FILM: Pocahontas (dir. Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg)

There’s no getting around the fact that Pocahontas is a deeply, deeply problematic film. Its white-washed, revisionist narrative of the founding of Jamestown and the first encounters between English settlers and Native Americans turns the ugly story of colonisation into a whimsical fairytale, and its strenuous efforts at both-sidedness elide the enormous power imbalances that led to the decimation of Native peoples. But above and beyond these issues, it’s also just quite a crap film.

A cartoon Native American woman with leaves swirling around her.
I swear to God, that BLOODY sentient wind.

Pocahontas (Irene Bedard, with Judy Kuhn providing the singing voice) is a whimsical, free-spirited Native American woman accompanied by a sentient breeze. The breeze is committed to getting Pocahontas a starring role in a Bollywood movie (the filmmakers presumably confusing American Indians and Indian Indians), ensuring that her hair is always blowing artistically behind her to emphasise that she is, y’know, Of Nature. She’s even more Of Nature than the rest of her people, associated as she is with rocks and lakes, separated from the recently returned warriors who are seen with tools and weapons. Sadly, she has been promised in marriage to a young warrior, Kocoum (James Apaumut Fall) when all she wants is to be free.

The film doesn’t start with Pocahontas, however. Instead, it decides to introduce us from the point of view of the brave men of the Virginia Company, seen launching from London to set up in the New World. These are a lively, fun-loving, brave and kindly group of colonial invaders, with blonde-haired, blue-eyed John Smith (Mel Gibson – you can’t make this up) even jumping overboard to rescue a fellow sailor during the visit. They’re brave and good in order to contrast with Evil Governor Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers), who is planning to find gold in the Americas and to become rich and powerful.

As the English set up shop, the film is desperately anodyne in its attempts to show fault on both sides. The English arrival is clearly an invasion, and the scenes of the sailors tearing up trees and beginning digging for gold are brutal, wounding the landscape and declaring the land theirs. However, the film attributes all this to Ratcliffe, and the sailors turn against him when they realise the extremity of his actions, making sure that we know that white people are fundamentally decent apart from bad apples. The Powhatans, on the other hand, are fearful and suspicious, spying on the English rather than trying to make contact. They’re innocent and victims, but they’re also presented as being too quick to violence. In the song ‘Savages’, both sides suggest that because the other are different, they must be evil and destroyed. In this version of history, this was all an unfortunate misunderstanding between good faith people who needed to learn to trust one another.

The problem with all of this, aside from the racism, is that it leads to a very banal story. Pocahontas and John meet in the woods and fall in love through the medium of song, with ‘Colours in the Wind’ the closest that the film has to a banger; even this song is instantly forgettable. For some reason (apparently they’re listening to one another with their heart or some shit) they can both speak English, and as they learn to understand one another, they appeal to their respective communities to de-escalate, showing themselves willing to sacrifice themselves for each other. Happily, this being a Disney film, everyone listens, and the film builds up to a representation of Thanksgiving as the Powhatans kindly bring the English food before they depart. It reduces Pocahontas and John to being a conduit for the film’s message of love-conquers-all-including-racism, as blown about as the leaves that incessantly blow around Pocahontas.

To the film’s credit, there are some good faith efforts here. This is Disney’s first major interracial romance, and the attempt to show the English mission as driven by self-serving capitalists is a challenge to conventional mainstream American children’s narratives of this period. And, interestingly for Disney, it ends with the couple being separated, as John’s bullet wound can only be cured by going back onto a boat for an incredibly dangerous sea voyage, apparently. While this gets around the issue of having a mixed-race couple happily ending the film together, it at least suggests a future for Pocahontas which isn’t entirely shaped by marriage, with her two suitors dead or gone. But fundamentally this is the wrong story for Disney to be telling, at least in the way it does. It would take until Moana for the studio to return to a story of Native peoples that showed appropriate respect to their culture and mythology. Here, the both-sidedness and anodyne romance created a film whose forgetability, in retrospect, feels like a strength.

FILM: The Lighthouse (dir. Robert Eggers)

The lighthouse is a claustrophobic environment, and The Lighthouse is a claustrophobic film. Presented in an almost square aspect ratio (1.19:1), director Robert Eggers places a tight, tight focus on the two men at the film’s heart, and the black and white stock – with the bottom half of the screen sometimes in complete darkness – means that for much of the film the faces of the actors are framed by reams of black. It’s an extraordinary experience in the cinema, a concentrated and unflinching look at an emerging horror.

Two men sit in a tiny room on either side of a lantern.
The lights within the frame take on a hypnotic role mirrored in the film’s reaching towards the light of the titular building.

At the end of the nineteenth century – though in many ways the film is timeless – two wickies arrive at a lighthouse on a desolate, tiny island off the coast of New England. The older of the two, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) is a Captain Ahab parody, speaking in a poetic cant filled with circular sentences, mythological references, and grandstanding rhetoric. The more plainly spoken rookie, Thomas Howard (Robert Pattinson) is a Canadian drifter, moving from job to job and running from his past. They settle in for a long stint on the island, but Wake makes clear to Howard that only Wake is allowed to attend to the light of the lighthouse, leading Howard to wonder what it is about the light that draws Wake to it.

The film’s tone is one of tension, with surreality shot through. On the one hand, this is a story of psychological conflict. Wake is a hard taskmaster, keeping Howard to the grind of swabbing the floor, while Howard wants an opportunity to do more exciting things. The power play between the two men happens alongside them getting to know one another. Wake introduces Howard to alcohol, and the two are soon singing shanties and dancing hornpipes together in the evenings, then almost coming to blows as they row over their status. It becomes clear that Howard has killed a man (whose name, Winslow, he uses when he first introduces himself), and that he carries a heavy burden with him.

Alongside this, it’s a film about sanity. Wake gives long excursions on previous partners who’ve gone mad, going on about mermaids and such like, and indeed Howard starts losing his grip on reality. He finds a figurine of a mermaid in his bunk, and regularly retreats to a shed to masturbate over it (including the angriest crying wank that has surely ever been filmed). But he also finds a mermaid on the beach, who laughs at him; only, that doesn’t seem to be real. The film gives very few clues as Howard repeatedly encounters bizarre things. He goes up to the lighthouse to spy on Wake, and seems to see some form of tentacled beast while Wake prostrates himself naked in front of it. Later, after a fight, Wake chases Howard with an axe, only for Wake to then confront Howard about Howard chasing him with an axe. And during his masturbations, the face of Winslow and the face of the mermaid – who he imagines shagging on the beach – all start to be splices with Howard’s ‘real’ experience. It’s delusional, trippy, and deeply affecting as the film itself loses its grip on reality.

It’s also, surprisingly, a very funny film. Wake farts and scratches around, much to Howard’s displeasure. Howard’s mellifluous voice (it’s a wonder that Dafoe didn’t win every single trophy in awards season) leads to several grandstanding monologues – including a searing set of curses – that are then regularly deflated by Howard’s bathetic responses. One of the most violent fights is precipitated by Wake being devastated that Howard doesn’t like his cooking. The humour adds to the surreality of the whole thing, but is also disarming. Early in the film, Howard waves in annoyance at a seagull blocking his path, and the seagulls then begin waging war on Howard – tapping on his window, attacking him outside, and getting in his way. But then, Howard reaches out and grabs one of the birds and smashes it brutally to death against a rock. The interplay of humour and violence is key to the tonal jarring of Howard’s deteriorating mental state.

Fascinatingly, it turns out that the whole film is an allegorical rendering of the Prometheus myth, explicitly referenced by Wake at one point. Wake holds a secret to which Howard wants access, and it ultimately leads to him killing Wake (though not before trying to bury him alive, in a sequence that is very difficult to watch, an unbroken focus on Dafoe’s head as he monologues away while he slowly disappears into the earth). In these attacks, Wake manifests as the sea god, covered in shells and scales, his Old Testament beard rendering him a Poseidon. He then goes and opens up the lighthouse lantern and sees something inside which causes him to scream, repeatedly and endlessly, as the film blurs him into his own negative, before he falls down the stairs of the lighthouse. And the final image – the naked Howard lying on the rocks while seagulls peck at his exposed intestines – deliberately figures him as the over-reacher punished for his presumption in taking what was not his to take. It’s a poetic and frightening conclusion, and a powerful statement from a filmmaker making bold, creepy, intelligent horror.

MUSIC: Lana Del Rey, ‘Normal Fucking Rockwell’

Celebrated by many outlets as the best album of 2019, Lana Del Rey’s Normal Fucking Rockwell is one of her subtler records. Without the myriad collaborators of Lust for Life, or the upbeat anthems of Born To Die, it’s a more reflective, mature long-player, deeply allusive and with a warm, woozy mood that belies some of the heavier themes. And it’s also a great showcase for a voice that is increasingly showing its expressive range.

Album cover, featuring a young woman reaching toward the viewer while clinging onto a young man staring into the distance, both on a boat in front of an American flag and a sunset.
The images of Americana are present and correct, but the artifice is showing in the obvious paint marks.

Opener ‘Normal Fucking Rockwell’ is a strong statement of intent. Gentle piano underscore is set against a lovely string arrangement echoed in the melody of Del Rey’s voice; but the lyrics combine confidence and bitterness. ‘God damn, man child / You fucked me so good that I almost said I love you’ she accuses/admits, before shifting to a chorus that almost forgives her interlocutor: ‘But you’re just a man, it’s just what you do’. It’s a thematically strong track, that offers a searing excoriation of both a man and toxic masculinity in general (‘You act like a kid even though you stand six foot two’), without undercutting the pain that she has been through; while at the same time giving a sense of total self-possession and awareness. It sums up the record: self-conscious and confident, raw and honest, biting and reflective.

Del Rey’s way with an evocative setting is present and correct, especially in the two following tracks, ‘Mariner’s Apartment Complex’ and ‘Venice Bitch’. In the first, taking place in California beaches and docks, there’s a darkness in the singer’s sense of her treatment by others (‘They mistook my kindness for weakness / I fucked up, I know that, but Jesus / Can’t a girl just do the best she can?’) while she also continually tries to help the person she is singing to, offering to bring their boat into harbour. In this song she describes herself as a ‘Venice bitch’, and in the song of that name she declares herself ‘fresh out of fucks forever’ as she paints a Norman Rockwell-esque picture of contemporary America that is dense with allusions and slips into a long, freeform melange of couplets, electronic burbles, guitar arpeggios and static that create a hazy, nostalgic glow.

The Americana continues later in ‘California’, a gorgeous piano-led ballad which aligns the singer squarely with California as a safe haven for the addressee if they ever return, promising parties and magazines and all that is familiar for the presumed-scared lost love. America exerts a constant pull, and ‘The Next Best American Record’ captures something in its minor-key melodies of the desire to write something that will stand as emblematic of the country, all gnarled up with passionate, erotic bursts of desire that intertwine sex and nostalgia for America itself. Yet this is no simply patriotic record; America is as conflicted and confusing as love itself, especially as an almost militaristic drumbeat comes in during the middle 8. ‘The Greatest’ feels like a Beatles off-cut and voices some of this ambivalence, as she misses Long Beach and the Beach Boys and all that represents the filtered Americana with which the album is in love. ‘The culture is lit, and I had a ball’ she says, oh-so-on brand, but ‘lit’ becomes literal as ‘Hawaii just missed that fireball / LA is in flames, it’s getting hot / Kanye West is blond and gone’, as America both culturally and environmentally burns. The dramatic electric guitars give this an anthemic quality, a torch song (literally) for her country.

There’s still plenty of playfulness to find, though. ‘Doin’ Time’ is a brilliant response to Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’, converting the melodies of the song into a reggae-inflected rhythm that feels like the Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’, name-checking about musical collaborations and dancing, before slipping into a middle 8 stating ‘Evil, I’ve come to tell you that she’s evil, most definitely’. ‘Fuck It I Love You’ juxtaposes the explosive confession of the title with another noirish Californian paeon to injecting drugs under a neon glow, finding honesty in the darkest places. And the quiet songs of the album’s slight middle dip – ‘Love Song’, ‘Cinnamon Girl’, ‘How To Disappear’ – are all structured around beautiful melodies and arrangements that make them, if less dramatic than what surrounds them, still important tracks in isolation.

Towards the album’s end, Del Rey herself starts coming into more focus. ‘Bartender’ foregrounds her voice, including a stutter on the ‘t’ of ‘Bartender’ that creates an uncanny intimacy. ‘Happiness is a Butterfly’ is as fragile as the titular insect, thematically again looking for release from worry in the act of dancing, while returning to the none-more-dark line ‘If he’s a serial killer, then what’s the worst / That could happen to a girl who’s already hurt?’ But the stand-out track is the stunning closer ‘Hope Is A Dangerous Thing For A Woman Like Me To Have – But I Have It’. The piano arrangement is one of the sparsest of the whole album, and Del Rey’s voice is at its most fragile, cracking audibly as it goes for a higher pitched reading of the song’s title. In this song, the most honest on the album, it is Del Rey herself who becomes her own nemesis: ‘I’ve been tearing around town in my fucking white gown / Like a goddamn near sociopath / Shaking my ass is the only thing that’s / Got this black narcissist off my back’ – here the album’s recurrent images coalesce into an image of a woman seeking escape from herself in drugs, dancing and the lure of California’s cocktail of hedonism and nostalgia. But the recurrent insistence as the track ends that ‘I have it, yeah I have it, yeah I have it, I have’ gives hope that the album has found some kind of resolution in the choice to accept hope.

THEATRE: Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller (dir. Marianne Elliott & Miranda Cromwell, Young Vic)

Death of a Salesman is a play about race, and specifically the African American experience. It’s almost certainly not something that Arthur Miller intended, but by the simple process of casting black actors as the Loman family, Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell’s production spins familiar lines on their head and aligns the desperate drudgery of the working man, and the hopelessness of getting on in an America stacked against the have-nots, with what it means to be black and pursuing the American Dream.

A man wearing a suit puts his hand to his head, while a woman in a dressing gown looks on.
Willy Loman (Wendell Pierce) goes through a long, dark night of the soul, while the faithful Linda (Sharon D. Clarke) can only look on helplessly. Photo: Brinkoff/Moegenburg

Willy Loman (Wendell Pierce) is losing his grip on reality. He talks to himself, remonstrating constantly with the past, to the confusion and concern of his nearest and dearest. As a traveling salesman in his 60s, the drives of several hundred miles and the pressures of trying to pitch products to people who no longer know him by name is simply too much, and he’s cracking under the pressure. He and Linda (Sharon D. Clarke) are one payment away from owning their house outright, but badly in debt, and their children aren’t earning the money to allow their father to quietly retire.

The central family are sympathetically played, for all that they are all awful in their different ways. Grown-up kids Biff (ArinzĂ© Kene) and Happy (Martins Imhangbe) are currently at home, Biff having returned from time out West where he has spent stints as a cowboy and, latterly, in jail; Happy living locally and happily womanising. The bonds among the family run deep, with father and sons completely in love with one another, but driven apart by Willy’s desperation for his sons to make something of themselves on his own terms. Key phrases recur – he talks about being ‘well liked’, about being known, about what it means to be a Loman. Of course, what becomes painfully clear is that it means, effectively, nothing.

Played as a black man, Willy’s failure to capitalise on his life of hard work is quite clearly here part of a structural race problem. Part of this is flat-out prejudice, with boss Howard (Matthew Seadon-Young) happy to keep the failing Willy on the road, but refusing to have him around the office, telling him to ‘pull himself together’. Part of this is pride, with Willy able to take handouts from his neighbour Charley (Trevor Cooper), but refusing to work for this white man who he is compelled to see as his equal, not his boss. Willy lectures Biff not to pick things up from the floor should the man he is going to see about a loan drop something, but picks up Howard’s lighter when he – perhaps deliberately – knocks it onto the floor; Willy kow-tows while hating himself for it. There are deeper resonances of the Lomans being African American too – suddenly Biff and Happy’s athleticism, and Biff’s promised sports scholarships to university, tie the Lomans into a whole series of cultural baggage around black families hoping for social advancement through sports prowess; and the throwaway remark when Willy is caught with a white woman (Maggie Service) in a hotel room that ‘they’ve got laws against this in Massachusetts’ suddenly takes on a dangerous edge.

Anna Fleischle’s set takes this family’s precarious position, longing to make a name for themselves and be remembered, and blows it open in an exploded set, with details of doors and windows suspended from the ceiling and instantly removed. Willy’s mind is fractured by flashbacks, lit in blue and with the other participants freezing in snapshots, as a series of still images crossing Willy’s mind. The flashback images increasingly encroach upon Willy’s reality, with the Woman’s laughter echoing across, the suited presence of Willy’s dead older brother Ben (Joseph Mydell) wandering through the auditorium taunting Willy with missed dreams, and Willy’s father (Femi Temowo, also the composer) strolling around playing bluesy guitar. The music, drawing on black jazz, blues, folk and gospel traditions, is a highlight of the production, particularly in ‘When the Trumpet Sounds’ which closes both acts as both hope and requiem.

At times, especially towards the end, the play veers a little too far into melodrama, with Pierce and Kene screaming at one another from either side of a table, though Clarke provides the all-important ballast. But for the majority of the production, this is a sensitively performed, beautifully subtle depiction of a man in the final stages of decline. Pierce is witty, tempestuous, distraught, vulnerable and bullish in turns, a mesmerising stage presence who his sons are justifiably wary of; to see him humbled is upsetting; to see him hopeful is ominous. It’s clear from a very early stage that there is no real way out of his situation, and that the family is running on the faintest fumes of hope, but that doesn’t make the inevitable conclusion any easier to stomach.

FILM: Dazed and Confused (dir. Richard Linklater)

Dazed and Confused is a film that sets out to be iconic. It’s a historical film of sorts, shot in 1992 and set in 1976, and so deliberately appealing to the rosy memories of Richard Linklater’s own generation, presumably settling into their 30s and imagining the glory days when they ran the school. As such, it’s a lot of fun and creates some indelible characters and lines, while also embodying all of the issues of power and privilege you would expect from someone who actually wants to remember their school days.

Three teenage boys stand up from a car, one speaking into a car microphone.
The seniors give the freshmen fair warning.

It’s the last day of school, and that’s effectively the plot. The most consistent through lines concern Pink (Jason London), the star quarterback who is under pressure to stop hanging out with his ‘loser friends’ and to sign a document agreeing not to drink or smoke for the rest of his time at school; and Mitch (Wiley Wiggins), the new freshman who gets his first taste of hanging out with the cool kids. But mostly, this is a hangout film, as the kids slouch through the last few hours of school, then explode into an unsuspecting neighbourhood for parties, initiations, and musings on the meaning of life.

The film’s biggest problem – at least from the standpoint of a quarter-century and an ocean away – is its nostalgic celebration of bullying in the unfathomable initiation rituals. Darla (Parker Posey), a particularly nasty piece of work, heads up the torment of the female freshmen – made to suck on dummies, lie on the ground covered in ketchup and wriggle like they’re frying; and she enjoys making random demands of them throughout the night’s events. Meanwhile a group of seniors led by the over-enthusiastic bully O’Bannion (Ben Affleck) chase down groups of male freshmen in their car and beat them with bats. It’s a heightened reality, and O’Bannion in particular is a dick even on the film’s own terms, but the rosy lens through which all this is seen feels bizarre.

Ultimately, the message is that rebellion is good, which in some ways feels fine, as the kids loosen up and live in the present. The best storyline concerns the pseudo-intellectuals Mike (Adam Goldberg), Tony (Anthony Rapp) and Cynthia (Marissa Ribisi), who reflect on how they’ve been constantly preparing for the future, but as the future is only death, they might as well enjoy the present. It’s a clear influence on Booksmart, and I wish it had been the main story, especially as Tony’s defence of fresher Sabrina (Christen Hinojosa) against Darla’s bullying – rewarded by a sweet conversation and kiss – is one of the more wholesome parts of the film, while Mike launching himself into a fight against a guy who kicks off on him is one of the most thrilling and touching, as he first lands a good punch, then has the crap kicked out of him and is left sobbing, before taking his scars and bruises in good humour.

Elsewhere, the bagginess of the film leads to a fair amount of aimless fun that is often genuinely amusing, especially in the stoned monologues of Slater (Rory Cochrane), who sets out his thesis on George Washington being a stoner; in the attempts of the juniors to get their own back on O’Bannion (and Affleck is great in the villain role); and in the gentle blossoming of Mitch, who goes from being whupped by the seniors to impressing the girls with his ability to get beer, to striking out on his own at the final party. Mitch is the forerunner of the lead in Almost Famous, and there’s a bit of warmth that develops here. But much of the storyline – especially Pink’s agonising over his future, the underdeveloped scenes with the women (who are treated predominantly as objects of the male gaze), and the unreconstructed machismo and casual vandalism of even the ostensible ‘good guys’ – is badly dated and trying on patience.

‘What have you been up to?’ ‘Not much – just driving around’. If there is anything the film justly celebrates, it’s probably the last moment in many of our lives when we had no real responsibility to speak of. The problem is that that ‘freedom’ is hardly free at all, when the rituals and conventions and acceptable modes of being are so homogeneous; as with so many American end-of-school films, the freedom of youth is the freedom to fall into exactly the same grooves of how-to-acceptably-rebel that lead into the fraternities and sororities and social conventions of college. Complacency and charm go together, and the nostalgia for a time when we didn’t have to care about anyone else seems positively dangerous now. It’s a young man’s film about being a child, and Linklater’s maturer reflections on growing up might be less superficially fun, but have much more substance.

THEATRE: One Night in Miami by Kemp Powers (dir. Matthew Xia for Nottingham Playhouse)

The premise of One Night in Miami sounds too good to be true – Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown talking race, politics, identity and art together in a hotel room in February 1964. That this event actually happened, on the night that Clay became Heavyweight Champion of the world, and less than a year before the deaths of both Malcolm and Cooke, offers Kemp Powers an extraordinary occasion on which to build a tight little play about the struggle, as seen from several different viewpoints.

Three men in a hotel room look at another man in the centre dancing.
When Matt Henry’s Sam Cooke gets going, everyone stops to listen. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith.

On Grace Smart’s beautifully realised period set, which includes alleyway in front of the three-sided hotel room, the four actors hold the stage for two hours. The unwise (and apparently late) decision to add an interval to the production interrupts the flow at a crucial point, but otherwise the detailed set acts as a crucible for four massive personalities stuck in a room together, not literally imprisoned but weighed down by real and imagined external pressures and the weight of carrying the cause as well as their own careers.

Ostensibly the evening is about Clay, played with an endearing charm by Conor Glean. This is Clay at 22 years old, boasting about his prettiness and ready to take on the world, but also humbled in the presence of his mentor and other successful friends. He is shocked to hear how much money Jim (Miles Yekinni) got for appearing in a film; thrilled to imagine taking a trip to Mecca with Malcolm (Christopher Colquhoun); and in awe at Sam’s (Matt Henry) voice. He’s enthusiastic to join the Nation of Islam – sort of – but also lured by the money and fame that await him having just won over the world. In many ways, Cassius offers the wide-eyed outsider’s view of a world – that of the prominent black man in 1960s America – that he is just about to join himself.

The real drama is between the other three men. Yekinni plays Jim with a quiet assurance; the NFL star-turned-actor just wants pussy and pork chops, and to get paid. But he’s also more savvy about the race struggle than perhaps anyone else in the room, taking a sideswipe at the light-skinned Malcolm, who he accuses in a heated moment of being aggressive precisely in order to prove something to black folk. There’s a quiet power to Jim which serves to make clear that the more overt politics in the room do not represent the only version of the conflict.

Jim’s interventions serve to prevent the more overt antagonism between Malcolm and Sam getting out of hand, and in Colquhoun and Henry, Matthew Xia has cast two of the most intense, charismatic actors he could have found. Colquhoun’s Malcolm has the weight of the world on his shoulders – he has recently had death threats from the Brotherhood of Islam, and is effectively a prisoner at the hands of his ‘bodyguards’, gauche Jamaal (an adorabl Oseloka Obi) and the much more threatening Kareem (AndrĂ© Squire). Malcolm is a force of nature and clearly right on, but also the most conflicted of the four, which drives his constant interrogation of them as he exhorts them to do more in the name of the cause, mentors Cassius in his conversion, and accuses Sam of pandering to the white man with his version of soul music.

The most potent parts of Powers’s script see Sam and Malcolm debate their strategies. Malcolm wants Sam to use his voice to speak out for the struggle, but Sam counters that his production strategies – including letting the Rolling Stones cover a Bobby Womack song that brings in untold royalties, allowing him to assert that the Stones are out there working for him – are just as effective and part of the struggle. Malcolm’s clear unhappiness bursts out towards the end as he tells Sam that he can’t leave, and wants to go back to a time when his faith was simpler; yet Malcolm’s pressure on them all comes from a place of righteousness. But Sam’s exuberance elevates him. Henry bursts out of the set and into the auditorium during a spellbinding ‘Somebody Have Mercy On Me’, in which his performance of a gospel version of the song threatens to bring down the house. But the finest performance is left for the moment when he reveals that, despite his resistance to Malcolm, he has written a song about racial tensions. Henry’s performance of ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ begins a capella, then brings in a full backing track as the others listen, open-mouthed, smiling and moved. That Sam Cooke would be dead later that year meant he never saw his influence, but his song – delivered stunningly by Henry – is a beacon of hope; and as Malcolm sings it quietly to himself in the play’s final seconds while the two ‘bodyguards’ stand threateningly over him, the two men finally seem to have come into alignment.

NON-FICTION: ‘How to Write Iranian-America, or The Last Essay’ by Porochista Khakpour (Dialogue Books)

Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman’s The Good Immigrant USA is the follow-up to the former’s The Good Immigrant (2016), which saw a range of first- and second-generation British immigrants reflecting on their experiences and encounters. The American follow-up, compiled in the aftermath of Trump’s election, the spectre of The Wall, the Muslim ban, and the upswell of white supremacy, feels especially loaded, its contributors both angry and hopeful as they articulate something of what it means to be coded as newly arrived in the USA right now.

Book cover for The Good Immigrant USA
The beautiful cover of The Good Immigrant USA

Porochista Khakpour’s opening essay is an emotional second-person set of instructions to oneself about how to become the person she is – a narrative told with a great deal of regret and resignation, with hope and with passion. Speaking to herself (her younger self, but also her current self, as time blurs into one), Khakpour recounts the accidents and pressures that led her to becoming an essayist on Iranian-America despite all of her intentions to write about anything other.

The beauty of Khakpour’s writing is the combination of grudging pride at her achievements and the feeling of helplessness at having been pigeonholed in a way that has shaped the terms of her own reception. Her work has saved lives, according to emails she has received; her writing has received national attention in the country’s largest newspapers. And yet, the tone of the requests (‘a sweet nostalgia piece’ at a time when Khakpour had only anger to give) anticipates both the tenor and the reception of the writing even before it is written.

Khakpour’s candour about the conflict in her own identity resonates strongly. She is told she can’t be a writer, until she writes successfully; then she is told that she needs to write about Iranian America. Her parents gradually accept that her phone calls will be about her own past and their history in Tehran as she increasingly mines her own personal history to fuel her commissions. But as she becomes marked as ‘Miss Literary Iranian-America’, that identity becomes the property of others. Her long litany of the complaints and emails she receives – why are you not more white? Why are you so white? You’re too Iranian; You’re not Iranian enough – show how the representative identity comes to overpower her sense of her own individuality.

This is ‘The Last Essay’; but, as she points out, there have been many Last Essays, and Khakpour is at once dismayed that so much of her body of work has been about the Iranian-American experience that she wanted to avoid writing about; and at the same time wondering if it’s enough, given where America is at. The allusions throughout the essay to her own chronic health condition, with repeated references to smoking replaced by the requirement not to smoke, trace a sense of time closing in, and of the urgency of the mission she has found herself inadvertently embarked upon.

Khakpour’s work is a powerful opening to the collection, starting with questions about what it means to be a writer defined by an immigrant identity, and the intersection of the personal and the political, with the toll taken on both her body and on her status as representative of a broader people. It’s a beautifully written, evocative and at times upsetting essay.