South of the River – the box-set before Christmas

Compass-SouthComment logo 2I was picked up on Twitter for my shoddy use of economic terms in last week’s column. I considered re-stating the argument and delving into heavy economics, but it’s the week before Christmas, so let’s talk about films.

If Christmas has become about TV, this year it’s about box sets. I don’t really do box sets, I have series one and two of The Wire, but I’ve not managed to watch them all the way through. I’m one of those grumpy old men who actually likes having the entertainment rationed out into weekly portions. So I’m going to recommend some films to watch, which I suppose you could put together into some sort of box-set. Something resembling a cross between Desert Island discs and Fantasy Football.

The link between the films is that they will tell you something about how the world works, why it is the way it is. Hopefully they will make you think as well as entertain you. Hopefully they will spur you into some sort of action.

It was actually the economics debate on Twitter that got me thinking and my first recommendation is Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45. I’m afraid it’s a documentary, but it’s real people talking about their lives before and after the Second World War. What struck me was that the British state mobilised and planned every aspect of life in order to win the war and people then demanded they carry on in the same way to win the peace. We got the welfare state – not just benefits, but legal aid and the Arts Council; National Parks; and nationalised industries like coal and rail.

My second documentary is Still The Enemy Within, just out on DVD. It tells the story of the miners’ strike thirty years ago, through the words of ordinary miners. Whilst Arthur Scargill’s prophecy of the destruction of the coal industry has been proved right, many people still think it was a doomed struggle. This film reminds you just how close the miners came to winning.

Sticking with the strike, but moving into rom com territory is Pride. Based on a true story of lesbians and gay men in London raising support for striking miners and breaking down prejudice along the way. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll feel the pride.

Do you wonder why so many young black men die at the hands of the police in America? There are several classic films that shed a light on the entrenched racism of that country. To Kill A Mockingbird maybe told from a white liberal point of view, but the scene at the end of the trial when the black members of the public stand for Atticus Finch always makes me cry.

Mississippi Burning and In the Heat of The Night both pitch northern cops into steamy southern communities. Again Mississppi Burning is based on a true story of three white civil rights activists murdered and dumped in the swamp.

Opera lovers should see The Godfather. It has all the elements, lust, power and an impressive body count. In Part II you learn something of how minority communities react when the state fails to protect them.

If this was Desert Island Discs I’d have to mention The Third Man, The Big Sleep and The Big Lebowski. All great films, but I’m not sure what any of them tell you about society.

But I’ll finish with two films by American director John Sayles. They’re both westerns in terms of their structure, but there’s no room for John Wayne. The first is called Matewan. We’re back to miners’ strikes again, this time in West Virginia in the 1920s. A stranger walks into town, he’s not Clint Eastwood, he’s a union organiser who helps the strikers take on the ruthless coal bosses.

The second John Sayles film is called Lone Star. It’s about a Tex-Mex border town and a sheriff investigating his own father, the previous sheriff and local hero. It’s a great tale, but it also tells you a lot about how history is constructed, who writes it and what gets left out.

There’s time over Christmas to veg out in front of AbFab or whatever and watch some stimulating films. I hope you find my recommendations useful. Have a good one!

I’ll be back next year with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.