Saturday, November 17, 2018

Movie Reviews: Black '47

Black '47
directed by Lance Daly
This movie can be understood on one level as a revenge Western/urban drama transplanted to 1847 Ireland during the Great Famine. The Great Famine, via death or emigration, reduced Ireland's population by 25%. This film uses the classic revenge theme. The hero (inevitably a young troubled man) returns from the war/the big city/the sea/etc to discover that his family has been harmed, often by the people he's been serving. THOSE PEOPLE taught him a very particular set of skills. Now he will use his talents to get some righteous James Brown approved payback. He's out for revenge on somebody. Anybody. Everybody!!! This trope is older than dirt. 

The trope is also true to life. The Romans suffered their worst defeat in Germany at the hands of Arminius, a Roman commander of German heritage. The Romans took Arminius as a child hostage. They raised him to lead Roman armies in colonial wars. When Rome sent him back to Germany to repress his own people, Arminius tricked the Romans. He led the Germans to battle against the Romans in the Teutoberg Forest. When Arminius was done, three entire Roman legions had been utterly liquidated, along with the Roman lust for German lands.

Most men are not Arminius. Most colonial soldiers make the individual rational decision to serve the conqueror. It's better to be on the winning team and earn a living right? This film could have been made about Black American buffalo soldiers who helped expel and exterminate Native Americans, Native American slaveowners who sided with the Confederacy, or for that matter Irish immigrants to America who launched anti-Black pogroms, burning down Black orphanages. 

Black '47 depicts the physical and moral famine. The hero says, speaking of his own actions in English colonies, "We've done things that can't be forgiven." Black '47 brings those costs home. I think that's actually the more compelling movie theme. The hero sacrifices his humanity to protect his family and himself. 

The hero discovers that the logic of Empire, Conquest, Imperialism, Capitalism, and Racism (at this time most English and American social, scientific, and political thought held that the Irish were racially inferior, certainly not white, and not that different from semi-human Africans or Asians) impacts everyone.  The English colonization of Ireland was a model for English rapaciousness in Africa, Asia and elsewhere.

In 1847 Irish born Feeney (James Frecheville) serves in an English Army Ranger regiment. Feeney's a combat veteran. Perhaps disturbed by the violence he's witnessed and participated in (Frecheville gives his character every indication of suffering from PTSD) or maybe just worried about his family, Feeney deserts and heads home. 

Feeney's parents starved to death. His mother refused to reject her Catholicism and convert to Protestantism in return for soup provided by arrogant Protestant missionaries who think the famine is an excellent evangelical opportunity. Feeney's brother is also dead. He was hanged for stabbing a eviction bailiff. That leaves Feeney's sister-in-law Ellie (Sarah Greene) and her young children, Feeney's nieces and nephew. They're now squatters with no money or hope. Well Feeney has some money. He intends to flee to America with his remaining family.

No one is safe. The police evict Feeney's family and remove the roof from the house, making it unusable by humans. The local rent collector thinks the house should be a pigsty. When Feeney tries to pay, the police eagerly turn on him with violent hostility. The police kill Feeney's nephew. Feeney is arrested. Escaping, Feeney rushes home to find Ellie and one of her daughters dead from exposure. The other daughter is missing.

Hannah (Hugo Weaving) is a English Army Officer veteran who interrogates Irish independence activists. Hannah lost his temper and murdered a prisoner. Hannah could be executed. But the English occupiers don't care about another dead Irishman.  

Confident cool Commander Pope (Freddie Fox) will ignore Hannah's mistake if Hannah will help the English track and capture Feeney, who has apparently declared war against the English all by himself. The English won't tolerate this. Pope intends to make an example out of Feeney. It seems that Hannah knows Feeney...

This movie is by turns grim, sad, majestic, and powerful. Capitalism, racism, religious bigotry, and imperialism interact. During the famine the English export grain for profit; some English hope to make the Irish in Ireland as rare as "Red Indians in Manhattan". The odious lecherous English absentee landlord (Jim Broadbent) negatively compares the beauty of Irish women to that of English women, oblivious to the fact that Irish women are oppressed, freezing and starving. Language is a tool of exclusion and subjugation. English overlords insist on conducting official business in English. Many Irish speak only Gaelic and can't even verbally resist their dispossession.

The movie's bleakness is balanced by the Irish landscape's stunning beautyStephen Rea is the posse's translator and guide. He provides sardonic commentary. He sees much, but says little. Barry Keoghan is Private Hobson, a naive young English soldier with his own moral challenge. There is hope and optimism. The ending is sublime. I thought it very worthwhile. It will make you think. Though the movie has all of the other themes mentioned, it's important to emphasize that it is entertaining, not didactic or pedantic.
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