Archive for February 2018

Black Panther: an emotional response.

So (no spoilers!) I watched Black Panther last night. My God. I’m not going to write a review, because I’m relatively late to see the film and a thousand majestic dissections have already appeared online. Instead I will only write a hopefully brief emotional response, since that’s the only thing I can add that might be somewhat fresh.

My favourite football player, in visceral terms, is probably George Weah. Not because he was the finest of all time – even though he had qualities which put him firmly among the greats. But because what Weah achieved on the field, where he was the most elegant blend of grace, power, speed and balance, was merely a fraction of what he achieved beyond it. Weah, a proud citizen of Liberia (a country with its own extraordinary place in world history) was one of the first male African footballers to stand at the very front of the world stage, and he was utterly apologetic when he did so. Weah was a man many of us could recognise; tall, dark-skinned, we could have seen him at the barber shop, he could have been an uncle. And yet there he was, gliding across our screens. He looked like us, spoke like us, and so we started to swagger like him.

Watching Black Panther felt like seeing George Weah at his peak. Visually magnificent, thrillingly unpredictable, with duel after beautiful duel against elite opposition. The land of Wakanda itself? A glorious vista of the old and the new. And the women were just as I knew them. In them, I saw my relatives: unfathomably strong and supportive, amazingly courageous at every turn, humbly and patiently building a better world each day. How they persevere through all the exhaustion, I will never know.

Will there be critiques of this film? Absolutely. I look forward to reading them, and after some time I may attempt one of my own. For now, though, I am especially thankful I saw this film in Black History Month, because it feels like a milestone of its own. After the movie, I sat with a friend of a friend who had come to the movie with us; an African-American woman, born in the early Sixties, who well remembered the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King (and, with a further poignant nod to Black history, was closely one of the world’s greatest basketball players). She was overwhelmed at the representation of African-Americans on screen, particularly the women, and rightly so. All I could think was: this movie was excitingly broad in its appeal, and yet was also uniquely for her. Black Panther felt both intensely personal and at the same time universal in its appeal, which in my view is one of the pathways to great art.

As for me, it reminded me what a privilege it is to be an artist, and to wake up daily with the chance to create something, anything, which might give hope to anyone. This film not only reminded me but wholly convinced me of the importance of optimistic, forward-thinking art. For that alone, it is a masterpiece.

My cold take on that new Nike ad.

So, about that Nike advert, which was greeted with widespread ecstasy on social media when it was released last week. Some might say it was “just a commercial” – and, in one sense, it was. From one perspective, it was merely a three-minute celebration of some of the capital’s finest artists and athletes, a uniquely emotive seduction of the wallets of London’s young. From another point of view, though, it was particularly powerful. So many young Londoners, when watching this short film, reacted with an online euphoria that I hadn’t witnessed since the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. So many of them felt seen, and understood. Notwithstanding the passionate critiques made by several on Twitter – namely, that people of South Asian heritage were underrepresented in this commercial – it was a piece of work that struck a cultural touchstone.

At this stage, I had to take a step back and ask myself what was happening here. After all, we’d seen this before, this arrival of an optimistic new dawn and a brutal aftermath. Collective joy about the brilliance of the 2012 Paralympics didn’t stop the British Government from driving through a series of severe benefits cuts for people with disabilities. Nike has given us a timely reminder of how much young Londoners love their city – but, in truth, how much does their city love them back?

I don’t mean to be a party pooper. Really, I don’t. I’m based in Germany now, but having lived for many years in Hackney, Finsbury Park, Leyton, Brick Lane, Walthamstow, the Isle of Dogs and Croydon, this city and its surroundings are in my soul. It’s just that, overall, I think that London takes its young people for granted. In her recent report, “London’s lost youth services”, the Green Party politician Sian Berry observed that between 2011/12 and 2016/17 “the average council in London has cut its youth service budget by nearly £1 million – an average of 36 per cent”. Moreover, she notes that cuts of an average of 25 per cent are planned for the following year.

Elsewhere, the outlook seems equally grim. By the start of 2016, it was estimated that around 40 per cent of London’s live music venues, many of them important places for young people not only to go out but to cut their teeth as performers, had closed down. Seeing Giggs in that Nike advert, too, I was reminded that many of London’s rappers and grime artists have not only survived but thrived despite the city’s authorities, not because of them. Just a few ago, we saw the removal of the infamous Form 696, a police risk assessment procedure which for twelve years was used to cancel countless shows across London’s black – sorry, urban – music scene.

I think that Nike advert is significant because it shows us how much young Londoners have made a fightback against such considerable odds. Look how many of them, typified by the magnificent Little Simz, have looked at the difficulty of their circumstances and somehow made a huge success of them. But not everyone – in fact, almost no-one – is as gifted as Little Simz. The grind is brutal, and it shouldn’t be. Travelling around Europe, I am frequently struck by how much cheaper other cities are by comparison. London is a town where house prices are seemingly rising at the speed of sea levels, and where most young people can only look to home ownership as the vainest of dreams. (On bleak days, I wonder if some wealthy developers would be happiest if the city were one giant and pristine high-rise estate, surrounded by an immaculate lawn marked “NO BALL GAMES”.)

If London truly wants to encourage the youthful creativity so lauded by Nike, then it needs to subsidise it. It needs to provide a generation with far cheaper housing and robust contracts to protect them from rapacious private landlords. It needs to ensure that a simple journey from Zone 3 to Zone 1 isn’t financially daunting. It needs to prove to young Londoners from working-class backgrounds that they will be utterly welcome not only in its brochures and on its billboards but in its boardrooms.

Every week, it seems, I see a new article bemoaning the laziness of millennials – how they don’t work hard enough, don’t save enough, how they are ungrateful for what they have. How they are far too demanding. As I write this, though, I am preparing to teach a week of creative writing to a class of wonderful young Londoners – a group as nervous as they are determined, as gentle as they are inventive – and I am reminded that they are not nearly demanding enough. London must demonstrate that it deserves these people. I only hope that it accepts the challenge.