Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Chaplin and Meadows: Cinema in Defence of the Immigrant

43 years ago today Conservative MP Enoch Powell made one of the most famous, and divisive, speeches in modern British political history. The so-called "Rivers of Blood speech" of April 20th 1968 argued that immigrants would be the ruin of Britain and suggested deportation (or the nicer sounding "re-emigration") of British minorities. This admittedly well-written and passionately delivered piece of nakedly racist oratory has cast a long shadow over British politics ever since.

For instance, the foaming rage expressed in this passage of the speech would not be out of the place in a Daily Mail column: "We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependants, who are for the most part the material of the future growth of the immigrant descended population. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre. So insane are we that we actually permit unmarried persons to immigrate for the purpose of founding a family with spouses and fiancées whom they have never seen."

The MP for Wolverhampton South West went on to argue that anti-discrimination laws would lead to discrimination against the rest of British society - the sort of frenzied, scaremongering argument that you would find in a British National Party pamphlet. It should be noted that the exact same argument - that equality would result in mutual poverty - was used to oppose the abolition of slavery in the nineteenth century.

It seems fitting then to use this dubious anniversary to celebrate the immigrant, long depicted by the cinema as a working class underdog and something of a hero.

Almost every film of Charles Chaplin - acting in the guise of the "Little Tramp" - overtly championed those who arrived in the United States looking for a better life, with the British-born director himself an immigrant coming from humble origins. His 1917 short comedy 'The Immigrant' (above) chronicled the uncomfortable journey by sea to the states and also satirised the rough treatment and poverty immigrants faced on the other side. To his long-term cost (he would later find himself denied re-entry to the United States on account of his left-wing politics) Chaplin used his mass popularity to try to spread messages of tolerance and unity throughout the world. In the silent era his movies spoke to people around the world, as they captured the commonality of the working class experience across borders.

His most pointed political statement came in his great anti-fascist film 'The Great Dictator' of 1940. In a speech (which you can watch below), delivered direct to camera, Chaplin says: "Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give you the future and old age and security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power, but they lie. They do not fulfil their promise, they never will. Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people. Now let us fight to fulfil that promise. Let us fight to free the world, to do away with national barriers, do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men's happiness."

A more contemporary British filmmaker, Shane Meadows, has also frequently concerned himself with immigration. His seminal 2006 film 'This is England' is dominated by a violent force of nature in the form of a right-wing skinhead (Stephen Graham) who supports the National Front during the 1980s. During the film he delivers a number of angry sermons which echo Powell's statements and he eventually unleashes all of his fury on a gentle mixed-race lad (it isn't made clear whether this ends in murder). The irrationality of violence and racism is compounded by this final act of violence, as it comes after an otherwise friendly chat about music and culture between the two characters who learn they have much in common.

Equally (and more gently) engaged with the subject of immigration is Meadows' criminally overlooked 2008 film 'Somers Town'. Here a boy from the Midlands (Thomas Turgoose - also the star of 'This is England') comes down to London, where he is an isolated outsider. The film follows the friendships he strikes up with a French waitress and an equally isolated Polish boy, as he finds solace in fellow outsiders. Again, like Chaplin, Meadows draws unifying parallels between people from different cultural backgrounds and questions our identification with various tribes even within our own borders (which include football teams).

Today, anti-immigration rhetoric and thinly veiled racism remain present in British society, with many of Powell's views living on and - in some regions - finding new political relevance. But it's comforting to know that there have always been just as many who speak with empathy and compassion of, what John Lennon called, "a brotherhood of man" (the song 'Imagine', by the way, also dismisses the idea of national boundaries). That sort of message may sound cheesy in our post-modern, increasingly nihilistic age, but sometimes messages seem cosy and trite because they are right and genuinely good.

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