This is an important documentary on the inspirational life of the Marxist revolutionary, CLR James, structured around his books and illuminating some of his more overlooked work. The film is narrated through interview material with different writers and people who knew James, providing a detailed account of his intellectual contribution.
James was born in Trinidad in 1901 and died in Brixton in 1989. At the age of 31 he decided to travel to England, with the intention of becoming a novelist. He became one of the most important intellectuals who radicalised towards revolutionary, anti-Stalinist Marxism during the 1930, and specifically the early, and tiny, Trotskyist movement in Britain.
The film focuses on his year spent in Nelson in Lancashire with his friend the cricketer Learie Constantine. It shows how James learnt a great deal from the militancy of the working class during this time, and specifically about the potential for solidarity.
His time in Nelson, the film argues, served as a reminder to James of the deeply rooted radicalism in the lives of the ordinary men and women of the working class. The documentary powerfully stresses this point: James’s intellect was that of the autodidact, and he saw in ordinary people the ability to run and collectively organise their own lives.
This is shown through the discussions on James’s masterpiece, The Black Jacobins, and through his play Toussaint Louverture in which Paul Robeson played the lead role. In these works James presented to his audience a hidden history of slaves, formally uneducated, who rose against their masters and won their own freedom, not only from the slave owners but also against the colonial powers through independence.
James’s work shatters the myth that abolition was simply handed to the slaves through the benign humanitarianism of parliamentarians such as William Wilberforce. Instead, James argued, ordinary people have always had to struggle for change.
The documentary is able to bring to life some of these debates and can serve as an inspiration for a new generation discovering his ideas. The film perhaps takes on too much, but given James’s life ranged three continents, almost 90 years and some extremely diverse writings, this may be inevitable.
Even so, the method of production, involving over 200 volunteers, serves as a testament to James’s conviction that every cook can govern. Order the DVD, screen the film and visit the knowledge portal at www.clrjames.uk to remember and learn from his great political contribution.