FICTION: Bernardine Evaristo, ‘The White Man’s Liberation Front’ (New Statesman)

Bernardine Evaristo’s short story ‘The White Man’s Liberation Front‘ is her answer to Noughts and Crosses, a snapshot of a society where entrenched privilege is reversed and middle-class white men are among the most put-upon members of the community. The protagonist, Brian, is a sad sack of a man – an aggrieved white male online activist, trying to imagine a world where people like him can be accepted and recognised for their own selves. It’s a dark parody, simultaneously critiquing both societal racism and white male privilege.

Illustration of a man sitting alone in a garden shed.
There’s something timely about Brian’s isolation.

Brian has it hard. He and his wife Pamela are both academics; she’s an over-promoted Professor based on a slew of articles, while he languishes at lecturer level despite working on his magnum opus which he expects to be field-defining. He teaches large seminars and holds down the laboursome Admissions Tutor role while she swans around with tutorials, and commandeers the large spare room as her study because of all her books. Since moving to a house and area that suits her, ‘he has simmered with resentment ever since’. And so begins a drunken lashing out against a world that is simply unfair.

As bottles of wine pile up, Brian engages in his online activism. Under a false name (presenting himself as a much younger man, in a telling bit of projection) he rails against the world – criticising societal structures that keep men down, ads that reinforce stereotypes, and cultures of #everydaymisandry. He gets obsessed with statistics, even timing the amount of time his dad tries to speak for before his mum cuts him off. At the same time, he reflects bitterly on his own lack of self-worth – he used to show off his legs as Pamela is a ‘legs woman’ who liked him wearing shorts around the house, but the body positivity movement came too late for him as he aged; he also reflects on being trapped in a marriage without options for leaving, albeit he allows himself to lust after his younger undergraduates.

The problem of Evaristo’s story is the same problem that haunts much literature that tries to comment on a contemporary problem through reversing the situations – it risks diluting its own message by trying to argue two things simultaneously. On the one hand, there’s a valuable dissonance in imagining an alternative universe where straight white men really are treated disadvantageously, the uncanny reversal of roles drawing attention to serious, real problems in today’s world. On the other hand, Evaristo’s tone perfectly skewers the pathetic whining of white dudes who feel that the world is turning against them and disadvantaging them in favour of women and people of colour. But putting the two together, Evaristo runs the risk of making it sound like people who rail against social injustice are the pathetic figures.

Of course, a more flexible reading allows the reader to navigate between the two positions to take what is intended – that this is predominantly a criticism of men’s rights movements that also acts as a rema inder of all of the privilege that men continue to enjoy in everyday life. And more comically, it’s a scathing imagining of how poorly white dudes would be able to handle it if they were to be at the receiving end of societal injustice. As Brian gets wasted and ends up throwing up all over his house and sobbing pathetically about his awful life, even as Pamela returns home having fucked her sporty toyboy three times in two hours, the story is unsparing as it revels in this sad, angry little man self-destructing. He’s awful – in one moment of reflection, we hear how he deliberately tripped up and injured his 8-year-old niece when she was boasting about wanting to be prime minister – and remorseless, using the real and perceived slights against him as justification for vindictive bitterness.

Ultimately, the book’s success and weakness hinges on it capturing the rhetoric and self-pity of men’s rights movements so well that it becomes unclear quite how much these issues are in Brian’s head, and how far they are borne out in real life. As an indictment of this kind of mindset, it works fantastically, skewering the ways in which men attempt to explain their own failures. But with an eye on the broader world-building which seems to suggest that there are grievances, it risks gaslighting in its suggestion that those who feel oppressed by structural racism are their own worst enemies. As such, the story’s success is qualified, but it’s a vicious, entertaining read.

TELEVISION: Compulsion (dir. Sarah Harding)

Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s The Changeling is a very specifically Jacobean play that, in Sarah Harding’s television film, lends itself well to contemporary Britain. The original – at least the Middleton scenes, which are the ones adapted here – is a complex psychological sex tragedy, pursuing Middleton’s recurring interest in the corruptibility of young women via sex; and, conversely, the corruption of a society that gives said young women few choices. By translocating it to the world of the British Indian elite, Harding and screenwriter Joshua St. Johnson’s use it to comment on modern race, gender and class issues.

An older white man in a suit and a younger Indian woman in a red dress sit on a bed.
The casting perfectly captures the difference in status and background that makes the central relationship transgressive.

Anjika (Parminder Nagra) has just graduated from Cambridge, and isn’t sure what she wants to do next with her life. Her tobacco baron father Satvick (Vincent Ebrahim) is expecting her to marry Hardik (Sargon Yelda), the son of a business colleague, but Anjika has a white boyfriend, Alex (Ben Aldridge) who she is keeping secret from her family. Anjika is trapped by the expectations of her family – her black sheep brother Jaiman (James Krishna Floyd) does drugs, sleeps around and funnels money into reckless schemes without parental oversight, but she is scrutinised closely.

Nagra’s performance is central to the success of Compulsion. Throughout, she keeps ambivalent what it is she actually wants; perhaps she hasn’t even fully admitted it to herself. At Cambridge she has cultivated friendships with white kids who – if hardly poor, as such – certainly do not enjoy the same level of wealth as she does; and her friend Claire (Emily Wachter) reminisces about how Anjika enjoyed all of the attention at uni. Anjika is keen to retain the freedoms she’s experienced at uni, yet is immediately defensive when Alex is judgemental about her family attempting to arrange her marriage. She resents her friends’ barbed comments about her privilege – which she also gets from her father, who accuses her of being spoiled when she objects to the arranged marriage – and yet longs to take advantage of the privilege she has if it gives her independence. She’s torn, throughout, between duty and desire, independence and belonging, and despite having the world at her fingertips is also frustrated at her own impotence.

Enter Flowers (Ray Winstone), her father’s chauffeur. Flowers is ex-special forces, working-class, and procures Jaiman’s drugs for him. He’s loyal to the family, and in love with Anjika – in one of the most explicit lifts from the play, he picks up a glove that Anjika has dropped, which she refuses to touch after he has touched it; shortly after, he cruises the streets to pick up a young British-Indian prostitute who he makes wear the glove. He’s creepy, but he’s also useful to Anjika, as he proves first through small favours – he discreetly drives her to meet Alex when she has told her parents she is meeting Claire – and then through following through when he offers to sort out the Hardik situation in return for a night with her.

The film can’t get around the horribleness of the relationship between Anjika and Hardik, but crucially sets this out as a growth for Anjika in terms of her own agency. In their first nighttime encounter, she is quietly crying as he begins to kiss her neck. But when she has sex with Alex shortly after, she can’t enjoy it. She looks for excuses to ask for another favour, and is disappointed when Flowers doesn’t exact the same price, instead telling her to ask for what she wants. Before too long, she’s commanding him to fuck her. Crucially, though, it’s not that Anjika is being corrupted; it’s that Flowers gives her the control over her own life that she craves. She uses him as much as he uses her, and she enjoys sex that accords her power. But as they get blood on their hands with Hardik’s eventual murder, it’s Anjika who continues to be foregrounded as she wrestles with her conscience and her desires, repeatedly looking for opportunities to escape, but balking at the men who offer to take her away and thus leave her once more in someone’s debt.

The resolution is brutal. Anjika decides to end the relationship by killing Flowers during sex, calling it rape; Flowers finds the knife, however, and Anjika can’t go through with it. And in an act of twisted love, after declaring that he loves her, Flowers puts the knife in her hand and starts to rape her, and guides the knife into his own side. It’s an act of complete loyalty to the narrative she wanted to stage that raises all kinds of issues about truth and falsehood in relation to sexual violence, and complicates the question of agency. And the closing freeze frame of Anjika on her wedding day to Alex, sitting lonely in the back of a car and wearing a bracelet Flowers gave her, does nothing to clarify the ambiguity.

FILM: Queen & Slim (dir. Melina Matsoukas)

At its heart, among many other things, Queen & Slim is a bizarre love story. In some ways, its tale of the formation of a love relationship while under extreme duress is reminiscent of any number of action film cliches (think Speed); in other ways, its lovers-on-the-run narrative evokes the best of American classics such as Badlands. But Melina Matsoukas’s film – with screenplay by Lena Waithe – is its own thing, a deeply romantic and beautiful story set against a backdrop of furious anger and police brutality in America’s Deep South, that manages to be both political and personal at the same time.

A black and white image of a man leaning on a car and a woman sitting on the bonnet.
‘I want a picture … to prove that we existed’

After an awkward, but not disastrous, first Tinder date, Angela (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Ernest (Daniel Kaluuya) are pulled over by a white cop (Sturgill Simpson) for failing to indicate. The cop escalates the situation for no reason, and when Angela gets out of the car in response to the cop pulling his gun on Ernest, the cop shoots her in the leg; in the subsequent tussle, Ernest grabs the cop’s gun and shoots him dead. Leaving him lying in the road, the couple flee, driving down from Ohio to New Orleans, and thereafter to Florida where they hope to escape from a legal system that they know will never give them a chance (if the cops even let it get as far as the legal system).

At the heart of this story are two young people slowly falling in love. We don’t find out their names until the very end of the film, and they’re even nicknamed Queen and Slim in the credits – monikers that are also not used in the film. This is important, as the film stresses how unknowable people are at first. Instead of getting lots of back story, we get a sense of the front they present to the world: Ernest praying before their fast food meal, Angela defensive and downcast after a client she was defending that day got sentenced to execution, Angela peeved at the noise Ernest makes when eating. As the two run from the law, they slowly open up to one another, and we learn more about Ernest’s closeness to his family and Angela’s estrangement from hers after her uncle killed her mother. But paradoxically, as the two flee further from their ‘real’ lives, they become much more themselves.

The hunt for the two fugitives is a national one, and it sparks revolt. Fascinatingly, the pair’s route through the South reverses the traditional route of the Underground Railroad, and the African American community celebrates the pair’s actions and provides them refuge. They are greeted as heroes wherever they go, and start to relax as they do so – taking time to dance in Mississippi; sticking themselves out of the car window in Savannah; riding a horse bare back by the side of the road somewhere else. Angela takes a detour to her mother’s grave, and the two even have a picture taken of them – as Ernest says, ‘to prove we were here’. After hiding out in her pimp uncle’s (Bokeem Woodbine) house in New Orleans, the two change costumes and hairstyles, taking on the renegade identity that frees them from their normal lives and allows them to become icons.

This iconicity comes at a price. When their car breaks down, a local kid called Junior (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) shows them around, his eyes bulging at the famous people he is escorting around town. Later, he attends a protest in their name against the police, demanding that the police stop killing people. When an armed policeman advances on Junior peacefully, asking him to leave and holding up his hands to show he means no harm – and raising his visor to show Junior that he himself is Black – Junior pulls a pistol and shoots the policeman in the face. On the one hand, the violence inherent in the police institution means that the film shows some judgement towards any Black man or woman who wears the uniform. On the other hand, the film nicely complicates simple value judgements: while many police are corrupt, the true intentions of an off-duty sheriff (Benito Martinez) who they take hostage and who offers to help them are never discovered, and an African American officer allows them to escape; a white couple (Flea and Chloë Sevigny) give them refuge, despite the misgivings of the wife and their betrayal by a nosy white neighbour; and it is ultimately a Black man who gives them up to the police at the point of their near escape. Racism in the US affects everyone, in much more systemic and complex ways (including poverty, religion, class and mistrust) than simple binaries can account for.

With strong performances throughout, some occasional clunkiness in the script (which sometimes falls into cliche) can be forgiven. Matsoukas’s direction is ravishing, capturing the stark beauty of the South and the undeniable beauty of the two leads. The cross-cutting between Junior’s confrontation with the police and Ernest and Angela making love for the first time in their blue Pontiac is mesmerising, beauty and violence, love and hate all snarled up in a single moment. And the balance of tension and release is measured well throughout, right up to the iconic moment when they walk hand-in-hand up to the plane, only for blurred cop cars to appear behind them with lights and sirens. The dignity accorded to the two of them in their inevitable deaths – and their remembrance, when their names are finally revealed in the placards demanding justice – is powerful and angry, and even if it’s clear that there was no other way this was going to end, that only makes this film even more urgent.

FILM: Dolemite is my Name (dir. Craig Brewer)

Sometimes success (at least according to the movies) comes from lucky breaks, or hard work, or misfortune that opens up a hitherto unforeseen opportunity. And sometimes it comes from sheer force of personality. Rudy Ray Moore, at least as played by Eddie Murphy in Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s screenplay, is all personality. It’s the story of a man who decides that he’s going to make it big in comedy and then film, and bloody well does. Dolemite is My Name is a success story, a feel-good film that celebrates sheer determination, regardless of critics, taste, or money.

A man in a sharp shirt pulls some dodgy-looking kung fu moves.
‘I taught myself kung fu for this movie’

When we first meet him, Moore is working in a record shop, trying to get the in-store DJ (Snoop Dogg) to play his records, and acting as warm-up guy in a local club. His break comes when he listens to an old tramp (Ron Cephas Jones) telling meandering, stylised and sexually explicit jokes about a character called Dolemite. Moore takes the material and turns it into performance art: with a rhyming, poetic lilt, a no-holds-barred attitude to profanity, and an African-inflected mythos that taps into the mood of emerging blaxploitation culture, he becomes a runaway success.

Murphy has rightly gained praise for his performance. It’s a difficult role that requires him to perform convincing theatrical stand-up on film; to act the role of acting (badly) in low-budget movies; and to get across the charisma and brio that made Moore such a magnetic figure, and he achieves all of these and then some. Moore is a funny, warm, and belligerent presence, and in his Dolemite persona he’s a force to be reckoned with. With that said, the film’s biggest failing is not giving more space to Moore’s vulnerabilities. Murphy does his best with subtle scenes where he looks at old family photographs and spits venom at them, or shows his exhaustion when things are looking bleak, but the film itself trundles so quickly past the obstacles that Murphy doesn’t get a chance to show the full range of Moore’s experience and the depths that he’s clawing himself back from.

The fact that obstacles are overcome so quickly is a weakness throughout the film. Moore wants to be famous, and what’s at stake is – not being famous. There is discussion of Moore’s money problems throughout – most of his schemes are self-financed – but never any real depiction of how the financial pressures are affecting him. In one crucial scene, when the movie they are shooting runs out of film, Moore goes outside and pleas with his backers to give them some time, to let them finish the film. And they pause, and say ‘okay’ and shake his hand. In moment such as this, the film squanders the potential for drama, getting back to the comedy as quickly as possible. There’s a running commentary about race, too, as Moore repeatedly encounters the objections of white industry and mainstream media to the crowd-pleasing art and popular tactics he espouses, but overall the film is light touch on the social issues, preferring to lean into the comedy.

The comedy, thankfully, is entertaining. Craig Brewer cleverly mimics in this film the things that Moore is convinced punters want from his – simple entertainment. This means there’s, regrettably, a very male-centered gaze at the film’s various strippers and other conveniently topless women; it also means that there’s a wholesome moral core (egregiously so at the end, when Dolemite decides to forfeit his seat at the premiere of his film in order to make a kid feel good about himself) and no real danger. And when the film hits its funny stride, it really delivers it. The best scenes focus on the shooting of Dolemite’s first film, especially during the sex scene: anxious about how he’ll look on camera, Moore follows the advice of mentee Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) to make it funny, resulting in a scene where the crew work together to shake the portraits, bring down the ceiling on the bed and set off explosions.

Above and beyond all this, however, the film pays effective tribute to a community working together. While Dolemite is the name, the close-knit team around him are what make the home-recorded albums and self-produced movie actually happen, and the bonds that tie them together are strong. The supporting cast have lots of great moments, especially Wesley Snipes as a snooty director, Keegan Michael-Key as a writer shocked at his ‘art’ being turned into entertainment, and cameos from Chris Rock and Bob Odenkirk. There’s a slightly different film I’d have preferred to see that focuses more on the tensions and strains that these relationships are put under by the uncertainty of filming – which might have allowed the runaway success of the Dolemite movie to have more of an impact – but like Dolemite himself, Dolemite is My Name is a film that wants to entertain and give the people what they want.

FILM: Soul Power (dir. Jeffrey Levy-Hinte)

In 1974, to coincide with the Muhammed Ali-George Foreman Rumble In The Jungle, promoter Don King was instrumental in co-ordinating a concert, Zaire ’74. The three-day festival was designed to celebrate the variety and excellence of Black music, featuring artists from Zaire as well as a great many African American artists. With funding from the country’s dictator Mobutu, the festival was also filmed by a group of dynamic cameramen (including the legendary Albert Maysles). While footage of the boxing match – delayed until several weeks after the concert owing to an injury to Foreman – was turned into the documentary When We Were Kings in 1996, it was left to one of the editors of that film, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, to finally work with the concert footage.

James Brown holds a microphone in front of a brass section on a stage.
James Brown!

Split roughly equally into sections of concert and vérité documentary footage, Soul Power is an obvious heir to the tradition of classic concert documentaries exemplified by Woodstock and Monterey Pop. But where it differs is in the political mission. This is not merely a concert or an attempt to capture a mood; the festival had serious and profound meaning for many of its participants. James Brown and Ali himself are the two most prominent voices in the film, and both speak eloquently and at length about the importance of going home, about the forging of connection between African Americans and the ‘motherland’, and about what black power means when they go to a country where blackness is at home. In this sense, it’s a film with vital purpose.

The footage is simply extraordinary. Ali regularly holds forth, often straight to camera, with discourses on colonialism, strength and pride, but is also hilariously funny, especially when he gets into the boxing ring to spar playfully with Philippe Wynne of The Spinners. Brown talks candidly about the need to get paid (you can’t be emancipated if you’re broke), and several of the performers are seen playing on the streets in the daytime, forging connections with the locals. And the people behind the scenes are equally entertaining; there’s even a ready-made villain in the person of Keith Bradshaw, the British representative of the investors, who grills co-ordinator Alan Pariser and lighting director Bill McManus on their progress and rising expenses. The film doesn’t dwell too long on what sounds like a truly and hair-raisingly chaotic production process, but the glimpses of the drama we get are nail-biting.

As such, when the music finally starts, it’s a relief to see that the concert is an absolute joy. We get highlights that showcase the physicality of performers such as Brown – who performs the splits and several microphone acrobatics while playing ‘Soul Power’ and ‘Cold Sweat’ – and The Spinners, whose synchronised dancing during ‘One of a Kind’ makes them look like the precursors of ’90s boy bands. More exciting (to me, at least) are the ludicrously talented instrumental ensembles. The Crusaders (‘Put It Where You Want It’) let their frenetic solos drift around the members of the band, with a particularly thrilling and seemingly never-ending keys solo and a thrilling bass line, while the Fania All-Stars explode out of their positions with frenetic Latin percussion breaks and an outstanding vocal performance from Celia Cruz. The large brass ensembles which support the acts allow for a depth and variety that also showcases the African instruments and rhythms underpinning African American rhythm, blues and soul.

Other moments are transcendent for different reasons. Bill Withers’s rendition of ‘Hope She’ll Be Happier’ is beautifully sung and passionate, a rare quiet moment among the freneticism. And Miriam Makeba, before singing the Xhosa traditional song ‘Qongqothwan’, notes that white settlers called it ‘The Click Song’ as they couldn’t pronounce its title, and she proudly asserts her Xhosa identity and the sounds of her native tongue. While the African musicians get less screen-time, there’s a thrilling performance too by the Pembe Dance Troupe, combining Zaire percussion with animal-inspired costumes and energetic dance. Disappointingly, Sister Sledge and the Pointer Sisters are only seen in rehearsals, though songs by both are included on the Masters of Cinema Blu-Ray release.

But while the music is what you pay for, the footage behind the scenes is outstanding. The emphasis on brotherhood and sisterhood across continents feels partly like promoter-speak, but seems to be borne out in the genuine excitement of the artists to be meeting new audiences and sharing a simply enormous stage. Yet early in the film, a seemingly pointed set of edits juxtapose a group of Kinshasa women going about their daily routine of gathering children and walking barefoot to get water with the international team building their enormous stadium. In the liner notes, written in 2008, Levy-Hinte expresses his sadness that the promise of the festival for greater African-African American unity was not realised, and hopes that the election of Barack Obama will make a difference. In the current climate, Soul Power stands as a fascinating glimpse of hope and culture-crossing.

FILM: Do The Right Thing (dir. Spike Lee)

‘I gots to get paid’. The refrain of Mookie (Spike Lee), increasingly fractious and insistent, resonates around Lee’s Do The Right Thing, a film which retains its energy and power even as the events it depicts – a black man killed by the police, a local community stoked into a full-blown race riot – feel crushingly tame given the proliferation of amateur video of police violence against African Americans over subsequent years. On the hottest day of the year, Mookie isn’t the only one who needs to get paid, whose hustle is under threat by rising tensions amid a group of reluctant neighbours who don’t wanna cool off.

A black man holds up his fists to the camera, showing off two sets of gold knuckle-dusters reading LOVE and HATE.
Radio Raheem’s knuckle-dusters – a deliberate reference to The Night of the Hunter – illustrates the quick switch from brotherhood to violence on the block.

Lee’s block on Brooklyn is populated by a rich bunch of distinctive characters, many of them played by latterly famous actors in early roles – Martin Lawrence, Samuel L. Jackson, John Turturro, Giancarlo Esposito, Rosie Perez – who are all angry and acting out as they waste time on a hot, hot Saturday. The film’s interest is in the Brooklyn working classes, especially African Americans but also Puerto Ricans, Italians and Koreans, and on this particular day the Koreans are running their grocery in poor humour, and the Italians – Danny Aiello’s Sal and his sons, racist Pino (Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson) – are serving up slices of their famous pizza with a poor grace. The mostly unemployed African Americans who make up the majority of the local population, meanwhile, are resentful about their lack of representation among the money-makers in the neighbourhood.

Everyone is right in everyone else’s face. No-one can cool down, so everyone is out on the stoops and street, breaking hydrants and grabbing cold beers. Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith), a man with learning difficulties, is literally pushing pictures of Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X in people’s faces. The local DJ (Jackson) is looking out onto the street from his open booth, commentating on people’s movements. The local self-appointed warden, elderly alcoholic Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), is up in everyone’s business, being hassled as much as he hassles others; and even when he saves a young boy from being run down by a car, the conversation turns into a public discussion of the boy’s mother’s disciplinary parenting. Mookie, in his job delivering Sal’s pizzas, has access to everyone’s apartments, connecting the private rooms to public business even further.

Lee’s strategy as writer-director is to find the politics of everyday life. Everyone is stoked by prejudice; in one justly famous sequence, several characters mouth off a list of shocking racist obscenities about African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Koreans, Jews, Italians direct to the camera. While certain characters, especially Pino, are overtly and aggressively racist, racial tension is an undercurrent that is both excuse and fuel for confrontation; Buggin’ Out (Esposito) early on notices that the Sal’s diner has no black people in its exclusively Italian-American wall of fame, but his anger feels arbitrary, as much because Sal wouldn’t give him extra cheese as for any greater political purpose. There are no saints: Sal tells off Pino but also stokes his racism; Mookie is a deadbeat dad and partner to Tina (Perez) and their son who barely sees him; the elderly ML (Paul Benjamin) who rails against racism is himself vicious about the Koreans and ready to incite violence against them. Racism is intricately connected with anger; it’s a language into which an aimless feeling can be ploughed, and an easy set of values on which to pin feelings of personal failure.

The inevitable riot, then, is tragic precisely because of its inevitability. Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) barge into the pizzeria to demand that Sal puts pictures of black people up on the wall, but it begins with screaming and only escalates from there. No-one is listening, everyone wants to be heard; and when Sal smashes Raheem’s beloved radio, the fight spills out onto the street, and once the police turn up to ‘restrain’ Raheem, the conclusion is unavoidable. In the wake of Raheem’s murder, the block riots and destroys the pizzeria while the Italians look on helplessly, and the Koreans desperately prepare to defend their own store from being next. Everyone handled the situation as badly as possible, and with the exception of the police – whose actions are inarguably excessive and result directly in an avoidable death – Lee has done the groundwork to make everyone’s actions understandable, if not excusable. The film’s epilogue – featuring contrasting quotations from King Jr (violence is unjustifiable) and X (violence is justifiable) – articulates the complexity of what the film’s characters have experienced for real.

Yet while the murder and riot are visceral, there’s plenty of hope in the film. When people listen to one another, they connect – whether it’s Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) and Da Mayor coming to an understanding after his attempts to make peace; Mookie and Sal’s conversation the day after the riot; or the love spread by Jade (Joie Lee). The characters may be formally uneducated but they’re highly articulate and very funny (Jackson is especially brilliant as the choric DJ, who for no apparent reason tears off his shirt in the riot scene). But more importantly, this community that turns in on itself is actually more defined by what links its members – poverty, (lack of) opportunity, social immobility – than by the differences that divide them. Everyone here is a victim of the conditions of structural racism and inequality that isolate and demonise communities, and these are not problems that these people can solve themselves. That’s a job for all of us.

FICTION: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (Hamish Hamilton)

Girl, Woman, Other is so expansive that, even though it only tells briefly the stories of twelve connected individuals, it feels like all of life is here. Bernardine Evaristo’s novel is a series of arguments and reflections on what it means to be a black woman in modern Britain, refracted through the lived experience of women of different generations, classes, racial and gender definitions, and ages. It’s profoundly moving and often very funny, with a disarming honesty in its endearing narrators.

Cover of Girl, Woman, Other
The images on the cover evoke the memorialisation that occurs throughout the book.

The twelve sections of the book are all titled after their featured character, and all connect. Amma is a radical lesbian director, presenting a new play at the National to great acclaim (if only). Other chapters focus on her right-on, privileged student daughter Yazz; her old collaborator Dominique who leaves for America and ends up in an abusive relationship; and her school friend and now an embittered and dowdy schoolteacher, Shirley. Shirley mother Winsome, who has returned to Barbados and had an affair with her daughter’s husband, gets her own chapter, as does Penelope, a fellow teacher and the only narrator who presents as white. Shirley’s former students Carole – gang-raped as a teenager, but grown-up as a high-flying banker – and LaTisha, who never made it off the estate and works as a supermarket manager with several kids by different fathers – also feature, along with Carole’s mother Bummi, who had to make it herself as a cleaner after arriving in the country. And at a slightly further remove, the non-binary Morgan who gave a lecture at Yazz’s university and is a Twitter influencer enters the novel late, along with her grandmother Hattie, a farmer in Northumbria, and her mother Grace, born at the end of the nineteenth century after her white mother had a brief liaison with a black sailor.

The range of experience is dizzying, and Evaristo’s ability to imagine rich lives for her women – who often tell the story of their entire life up until that point, as well as the stories of their friends and associates – is phenomenal. There is equal empathy given for the trials of the mega-rich black woman having to work several times as hard as her white colleagues to make Vice President of the bank (Carole) and the poor woman on the estate who keeps finding herself pregnant by yet another deadbeat man (LaTisha). All of the women have aspirations, but these sometimes involve finding one’s roots as a black woman (Winsome) and sometimes effectively ignoring it (the UKIP-voting Hattie). All of them are trying to find a place in the world.

What feels particularly radical in Evaristo’s work is the sheer scale of compromise. In a world where performative wokeness, virtue-signalling and cancel culture all work to call out socio-political failures of expression or self-identification, Evaristo sees women getting it continually wrong. Amma the radical feminist is quite happy to take the big money of mainstream theatre and watch crap television; Dominique throws herself into vegan puritanism but desperately wants e-numbers; Yazz is completely obnoxious and spoiled, as well as snobbish in her castigation of her mother, yet is also fierce and open to new things. Hattie, Shirley and Penelope are all deeply flawed people with prejudices they’re reluctant to admit to, yet all are important allies to those in their lives. The empathetic message that comes across constantly is that it’s really fucking hard to navigate the intersectional politics of feminism, anti-racism, LGBT+ allydom, and that while some of these women are doing better than others, the more important thing is that they’re all living their lives.

This interest in social justice is combined with an interest in legacies. The secrets of families – from ancestors who participated in the slave trade to parents abandoning children at birth, from hushed up rapes to affairs within the family, the family relationships cast long shadows. Particularly in the stories of several generations – Grace, Hattie and Morgan, or Bummi and Carole, or Winsome and Shirley – Evaristo sees generations of black women trying to advance through marriage, education and integration, the older and younger generations both judging each other for their compromises, failings and baggage. Families support one another, but they also complicate things.

As many of the characters come together at the after-party for Amma’s show in the final chapter, and other characters such as the truly awful Roland get a voice, the most important take-away seems to be the urge for connection. As much as characters such as Yazz and Dominique profess their independence, everyone in the book wants to know where they came from and who they matter to, even Penelope. It’s important that the least sympathetic of the twelve main characters – snobbish, racist, lonely – is given the epilogue, in which she makes an important connection that speaks to a depth even she didn’t realise she had in herself. The bonds of sisterhood and family, it seems, transcend all. We all have to live in this world, and even when the women of this book disagree on profound levels, the world is richer for all of them.