It was Christmas 2012.
Single mom, Cheryl Alexander, lived with her four children in a small house in Jacob’s Hill, Wallerfield blocked around with plywood and galvanise sheets.
The rhythmic beating of African drums filled the UWI Daaga auditorium, and ushered in local writers, artists, filmmakers, and academics who came to see the screening of the film Earl Lovelace—A Writer in His Place; among them poet and cultural activist Eintou Pearl Springer, filmmaker Yao Ramesar (a clip from his film Sadhu has been included in the film), novelist Merle Hodge and UWI St Augustine Deputy Principal, Professor Rhoda Reddock.
The Chibale drumming ensemble were impressive not least of all because of how young they were, and reflected perhaps one of the most important things, according to critics, about the film and Lovelace’s work—“the development of a relationship between the past and the present.”
The entrance of the guest of honour, dressed in his signature white shirt and white trousers was welcomed with thunderous applause. Lovelace, accompanied by three of his children, took the centre row.
The drumming would not be his only tribute. The Bois Academy of Trinidad and Tobago (BATT), encouraged audience participation as they sang the praises of legendary stickfighters like Joe Tamana, who led the Canboulay riots and songs like We Going Home to Africa Tonight.
A song was dedicated to Lovelace’s stickfighting character Bollo, from his novel The Dragon Can’t Dance, who had been, Rondell Benjamin, BATT co-founder explained, the inspiration for the academy which was formed to “promote music, drumology, dance and martial traditions that (are) part of the Kalinda (or stickfighting) tradition.”
Further opening speeches revealed that Lovelace’s work had been important for many and before the lights dimmed, the master of ceremonies, Dr Lovell Francis, a previous student of the film’s writer, producer and director, UWI lecturer Dr Funso Aiyejina, described Lovelace as “the writer of the Caribbean, a living legend.”
“We have to revere our artists,” Francis said, “he saw value in us (when others have said) that we are always to be the bastards of history, he says we are central, important.”
Now a UWI lecturer himself and one of the film’s post-production assistants, Francis explained that Lovelace has lived a rich and profound life, and the challenge had been—How does one live the story of an entire life in a film, especially one like Lovelace’s?
The next 55 minutes were Aiyejina’s attempt to do just that, though he had admitted earlier that the film’s focus had become “more about (Lovelace’s) writing and his family.”
One of the first images is of Lovelace holding a Kalinda stick—he is portrayed as the seminal bois man, the living dragon. Narrator Michael Cherrie reads a script that describes Lovelace as having “a deep-seated love for the people and the region,” even while “frustrated with its unrealised potential.”
Switch to Crew’s Inn 2004, Lovelace reads from his work; images of the landscape he writes about are brought into focus one by one as he reads—a crowing cock, the rain falling, the various vegetation. This is the writer in his context, an island once-populated by “the most lawless and rebellious in the Caribbean,” a place where Lovelace finds his writer’s voice among the “castaways, rebels, alienated and marginalised.”
The film glides back and forth between historical footage of Lovelace’s public appearances and interviews done by Aiyejina, with the author’s “best friend” Eddie Hernandez, his children, Che and Asha Lovelace, and wife Jean.
Speeches given by Lovelace at the Tobago Word Festival (2011), when accepting the Nalis Lifetime Literary award in 2012, the Cipriani Labour College (2013) reveal, Lovelace the cultural observer, who encourages that delinquents be seen as revolutionaries, and at turns his “post-colonial philosophical ruminations”—the body under the conditions of slavery became a universe, the limited space over which the slave had control.
Reflections by close friends and family necessarily offer the more intimate—“when Earl feteing he forgets everything else.” Lovelace is shown immersed in the culture about which he writes—cooking local dishes,“liming” with friends, enjoying the company of “his adoring female fans.”
The film fails, however, to interrogate the importance of Lovelace’s love relationships, which are alluded to, but not laid bare. Images of Lovelace in a woman’s embrace occur frequently throughout the film but Jean Lovelace’s unfaded memories of the first time she saw her husband and the decision they took to transgress racial lines and be married, is the only testament of what it is like to love Lovelace, the audience will be privy too.
The archival footage and the more recently shot interviews meld into one, creating an overall effect of something historical though it may greater reflect “the budgetary constraints,” Aiyejina explains the film was made under.
United in the view that the film’s importance outweighed any of its flaws, no one wanted to criticise it on record. Lovelace said: “I have been writing about others my entire life, it was good to see what others have thought of me…I couldn’t not like it. It was all important.”