Today is #WorldRefugeeDay. While I’ve never been a refugee, I have been an immigrant in two countries. I was born in the United States, the son of Irish immigrants. We moved back to Ireland when I was three years old and everyone called me “Yank.” So I’ve been an immigrant in both the countries that compose my nationality.
Being an immigrant is not a status but a state of mind. It doesn’t stop when you “assimiliate” or “integrate” or when you go from being an “outsider” to an “insider.” It is what you think of yourself. You only really stop being an immigrant when you reject other immigrants and try to slam the door in their faces when they try to emulate you.
People will always surprise you if you give them a chance. We’re too quick to impose limitations on ourselves and others based on age, gender, race, colour, creed or whatever. The list is endless. The potential of others is never immediately apparent to us and yet we leap to illogical conclusions repeatedly. Change is scary and immigrants and refugees are the personification of that change. It is easy for these newcomers to internalise the aggression shown towards them when it is not personal. They are not hated for who they are personally but for what they represent to the beholder, however incorrect or irrational that may be.
Irish Famine refugees, reduced to disease-ridden, illiterate peasants under brutal British occupation were despised on their arrival in the United States. Not only were they feared for the Third World diseases they carried but also for the Catholicism that the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants viewed with suspicion and disdain. Now, the Irish are fully integrated into American society. Approximately 44 million Americans claim Irish ancestry. The St Patrick’s Day parades there are the biggest in the world. Irish-America has been an amazing success story and a PR bonanza. Those refugees changed America for the better and brought their traditions, music and humour and placed them at the heart of the American dream. Halloween was one of the many things that went from being an Irish tradition to an American one.
On World Refugee Day, let us remember the amazing capabilities of our fellow human beings and not the negative things that scare and divide us. Compassion must be at the heart of every decision made in their treatment. All human life originated in Africa, so we are all immigrants and refugees to everywhere else on earth really. The human animal is at its best when it helps its own kind to prosper and respects all others forms of life. For just as the immigrant and refugee has unrealised potential within them, so we, the guardians at the gate, have untapped potential for kindness and tolerance and acceptance within us too. If we’re not striving as they strive, we fail ourselves and them too. We need to come out from behind the flags and banners and start treating each other as human beings. Then, and only then, are we fulfilling the potential of those first humans who left the cradle of civilisation so very long ago.
The featured image above shows a quote from Picasso being “appropriated” or stolen by Banksy in an ironic demonstration of the efficacy of the quote.
Israel won the Eurovision Song Contest last weekend and there were howls of derision. The spectre of “cultural appropriation” raised its ugly head again. Israeli singer Netta Barzilai had the temerity to wear a Japanese kimono on stage during her performance of the song “Toy” and that was enough. The internet went into meltdown about it referring to it as “yellowface.” (Some would instead baulk at the idea of culture being used in association with the Eurovision but let’s park that one there for now.)
Why is wearing the national dress of another country automatically seen as negative? It is possible that the person involved is honouring the culture and traditions of that country and is not mocking or “stealing” them.
We even see cultural appropriation in the casting of movies today. It is now being demanded that only ethnically-accurate actors are cast in roles.
Scotsman Sean Connery won his only Oscar for playing an Irish cop in “The Untouchables” and he was terrific in it. As an Irishman, I’m not offended by his performance in the slightest (even though we all know that non-Irish people attemping Irish accents can be a crime against humanity sometimes.) Connery culturally appropriated again when he played a Russian submarine commander (with a Scottish accent) in “The Hunt for Red October.” Just as well he can’t “appropriate” any longer as he’s been in retirment since 2004.
Screenwriting guru Robert McKee said something similar about Quentin Tarantino. At the time of the release of Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” it was pointed out that he had virtually heisted the plot of Hong Kong film “City on Fire” (sometimes even shot-for-shot scenes) in his crime film. Perhaps that’s true about great artists doing that but copyright infringement, the intentional stealing of other people’s ideas for your own glorification and remuneration, is shabby behaviour. I believe in an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work and especially when it comes to writers who put so much into their work for usually very little return (don’t even get me started on those leeches who offer copyrighted works for free and take food out of the mouths of writers’ kids.)
“Cultural appropriation” or cultural stealing is something different. There is no copyright on culture. Those ideas have been around for hundreds if not thousands of years and the people who originated them are long gone. There are many examples of artists taking elements of other cultures and fusing them together to form something radically new. That is how culture refreshes and revitalizes itself as it brings new interest in old ideas.
Shakespeare borrowed from all over the place. Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet? They’re set in Italy. Hamlet? That’s Danish. Macbeth? That’s Scottish. If Shakespeare had not culturally appropriated and only written about England, we’d have missed out on some of the greatest works in the English language. It goes even further than that…
The BBC described David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust as “one of the most iconic creations in pop history.” Bowie based the look of Ziggy on the make-up of the Japanese Kabuki theatre.
If Bowie was launching that character in the 21st century, he would be bombarded by negative social media posts about cultural appropriation. As many do, he would probably give in to the pressure and drop the character and we would miss out on all that amazing imagery and music.
George Lucas borrowed liberally when he wrote and directed “Star Wars” (1977). His Jedi knights were echoes of England’s Knights of the Round Table from Arthurian legend.
Darth Vader’s helmet was meant to resemble that of a Japanese Samurai warrior (indeed, “Star Wars” apes Akira Kurosawa’s “The Hidden Fortress” by telling the story from the viewpoint of droids C3PO and R2D2, the lowest characters in the story).
“May The Force Be With You” is very similar to “The Lord Be With You” from Christianity which began in the Holy Land. Again, would we want to miss out on a cultural phenomenon and all that has followed from it because of cultural appropriation?
Marlon Brando once described Hollywood as “a cultural boneyard.” I fear that the whole world has become a cultural boneyard of our own making now. Conformity is king. Try anything different and you’ll attacked for it by faceless, anonymous keyboard warriors out there in the dark on social media. I noticed this recently while out walking. Every gang of young girls that I passed were clones of each other. They all had the same hairdos, same clothes. They’re afraid to take chances because of peer pressure not to. That is happening in every aspect of our lives. As I’ve said before, you don’t get great art by playing it safe.
So who are these people who cry cultural appropriation at the drop of a hat? They’re a generation of “right-fighters.” FamilyResource.com defines it thus: “A right-fighter is someone who gets overly emotional or angry when people do not agree with them and their opinions or beliefs. A right-fighter is someone who insists on having the last word in an argument or refuses to back down no matter what.”
TV guru Dr Phil McGraw elaborates further that a right -fighter is “one of those people who spend far too much energy convincing the rest of the world that they’re right. They’re right as parents, they’re right at work, they’re right in their relationships, they’re right about politics — and they are all too ready to fight about just how right they are. These insecure people are too fragile to ask themselves how things are working for them, because they might not like the answer one bit. It might mean making a change or admitting they’ve been (dare I say it?) wrong.” Do we really want an army of right-fighters dictating what is culturally acceptable and what isn’t for the rest of us? I think not.
It’s the “echo chamber” idea, that if you only hear opinions that concur with yours, you never have your opinions challenged or hear new ideas and so don’t grow and change.
I saw a white girl get slapped with the “cultural appropriation” label in a tweet recently for having dreadlocks. This is the height of absurdity and it’s only getting worse.
Would you really want to miss out on the works of Shakespeare, Star Wars, Ziggy Stardust, Harry Potter and countless other great works only to gain the pyrrhic victory of being self-righteous? I know I wouldn’t. In the final analysis, the hysteria over cultural appropriation is a politically-correct strait-jacket that is stunting our growth in ways we can’t even measure fully.
I’ll leave you on a laugh. This humourous tweet sums up the fallacy of cultural appropriation perfectly.
“Everyone who ever made a low-budget film was influenced by Night of the Living Dead,” – John Carpenter
George A. Romero, the godfather of the modern zombie genre, has passed away at the age of 77. A good time to take a look back on his significant contribution to movies and the horror genre.
Indie movies didn’t really exist when Romero and some pals clubbed together cash and equipment to make Night of the Living Dead in 1968.
Taking inspiration from Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” novel, Romero turned what could have been an exploitation splatter film and turned it into a snapshot of where America was going with the Vietnam war and civil rights. It’s difficult now to separate Romero’s nightmarish imagery from the horrific news footage spilling out of Vietnam around then.
The casting of black actor Duane Jones as Ben the male lead was groundbreaking but Romero brushed it off by saying he was the best actor available and nothing more. Black men and boys were lynched for whistling at white women in the recent past yet here was a black hero defending a white female onscreen (the implication being that they will begin a relationship if they survive as the humanity is almost extinct). Ben even punches out a white male character for trying to tell him what to do (a far cry from any submissive expectations where he would stand there and be called “boy.”). This was an empowered, dominant black male, virtually unheard of at the time and not really seen again until the Blaxploitation genre of the early 70s (it could be argued Romero influenced that too).
Ben’s fate at the hands of a redneck posse at the denouement prefigured the disaster movies and downbeat endings of films in the 1970s. The zombie horror is replaced with a more realistic, some would say more horrific, human kind. Hollywood even made a movie of NOTLD’s inspiration “I Am Legend” when Charlton Heston took on a Mansonesque group of mutants as the last vestige of gun-toting masculinity in “The Omega Man” in 1971.
“At first I didn’t think of them as zombies,” Romero said, “I thought of them as flesh-eaters or ghouls and never called them zombies in the first film. Then people started to write about them, calling them zombies, and all of a sudden that’s what they were: the new zombies. I guess I invented a few rules, like kill the brain and you kill the ghoul, and eventually I surrendered to the idea and called them zombies in Dawn of the Dead (1978), but it was never that important to me what they were. Just that they existed.”
The critical reviews of “Night of the Living Dead” were among the first to take the horror genre seriously. Hitchcock’s Psycho was probably the first one that wasn’t written off as a shlocky B-movie. If the respected Master of Suspense was tackling the genre, there must be something more there.
Somehow a copyright symbol was left off finished prints of “Night of the Living Dead” and it instantly fell into the public domain, a disastrous setback for everyone involved when it came to reaping any profits from it. It perhaps explained the genesis of the sequels, this time they’d make sure that didn’t happen and get paid properly.
So into the 1970s Romero went and, 1972 saw him write and direct “Season of the Witch” a.k.a. Hungry Wives about a housewife caught up in witchcraft and murder. (John Carpenter would pinch the title for Halloween III: Season of the Witch ten years later.)
Romero even made a 1974 documentary about O.J. Simpson called “Juice On The Loose” (!). Again, he was way ahead of the pack with that title.
“The Crazies” came along in 1973, a frightening bio-horror movie, even more realistic than “Night of the Living Dead.” A forgettable remake appeared in 2010.
1978 brought a double-whammy of classics from Romero. Having invented the zombie movie genre, Romero sought to revitalize another one. His vampire movie Martin dealt with a boy who or may not be a centuries-old vampire. It’s in this grey area that the movie poses some real questions and becomes complex and interesting. Is Martin really a vampire or a disturbed kid acting out his fantasies and delusions on innocent people? Again, Romero was way ahead of everyone here touching on vampire culture and people “identifying” as vampires, things that wouldn’t become mainstream until recently. John Amplas is excellent as Martin, bringing great pathos to a difficult role. If you haven’t seen Martin, you should check it out soon. It’ll probably be screened in tribute to Romero and I hope this obscure movie finds some new fans now.
The sequel to “Night of the Living Dead”, “Dawn of the Dead” came next. Romero hooked up with make-up virtuoso Tom Savini to do the zombie make-up. This time our heroes weren’t holed up in a house but in a shopping mall, giving Romero the chance to send up modern consumers as mindless zombies shuffling along to insipid muzak (he could almost have been predicting the internet age). At two-and-a-half-hours long, the film was ambitious and is beloved by fans to this day.
(They despised Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake for not having the satire. This may be sacrilege, but I believe Snyder’s movie is better. The satire wasn’t all that clever or funny in the first place and the 1977 zombie make up looks like they got a bulk discount on grey paint. Snyder’s film is faster, funnier, “Shoot Burt Reynolds!, and tighter.)
Just as Richard Matheson had influenced Romero, his “Night of the Living Dead” was in turn exerting an influence on popular culture with Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. Director John Landis rightfully paid homage to Romero’s classic.
Romero made several Stephen King adaptations including the memorable anthology “Creepshow” in 1982, “Creepshow 2” in 1987 and “The Dark Half” in 1993.
“Day of the Dead” appeared in 1985 and, for me, it’s the grimmest and most intense of the dead movies. Bub the domesticated zombie is a great character, brilliantly portrayed by actor Howard Sherman. It’s up there with Karloff’s Frankenstein for me and a real horror icon.
Some of the gore is literally stomach-churning. A soldier is disemboweled on camera while a zombie rises from a slab to spill its guts all over the mortuary floor. Savini’s effects were making quantum leaps but it made me feel numb. We don’t really need to see that.
A colour remake of “Night of the Living Dead” appeared in 1990, directed by make-up whiz Tom Savini. Romero rewrote his own screenplay, dropping in the hole in the ozone layer as a possible reason for the dead rising. It wasn’t as influential or groundbreaking as the original, what could be, but as remakes go, it’s pretty good and stands up to repeated viewings.
Post 9/11, zombie movies came back in vogue with Danny Boyle’s savage “28 Days Later” and the aforementioned remake of “Dawn of the Dead.” These zombies weren’t stiff from rigor mortis, they sprinted like Usain Bolt but Romero kept his walking dead moving slowly in subsequent zombie flicks.
By the time of Romero’s “Land of The Dead” in 2005, the social commentary was becoming forced and self-conscious. “I don’t negotiate with terrorists!” Dennis Hopper’s villainous mogul pompously says at one point, an obvious dig at George W. Bush. Even so, the film was a good sequel and is still very watchable today.
“I don’t try to answer any questions or preach,” Romero said, “My personality and my opinions come through in the satire of the films, but I think of them as a snapshot of the time. I have this device, or conceit, where something happens in the world and I can say, ‘Ooo, I’ll talk about that, and I can throw zombies in it! And get it made!’ You know, it’s kind of my ticket to ride.”
“Diary of the Dead (2007)” and “Survival of the Dead (2009)” (Romero’s last film as director) followed and, even though Romero was still being innovative, there was the feeling that he’d already said what he wanted to say in that genre as others were overtaking him.
George A. Romero’s legacy and reputation are assured as the outpouring of grief on Twitter has proven today. Max Landis, son of Thriller director John Landis, tweeted: “George Romero was an icon who created a cinematic universe of loosely-affiliated sequels forty years before that was a thing. RIP to a genius.” May he rest in peace. Finally.
“The most popular movie I’ve ever made is Scarface (1983), all over the world. It’s amazing to me. It’s wonderful. We sometimes forget that it was Oliver Stone who wrote it. He is a political creature, and I think that is an undercurrent in the movie. And the combination of him and Brian De Palma made for this kind of fusion or explosion. It worked.”
– Al Pacino
Brian De Palma’s Scarface is a remake of a 1932 Howard Hawks film of the same name.
It was a fictionalised version of the life of real-life Chicago gangster Al Capone whose nickname was Scarface. (Tony Montana has an unhealthy obsession with stopping his sister being with other men. It’s possible screenwriter Oliver Stone based this character trait on the brother in the Capone story below, directly connecting it back to the origin of the nickname Scarface.)
By the early 1980s, Universal started to revisit the works of Howard Hawks to remake them. John Carpenter’s The Thing was first out of the gate in 1982 and was hated by critics and died a death at the box office.
Scarface was next on the agenda. Pacino had seen the 1932 original in a cinema a few years previously and was amazed at Paul Muni’s performance as Tony Camonte, the Scarface of the title. He went outside, called producer Martin Bregman and told him he wanted to star in a remake. Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro had also planned a Scarface remake but Pacino got there first. So the wheels of production started. (Four years after Scarface, director Brian De Palma would tackle the real-life Scarface’s story with Robert De Niro playing Al Capone in “The Untouchables” (1987).)
Scarface is quite Shakespearean, something Pacino, a stage-trained actor and renowned aficionado of The Bard, must have noticed. Tony Montana murders his way to the top of the Miami underworld just as Macbeth murders his way to the Scottish throne and both men pay dearly for their immoral actions. As in Hamlet, everyone dies in the end (imagine how many bodies would litter the stage at the denouement if Scarface were a play!).
The over-the-top nature of the film and its characters has been called “operatic” and I believe this is the correct way to look at its excesses (particularly that ending where a cocaine-fuelled Montana raves and rants while being shot to pieces from all angles by a hit squad like he’s demonically-possessed). Opera gets away with it though as its arty, Scarface with its gaudiness, drugs, f-words and blue collar aspirations was given none of that slack. (It’s surprising that nobody has thought of doing Scarface as an opera yet, I can see it now.) It was attacked by everyone. Critics found the ultra-violence deplorable, particularly the chainsaw lobotomy scene in the shower during the botched drug deal. In the film’s defence, Colombian cartels did use chainsaws to savagely dispose of enemies and rivals. So Oliver Stone was merely holding a mirror up to society and reflecting back an uncomfortable modern truth that he discovered in his extensive research. Cubans took the depiction of Montana as a slur on their people and the director and producer of Scarface began getting death threats and switched the shooting schedule from Miami to Los Angeles.
Pacino outlined how he prepared to take on the role of Tony Montana: “I worked with an expert in knife combat, with a physical education guy who helped me get the kind of body I wanted for the part. I used the boxer Roberto Durán a little bit. There was an aspect of Durán , a certain lion in him that I responded to in this character. And I was very inspired by Meryl Streep’s work in “Sophie’s Choice” (1982). I thought that her way of involving herself in playing someone who is from another country and another world was particularly fine and committed and… courageous.”
Like Brando’s Godfather, Pacino disappears inside his character in a way he rarely has before or since (he mostly plays thinly-disguised versions of himself with big, shouty moments.) Like Brando’s Vito Corleone, his Tony Montana has instantly recognisable lines (his “Say hello to my little friend!” is up there with “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”) and mannerisms (do an impression of Scarface or The Godfather and people know virtually straight away who it is, even if they haven’t seen the movies each character comes from.) Both Vito Corleone and Tony Montana are immigrants to the United States who set about establishing crime empires on the east coast (Corleone in New York, Montana down south in Miami, Florida). Both endure assassination attempts and both fight back ruthlessly against their enemies to retain control. The Godfather belongs to a timeless, monolithic, mythic storytelling tradition, Scarface was compared to a spaghetti western by critic Pauline Kael, she called it “hot and raw.” With its 1980 fashions, hairstyles and Giorgio Moroder disco score, Scarface seems more dated than The Godfather, even though it was made eleven years later.
Al Pacino remembered the shell-shocked reaction to Scarface after its premiere: “We couldn’t show our faces after it opened. I was at a party after a screening at Sardi’s. I walked in and the faces looked like those in a wax museum. People were sitting so still. Liza Minnelli was there. She hadn’t seen the movie. She came up to me and said: ‘What did you do to these people?’ And yet it survived.”
Like John Carpenter’s The Thing, another Howard Hawks remake that was mauled, Scarface eventually found an audience on home video and a cult reputation began to emerge. Eventually, it became a part of popular culture, even being referenced in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective by Jim Carrey. The black rap community took Scarface to their hearts (you’d be hard-pressed to find an episode of MTV Cribs featuring a rapper who didn’t flash a DVD of Scarface at the camera as it went through their home.) Universal even wanted to release a remixed version of Pacino’s Scarface with a new rap soundtrack at one point but director Brian de Palma refused to allow it.
The Magnificent Seven (1960) was a western that was a remake of a Japanese film called The Seven Samurai (1954). Recently, we had the remake of the remake with the studio recycling the old cowboy movie again instead of having, say, seven mercenaries protecting a village from a Taliban warlord or ISIS. Pacino’s Scarface was a remake of the old Howard Hawks 1932 film. Now we’re getting the remake of the remake again and it appears they’re just going to recycle the 80s Cuban druglord story again instead of, say, having Montana be a criminal mingling in with the Syrian refugees flooding the world now. (Sure, you’d have the PC brigade down on you for that but so did Pacino and Co. in the 80s. They took risks that paid off spectacularly. They took an old story, updated it and made it ultra-relevant again. Studios now only want safe bets. You won’t see them taking huge risks on new stories and talent as they did in the 70s now.)
Diego Luna has been cast as the new Tony Montana and he has his work cut out for him already having to go up against Pacino’s monstrous Tony. I don’t know how you could top or even match that performance. It’s epic scenery-chewing.
I give every remake the benefit of the doubt. Nobody liked Pacino’s Scarface, but it’s now looked on as a classic. They’ll release new versions of the 1983 Scarface to coincide with the release of the remake too, it will probably get a 4k scan and new extras on disc. Another reason to welcome the remake, even if it seems unnecessary. The world is and always will be Tony Montana’s, whoever plays him.
The death penalty question has been dragged kicking and screaming into the headlines again this week after the execution of a man in Alabama who appeared to be still conscious during his execution. It was reported that he “coughed” “heaved” and clenched his fists as the authorities began administering lethal injections to end his life. He had been convicted of the murder of a man during a robbery in 1994. The jury gave him a life sentence which was overruled by the judge who imposed the death penalty as judges in Alabama are allowed to do. The execution has prompted 101 lawyers and legal professors in Alabama to call for the removal of 34 inmates from death row who were put there by a judge overruling a jury’s verdict.
So let us take a look at the history of the death penalty.
“Since 1976, 1,348 people have been executed in the US, but in that time 136 people have been exonerated from death row on the grounds that they categorically could not have committed the crime for which they were sentenced to death. In other words, for every ten people on death row who are executed, at least one person on death row is innocent.” – Dr Bharat Malkani, Birmingham Law School
There is no way back from an execution. Like any of man’s constructs, the death penalty is fallible. Innocent people have been executed throughout history. No amount of compensation can replace a human life.
The Guildford Four were three innocent Irishmen and an Englishwoman found guilty of carrying out the IRA pub bombings in Guildford in England in 1974. As he sentenced them, the judge, Mr Justice Donaldson, lamented the fact that he was unable to impose a death sentence on them as capital punishment had been abolished in England in 1965. He said he would have no hesitation in having them executed. (The judge even asked the home secretary why they weren’t charged with treason as that was the only way he could have them put to death) Imagine how those innocent people felt hearing those chilling words. The Guildford Four were exonerated and released from prison in 1989. Their story was told in the movie In The Name of the Father starring Daniel Day Lewis.
Even though the rate of capital and non-capital murder offences increased after the abolition of the death penalty in England, Scotland and Wales in 1965, it’s arguable that those figures would have risen anyway given the more permissive attitudes of the late 1960s and the proliferation of gun use in British criminal circles starting with the headline-grabbing Kray and Richardson gangs.
New forensic methods and tools are becoming available all the time now, things unavailable in the past when death sentences were decided and handed down. Cold cases are being solved, convictions quashed and people are being set free. What future developments will arrive to challenge the evidential certainties of today?
The death sentence happens all over the world with China heading up Amnesty International’s league chart for having the most executions. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the United States take up the next four positions.
The death penalty in Western countries has been around for centuries and would appear to have moral backing. The Bible calls for “an eye for an eye” or the law of retaliation. Leviticus 24:20 says: “Fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; just as he has injured a man, so it shall be inflicted on him.” As Gandhi succinctly put it, “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” BBC Learning interpreted and expanded on this quote: “This famous quote refers to an Old Testament reference regarding the legal penalties for violence. Gandhi rejected violence as a means to change, and only engaged in peaceful ways of protest. A version of this quote was in fact also used by Dr Martin Luther King Jr during the struggle for civil rights and equality in the USA. Both men were proponents of the power of the people and their peaceful methods carried great weight and helped bring about social change.”
If you wanted to take a pro-Christian view of the death penalty, you could argue that Jesus was an innocent man put to death for nothing. Even Pontius Pilate stated that he could see no wrongdoing on the part of Christ. Nevertheless, the execution went ahead to placate the baying mob, the local elders and to maintain peace in the region. So it is not simply a case of innocence or guilt, the death penalty, as almost happened in the cases of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four, can be abused as a political tool with sacrificial scapegoats slaughtered because someone wants blood.
Prejudice plays a part in executions too. If a person belongs to a socially-reviled group, race or social class, there probably won’t be a big effort to save them either.
The families of some victims are against the death penalty, some for humanitarian reasons, some because they think execution is a quick, easy escape from what the offender has done to their loved ones. They want them to spend the rest of their lives rotting in prison and contemplating their actions. The execution of the focus of their rage may not bring the closure they hoped for. It can prove anti-climactic when people get what they think they want.
It is very expensive to keep people in prison for decades. And, in countries with huge prison populations like the United States and China, there is chronic overcrowding. So, to use horrific Holocaust economics, the death penalty is cost effective and recycles occupied space. No politician will publicly admit this but these are the decisions being taken in countries with the capital punishment on their statute books.
Whatever heinous act someone has committed, the “life” they are allowed on death row is non-existent. In the United States, death row prisoners can wait many years before their execution, with no hope for the future. They appeal and appeal and appeal and go back and forth to courtrooms endlessly. Depression is common among death row inmates but they are placed on suicide watch to prolong their psychological torture. When all legal options have been exhausted, a date of execution is set. There have even been stories of men sitting in the death chamber getting last-minute reprieves and being taken back to their cells on death row (essentially a mock execution). That is mental cruelty of the highest order. Even worse are the stories of executions going wrong with inmates suffering agonising injuries and/or a slow death. (Saddam Hussein’s half-brother was accidentally decapitated during a botched hanging in Iraq in 2007.) A state that retains such a barbaric system loses something of itself that it can never recover.
Yes, there are some people who are beyond rehabilitation and will always be a threat to society. The solution is not to put them down like animals. We have surely evolved beyond the sadistic public executions of the Middle Ages.
“I’m not just a boxer!” Muhammad Ali once said. He wasn’t. He was so much more than that. Apart from his fluid, balletic boxing skills in the ring, he was one of the first sportsmen to use psychology to wear down his opponents before a punch had been thrown. He was fighting some of the toughest, hardest-punching men in the world but he cleverly figured out that they had built up their bodies but neglected their minds. So he used words like weapons, chipping away at his rival’s psyche until they were beaten men and didn’t even know it. That tactic certainly worked with the brutish Sonny Liston in the 60s. Just watch the old black-and-white press conferences as Ali fires one verbal missile after another and world champion Liston can’t believe what he’s hearing from this cocky young pup.
Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay. He changed his name for this reason: “Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name – it means beloved of God – and I insist people use it when people speak to me and of me.” He grew up in a time when black Americans were third-class citizens. He won the Light Heavyweight gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960, came back to America, and, when they refused to serve him in a restaurant because of his colour, he went outside and threw his gold medal in the river. Even after becoming Olympic champion for America, no one believed in him. So he believed in himself. He could use words to attack but he could also use words to pump himself up. He called himself The Greatest until he and the world believed it. It gave him the confidence, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, to make his dreams a reality against the tide of begrudgers who wished him ill.
He used words to taunt but he also wrote poems, told jokes and gave speeches to inspire. Some credit Ali with being the first rapper and creating hip-hop music.
In 1974, Ali had perhaps his most famous fight, The Rumble in The Jungle in Zaire, Africa against George Foreman. Nobody gave the ageing Ali a chance. If you watch the Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings, you’ll see the extraordinary mental process Ali engaged in to psych himself up for the fight. He begins at the first press conference asking who thinks he can win the fight. Nobody does and he seems down. Then he goes on the attack against his critics. Then he starts working on himself: “Everybody’s scared…there’s nothing to be scared of!” You can see he doesn’t quite believe what he’s saying yet but he keeps going. He turned to his religion for reassurance: “All I need is a prayer because if that prayer reaches the right man, not only will George Foreman fall, mountains will fall!” Ali refused to watch Foreman training, even when they passed each other in the gym. He blocked out his fear. Then Ali tried a different form of psychology on Foreman, a similar brute to Sonny Liston. Ali was 32 then, his speed had left him and he needed a new tactic. He called it rope-a-dope in which he would go to the ropes and absorb punishment before launching a surprise counterattack when the other fighter was exhausted.
When fight night came, Ali started throwing right-hand leads at Foreman. As in any battle, doing the thing your opponent least expects usually ends favourably. A right-hand lead has to travel twice as far across the shoulder to land and it’s hugely disrespectful to any fighter especially the champion of the world to catch him with one let alone twelve as Ali did. Foreman, enraged, punched himself out in the blistering African heat and Ali shocked the world by winning back his world title at the past-it age of 32.
Ali was a political figure too. He became a black Muslim and changed his name, that was a political act. He was involved in the Civil Rights struggle with Malcolm X, that was a political act. And he refused to be drafted into the U.S. Army to go fight in Vietnam, there is no greater political act than that. He said: “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people while so-called negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs?” Ali was stripped of his titles, boxing licence and was out of the ring for four years in his prime. He didn’t sit around and mope but went on a tour of American colleges to get the young people on his side (and against the war) with his wit, charm and intelligence. Another political act.
Those four years out of boxing cost Ali huge sums of money. Financial pressure and his enormous pride made Ali continue fighting long past his prime. His last, disgraceful fight came three months before his 39th birthday. An ailing, flabby Ali was easily outclassed and hurt by his old sparring partner Larry Holmes. It was an undignified end to an incredible career.
Then began the next great fight of his life when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome and the verbose Ali was replaced with a trembling, whispering giant. He still managed to light the Olympic flame at the 1996 games, a highlight for anyone who remembers it. His condition worsened in recent years until he was unable to speak. For the last 30 years, this has been his frail public image. If any good comes from his death, it will be that all his classic clips will get aired again so today’s youth can see what the man was like in his dazzling pomp.
Ali had a dark side too. Fellow boxer Joe Frazier helped Ali out financially when he was banned from the ring. Ali later turned on Frazier, ruined his reputation by calling him an Uncle Tom and a bitter feud developed between them.
It resulted in Frazier breaking Ali’s jaw and knocking him out in their epic Madison Square Garden encounter in 1971 (that resulted in Ali being out of the ring again for a good while). Despite having a white Irish great-grandfather named Abe Grady who’d married a freed slave out of love (not slave rape as Ali conveniently claimed), Ali said some nasty, racist things about white people including: “The white man is The Devil!” He even compared the white race to poisonous snakes. Pretty distasteful stuff but typical of the hardline rhetoric he was absorbing from radicals around him at the time. In 1972, Ali went to Ireland and received a rapturous reception from a then all-white country. Jose Torres, journalist and former world light-heavyweight champion who accompanied Ali to Dublin, said: “I want to tell you something now: I think that it was his experience in Ireland that reminded him of the goodness of white people and he began easing his attacks on the white man after that. It was when he began to take out of his dictionary the talk about the white devils. How could he think bad of white people when every street he walked down in Ireland, he had all these white people loving him?” In 2009, Muhammad Ali journeyed to Ennis in Ireland (below) where his great-grandfather came from and everything came full circle.
Like Shakespeare’s King Lear, Ali is “a man more sinned against than sinning.” History will be kind to him.
When Elvis Presley died in 1977, the Soviet news agency Tass granted him American icon status along with Mickey Mouse and Coca Cola. Muhammad Ali has more than earned that status too. So long denied recognition, Ali forced the United States to overcome its prejudices and acknowledge him and his people. That is perhaps his greatest victory and a lasting legacy that will inspire people of every race, colour and creed for generations to come. May he rest in peace.