caricature of a woman seeking justice and equality.

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The film Black Power Mixtape is a look back in history to the struggles of the US civil rights movement, with footage from 1967 to 1975. Retrieved from the depths of Swedish television archives, the film is a collection of interviews, images and commentary by Swedish journalists of the time. Directed by Göran Olsson, it pays fitting tribute to the power of documentary and, from a contemporary point of view, demonstrates the dividends of documentation in the midst of struggle and political activism.

Using footage shown in chronological order, the film gives an insight to the visions of different pivotal activists in the black power movement. Interviews and speeches with leading figures prove both touching and powerful. Activist Stokely Carmichael’s sharp turn of phrase, in the context Read More

Journalist John Pilger’s film, The War You Don’t See, is a fearless exploration of the media’s role in war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Dating back from the First World War, Pilger examines the relationship between the government and the media and the origins of propaganda and government spin.

Much like the First and Second World Wars, on some level we’ve still  been conditioned to associate war with heroism and a fight for a ‘greater good’ and the war in Iraq was no exception to this. Behind the tired rhetoric of threats of weapons of mass destruction was very  little actual evidence and a growing and disproportionate level of the number of Iraqi war casualties.  Pilger questions why the  media, particularly in the UK and America, allowed itself to be manipulated by the government and become the mouth piece for its dishonest agenda.

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400 Women is the artistic response to the brutal murders of over 400 women in the US border town of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, over the past decade. Organised by artist Tamsyn Challenger, around 200 artists were given the name or image of one of the murdered women and were asked to paint them accordingly.

The portraits vary from classical to abstract. Many of these paintings are angry and political in their intent while others simply pay tribute to the memory of these women. The paradox of these pictures; the many faces of hope and the reality of what became of them (and what didn’t), creates an overwhelming sense of sadness. However, 400 women makes no apology for this and pushes us to feel something of the aching loss that falls at the feet of these families. It almost feels wrong to overlook a portrait in this exhibition, to not give each woman the attention of which they’ve been so disrespectfully starved of. Read More

Moolaadé, Senegalese director Osmane Sembene’s last film, tells the story of Collé and her plight to protect others, in the small village of Burkina Faso, from female genital mutilation (FGM). The starting point comes from four girls who seek refugee with Collé and ask for protection from their impending ‘purification’ (circumcision) ceremony. After losing two daughters during childbirth due to her own aggressive circumcision, Collé becomes an advocate for these children and vocally stands against FGM in the community.

By using FGM as the central issue in Moolaadé, Sembene opens the gate, not only to issues such as perseverance and the power of the community, but also to how gender stereotypes and how their social constructs bear no relevance to the strength of individual character. The men of the village only inherit their power and are often portrayed as ineffectual and ignorant in their actions. However, the women, and more specifically Collé, have the passion and conviction to stand up for what they believe in despite the often violent consequences. Read More

According to the UN, an estimated 40 million girls are missing in India. You would think that this would be cause for national uproar and yet every day thousands of girls are being aborted, murdered or left abandoned in care homes.

Walter Astrada’s heartbreaking film, Undesired,  shows a situation symptomatic of a bigger problem in modern day India. Still dictated by gender stereotypes, the mentality is that from birth to the grave, women are second class commodities whose only purpose is to give birth to boys.

In a culture where daughters are unwanted and represent expensive dowry payments, girls are often mistreated, not only by society, but within their families and are often rid of educational prospects and therefore financial autonomy.

Distressing human rights violations aside, it’s clear that this shocking outlook is unsustainable for India’s successive generations. How can India progress when half of the country is being left behind?  When denied equal opportunity, India’s women and girls will continue to be the burden that dusty tradition and stereotype deem them to be.

For more information on the the film Undesired, check out Zofia Walczak’s fantastic interview with the director, Walter Astrada.

It’s hard to define TEN, by Hetain Patel. It’s not a play and to call it a monologue would unjustly discredit the role of the two drummers, Mark and Dave. A performance might be getting warmer but that doesn’t seem to account for the element of honest- and at times seemingly spontaneous- dialogue that Patel uses. Nor does it give credit to Patel’s ease on stage, his tales of memories from childhood and the questions he asks without the need for immediate answers. Then again, you get the impression Patel doesn’t search to apply such a neat definition to this piece. Much like the red turmeric powder (Kanku), thrown by the fistful in the air during the performance, TEN is just as free and symbolic and very much a mirror on our cultural identity as it is on Patel’s.

There is no real beginning to TEN, just a casual slip into a conversation from Patel, as if we are rediscovered friends in need to hear his story. The most central theme comes from Patel’s discoveries from learning about Indian classical music and how he uses these lessons in his search to feel more of a connection to his culture. Through physical demonstrations from the trio, Hetain, Mark and Dave, we are shown the nature of a ten beat rhythm cycle. The rhythm is off beat, seemingly with no beginning or end. The concept of cycles is key to the performance and we are given the impression that even Patel’s cultural journey follows the same cyclical nature of the ten beat rhythm; his mother tongue being Gujarati, his adolescent shift towards English culture and then eventually coming back to rediscovering his Indian roots some years later. Patel’s exploration paves the way to much wider and deeper themes, such as what it means to be Indian and where our origins and sense of identity truly come from. Read More