Thursday, January 31, 2008

Meet a New Movie Villain

He was known as Michael X, Abdul Malik, and Michael de Freitas (his given name). A self styled leader of the British Black Power movement, he was hung for murder in his native Trinidad in 1975, and he now appears as one of several villains in the clever upcoming caper film The Bank Job (though he barely makes the trailer).

In 1971, an unknown team of thieves broke into the safety-deposit boxes of an undistinguished London bank. Job speculates the heist was motivated by compromising information Michael X stored in a box there. A full review will go up opening day, but it is worth looking at the historical X-Malik-de Freitas now.

De Freitas was a pimp and drug dealer who reinvented himself as a revolutionary, with the British press acting as witting accomplices in his PR campaign. He was the first non-white to be arrested and convicted on charges stemming from the British Race Relations Act. He returned to Trinidad to evade an extortion charge, where he oversaw a bizarre “commune,” evolving into a combination of Louis Farrakhan and Jim Jones. Two bodies were eventually found in shallow graves near the compound. One was Gale Benson the daughter of a conservative MP who had taken up with one of De Freitas’s American colleagues. The other was Joseph Skerritt, a disillusioned follower for whose murder de Freitas would eventually swing.

Michael X was a villain, and to its credit, Bank Job identifies him as such. In the production notes actor Peter de Jersey discusses the figure he plays:

“‘Michael X began to believe his own myth,’ says de Jersey. ‘While he was in Trinidad he was asked the question, “Are you a Socialist?’ and he said, ‘No, think more along the lines Napolean and Hitler.’”

Again, to their credit, the filmmakers do not glamorize Michael X as charmingly roguish. He is frankly somewhat banal, but they do show his success playing London’s trendy left. Reportedly, John Lennon and Yoko Ono were among his benefactors (and who do those extras look like seated to his right?). That is something to remember next time you hear “Imagine.” The film ignores the Islamist character of his cult, but the implications of the “X” are hard to miss. (Incidentally, David Suchet is one of the better screen heavies in recent years as a sinister pimp and pornographer associate of Michael X.)

V.S. Naipul wrote an extended non-fiction piece on Michael X and reportedly modeled the novel Guerillas on the Trinidad affair. In reviewing Naipul’s work in the NY Times, Jane Kramer wrote:

“The fact that Michael X was ignorant and inarticulate and possibly psychotic, that he was prone more to sullen demagoguery than rousing street talk, discouraged neither the English newspapers whose radical chic of the moment was black revolutionaries nor the English hostesses.”

Kramer echoes Naipul’s jaundiced view of Michael X’s media manipulations, who witheringly wrote: “for people like Malik there was no point in being black and angry unless occasionally there were white people to witness.”

Michael X was a killer and it is refreshingly surprising to see a film depict him as such, rather than water-down their portrayal out of political correctness. Indeed, the way the film mixes historical fact with fiction is quite clever (more on that later). Of course it is a British production. One wonders if a Hollywood studio could do as well.