In this 1976 match between England and the West Indies, the team celebrates the dismissal of Tony Greig.
In this 1976 match between England and the West Indies, the team celebrates the dismissal of Tony Greig. Patrick Eagar/Silverdocs
Some documentaries get theatrical releases, some make it to HBO or PBS, and some eventually do well on Netflix. But there are other avenues, too, and it's not always easy to know where to find the ones that are a little off the (American) radar. A great example of that problem is the cricket documentary Fire In Babylon.
The film was in theaters in the UK, and it screened at Silverdocs last week and at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. But as it turns out, you can have it, too! Right now, you can find it on iTunes (where it costs $6.99 to rent) or, depending on your cable provider, you may currently be able to find it for rent through your on-demand options as part of a special sports festival Tribeca is running. (I didn't realize it was on my cable system until I typed my cable provider into this search.) It's a great example of a movie that's actually found itself a pretty good home, quite frankly, but a home that you wouldn't necessarily find unless you were looking. So I'm suggesting you look.
As for the film itself: When I say "cricket documentary," perhaps you envision something very, very tame. Perhaps about drinking tea. You should not.
Fire In Babylon is the story of the West Indian team that, in the mid-1970s, became the overwhelmingly dominant power in their sport — a sport that was, of course, very British. Since many of the Caribbean countries that are part of the West Indies confederation saw the British primarily as a white colonial power, the politics of a high-octane cricket team made up of black players from places like Barbados and Guyana were pretty ... layered.
How layered? Well, Tony Greig, a white South African playing for England, thought it would be a good idea to try to intimidate the West Indians by vowing to "make them grovel." Without going into great detail about how much you can fire people up with just the right rhetoric, and without adopting as a general proposition that you can broadly quote from Wikipedia entries and hope to get good content, allow me to quote from Greig's Wikipedia entry, because I really can't improve upon it in describing what happens in the film: "Rarely has an attempt to psyche out an opposition failed so spectacularly."
Becoming the dominant team in cricket was, as one player says in the trailer, "like slaves whipping the asses of masters."
But as much as it's about politics and race, Fire In Babylon is also about a changing sport. The members of the West Indian team saw firsthand the power of "fast bowling" — in cricket-newbie terms, throwing the ball so hard and getting it to bounce in such a way that guys got hurt, jumped out of the way, or both — when they played Australia and faced a couple of legendary Australian fast bowlers who pretty much flattened them. But when they picked up the technique themselves and used it against England, they found themselves classified as bullies and (sigh) savages. (Incidentally, my notes say, verbatim, "Never realized how freaking brutal cricket is.")
Accompanied by terrific calypso music, including songs that were written about the team and its members as it rose to power, Fire In Babylon is a terrific sports underdog story as well as an intriguing look at the politics of competitions between nations, no matter how divorced from politics they might seem.