Tuesday, August 14, 2018

From Jason Statham to V.S. Naipaul

When the great Trinidadian writer V.S. Naipaul died the other day, it reminded me of one of the oddest moments of recognition I've ever had while watching a film.  It involves the British heist film The Bank Job, from 2008, which stars Jason Statham and Saffron Burrows.  If you remember, the film's story is set in England and is based on an actual crime. Overnight on September 11, 1971, a group of robbers tunneled into a Lloyd's Bank in London and robbed the safe deposit boxes stored there in the vault.  The robbers had rented a clothing store two doors down from the bank, and over three weeks, working on weekends, they dug a tunnel from the store to the bank.  They passed directly underneath a restaurant to do this.  The money and jewelry stolen during the heist were never recovered.

In the film, a small group of men and one woman (Burrows) make up the robbers.  Jason Statham's character is their leader.  Not a member of the group but a part of the story is one Michael X, a black militant we first see in a scene where, inside a house, he is leading a white English landlord around by a slave collar.  When I saw this scene (I saw the film in a theater when it opened), I was amazed, not because of the outrageousness of the scene, but because I recognized it, and Michael X himself, from the blistering essay I'd once read about the guy.  The essay is  V.S. Naipaul's "Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad", a piece collected in his book The Return of Eva Peron with the Killings in Trinidad (1980).

The Michael X story is a long and complicated one, and it ended horribly.  Born Michael de Freitas in Trinidad and Tobago, he later became the self-named Michael X, a Black Power leader in London during the 1960s.  He worked for a time as an enforcer for a white London slumlord, started a commune in London called The Black House, and hobnobbed with the likes of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who were supporters, though not members, of his commune.

So where does he figure in a Jason Statham heist movie?  Well, as I mentioned, The Bank Job is based on a real heist, and the real Michael X had a connection to some of the figures in the story. The story kicks off with MI-5 taking an interest in a Lloyd's Bank safety deposit box that belongs to Michael X  and supposedly contains compromising photos of Princess Margaret.  Also playing a role in all this is a young British woman named Gale Benson, a British model of the time and the daughter of a Brit MP.  Benson also was real, but whether Michael X in actuality had any connection to the Lloyd's bank robbery is uncertain.  What is certain is that Michael X, in real life (and the film), had to flee Britain for various crimes such as assault and extortion. He returned to Trinidad.  There, he formed another self-styled revolutionary commune, albeit with a tiny number of followers.  A person who joined his commune there, while romantically involved with American Black Power activist Hakim Jamal, who was a cousin of Malcom X, was Gale Benson. In The Bank Job, Michael X exits the film fairly early as he flees England and the focus narrows to the heist itself, but then the film does come back to him briefly.  We see him in Trinidad. Gale Benson, in the film's plot, has done something to betray Michael X, and he murders her.  The film's epilogue states that Michael X was tried and executed in Trinidad for her murder.  

In reality, Michael X did kill Gale Benson, but the reasons had nothing to do with the Lloyd's bank heist.  On January 2, 1972, he and a few other men from the commune took her out for a walk and then dug a hole in the ground. One of the men asked her who she thought the hole was for and then pushed her in.  They wounded her with a cutlass and then wound up burying her alive, even jumping on the dirt with her beneath it till she stopped struggling.  Michael X was indeed executed in Trinidad, hung, but not for this murder.  Authorities tried and found him guilty for the murder of another commune member, a man, who was found buried in the same hole as Benson though he was killed separately.  But the reason Michael X wanted Benson killed? She was, he apparently believed, causing "mental strain" to his fellow revolutionary, Hakim Jamal.

All these details about the crime and the entire Michael X story are in Naipaul's brilliant essay.  He also based a fictional character on Michael X - Jimmy Ahmed - in his 1975 novel, Guerrillas.  I'd highly recommend both the essay and the novel.  They provide a lot of insight into the entire period and they also serve as instructive examples of how to rework non-fiction materials into the stuff of great fiction.

So it seems I've gone from the pleasure of a snappy heist film to the darkness of true life crime as described by V.S. Naipaul.  But that's, in fact, the sort of trip my mind took during that moment in The Bank Job when a Jason Statham vehicle started me thinking about things unrelated to cinema suspense mechanics.  Through no fault of the movie, I was completely taken out of the film for a couple of minutes.  Then I got back into the story, and I liked the movie. Still do. I've seen it a couple of times now. I don't get taken out of the film when I watch it now.  But that moment, in the dark, when an unexpected link to one of my all-time favorite authors happened - that was pretty strange.

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