ON AIR: The New Classical FM

Film Review: Who We Are & Poly Styrene

Arts Review2022-2-4By: Marc Glassman


Taking on America and England

Two feisty docs: Who We Are and Poly Styrene

By Marc Glassman


Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America

Emily & Sarah Kunstler, directors and co-producers w/Jeffery Robinson

Starring: Jeffery Robinson w/Josephine Bolling McCall, Gwen Carr, Ista Clark, Tiffany Crutcher, Kathie Fox, Darren Martin, Richard “Dick” Opians, Robert “Opie” Opians, Carolyn Payne, Hank Sanders, Braxton Spivey, Robert Turner, Kristi Williams


In Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America, American Civil Liberties Union deputy legal director Jeffery Robinson continually refers to “the tipping point,” moments in US history when racial equality was moving towards being reached only for events to go backwards. Those tipping points were rendered graphically, as movements up and down a hill, on a screen behind Robinson as he spoke to a rapt audience at New York’s historic Town Hall theatre on Juneteenth (June 19) 2018. Using the illustrated lecture format made famous by Al Gore and Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth, the film, co-directed by Emily and Sarah Kunstler and co-produced by them and Robinson, takes on the racial divide that has haunted America since its colonial days and still threatens the future of the nation.

Over the course of nearly two hours, Robinson recounts the history of slavery in what is now the U.S. from its origins in 17th century colonial Massachusetts to, as he calls it, “snuff film” footage (happily kept to a minimum) of recent police killings of black men. This is an essay film and Robinson makes it work by keeping it personal. The dreadful history of racial injustice and horrific violence is contextualized, as it fits into the framework of what he is discussing in his own life. 

Robinson was 11-years-old in 1968 when Martin Luther King was assassinated in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. It is the most obvious tipping point in the U.S.’s bloody story; certainly, King’s death ended the most fertile and energetic civil rights movement in the country’s history.  As a boy, Robinson marched with his father and brother in support of striking sanitation workers and attending their trial is what impelled him to become a lawyer. Throughout the film, Robinson takes us to Memphis and to other places where racial inequities—and far worse—have taken place. 

One city Robinson visits is Tulsa, Oklahoma, where what he rightly calls a “genocide” took place in 1921. City officials conspired with racist white gentry to destroy what had been called “Black Wall Street,” the mercantile and civic zone for the wealthy and middle class African-Americans who had prospered there since the end of the Civil War. Airplanes were rented so that the area could be firebombed with flaming turpentine projectiles and when the black population poured in panic onto the streets, they were shot down by whites—including police officers—in trucks, some with machine guns. No one will ever know how many people died in the slaughter. Much of the 35 city blocks in the most prosperous areas was destroyed. 

Robinson interviews a woman now over 100, who was a child at the time. Understandably, her testimony isn’t as startling as the fact that she had survived a century to tell the tale. But the footage shows Robinson’s thoroughness: we see sisters and mothers of victims of police violence as well as footage of their dead beloved relatives, unarmed, killed for the act of being “uppity” black men. We see shots of blacks hanging from trees, the “strange fruit” in Billie Holiday’s melancholy brilliant ballad. The still shocking image of 14-year-old Emmett Till, savagely beaten to death by white racists in the mid- ‘50s South is shown to remind us of the bravery of his mother willing to show the world his obscenely grotesque face so they would know what had happened to her son, who had done nothing but was accused of whistling at a white girl.

Sexuality lies as one of the bases of the racial violence that permeates black and white relationships. As Robinson points out, black women were bred by their white slave owners so that they could produce children to work the farms and make their cotton grow. Conversely, the idea of white women being interested in black men was considered anathema by the same establishment since it offered them no prospect of future wealth. 

Money trumps sexuality in Robinson’s analysis of race relations in the U.S. During the colonial period, tobacco, sugar and rice were cash crops as well as cotton, all of which was produced by slave labour. In 1797, shortly after the USA was created and had established blacks as 3/5 of a white man thereby increasing the South’s representation in the new Electoral College, the cotton gin was invented, which made the production of textiles far more effective. After that, the South had an economic engine based on the maintenance of slave labour and cotton triumphed over all other crops. 

In 1790, there were one million Blacks in the U.S. of whom 900,000 were slaves; by the time of the Civil War, the number of blacks had increased to 4.4 million and 3.95 were slaves. Cotton at that point represented 49% of US exports and was worth over 220 million in their dollars; today, that would be worth over 6.5 billion.

Robinson makes it clear that the “romance” of the Civil War is based on a lie: in the end, it was about money even more than race or sex. He tells the story of racial injustice in a way that is intimate and emotional and political. We see the outrageous offenses that have been carried out against blacks in America and understand why they’ve taken place. 

Who We Are is ultimately about Robinson and his family, who survived racism in Memphis to become successful in their lives. It’s about a man, who after all the tragedies he’s recounted, still believes in America. Are they at another tipping point? Robinson believes so. Let’s hope that this film will help to make it a period in which racial equality and a renewed sense of democracy reinvigorates the United States. Certainly, it’s a film worth viewing and recommending to friends and neighbours. 


Poly Styrene: I am a Cliché 

Celeste Bell & Paul Sng, directors

Starring: Poly Styrene (archival), Celeste Bell


You have to be a Zoomer to truly remember punk rock, a brief and intense period in the late Seventies when angry youths expressed themselves astonishingly well in music that rarely used more than three chords. It was a shocking moment for me when while watching this heartfelt film by punk icon Poly Styrene’s daughter Celeste Bell to realize that her legendary performance with X-Ray Spex at lower Manhattan’s club CBGB’s was 45 years ago. Poly Styrene’s anger, charm, sexuality and intense personal confusion are resolutely on display in this film, which explores racial, sexual and class issues in an England about to be transformed by Margaret Thatcher.

Celeste Bell’s film isn’t about Thatcher really: it’s about her mum. Marian Elliot, who became known as Poly Styrene, was a child of a Scottish/British mother and a Somalian father at a time when mixed race kids encountered severe resistance simply for existing. Racism was alive and rampant when young Mari was figuring out life in Sixties and Seventies Brixton but by the time she hit her late teenage years, there were others who felt just as ready as her to express their dissatisfaction with society. 

In 1976, at the age of 19, she formed a band of “underachievers” called X-Ray Spex, which quickly garnered respect from John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten), the singer of the Sex Pistols, and the nascent punk scene. Mixed race, plump and sporting braces, Poly Styrene was sexy nevertheless and breathtakingly charismatic while leading the band through her self-penned songs especially the iconic single “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” 

EMI signed the band up for an album and Poly Styrene led them to an acclaimed appearance on the famous BBC show “Top of the Pops”—all of this before Mari Elliot was 20 years old. It was too much, too soon for the young woman, who was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia—she was actually treatable as bipolar—and spent time in institutions in-between gigs all across England. Even more shattering for the singer was a residency at New York’s acclaimed CBGB’s club, where she encountered too many drugs and sex. 

After one album and five singles, Poly Styrene had to break up the band to preserve what was left of her sanity. She released a jazzier, more meditative record, which flopped, causing EMI to drop her–then met a man who married her and with whom she had a child. Celeste Bell, Poly’s daughter and narrator/co-director of the film, has taken footage of her mum in her iconic pomp, added commentary by loads of her contemporaries—mainly female—and devised this film.

Celeste’s childhood was difficult, to say the least. Her mother, no longer a pop star, went to India, and when she returned to England, became a member of the Hare Krishna sect, placing her daughter as part of the kids being raised by them. Eventually, Celeste escaped and after a court case, was raised by her grandmother. Her very fragile mother gradually emerged from her inner chaos, reforming the band on occasion and eventually beginning to perform again. By 2008, Poly Styrene was appearing live again and in 2010, an album, Generation Indigo, was released with the assistance of Celeste as a singer and occasional co-songwriter.

Sadly, just as Poly Styrene’s career was relaunching, she had a diagnosis of cancer. Celeste, who had reconciled with her mother, lost her again. This film and a book which was published a couple of years ago, are Celeste’s ways of celebrating her mother. 

Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché is too long and overly stuffed with a laudatory commentary from a slew of musicians and writers who love and miss the iconic singer. It is what you would expect from a daughter attempting to portray her mother: indulgent, respectful, wishful and lovingly aware of the flaws and gifts that made her a star. If you remember punk and Poly, this is a film well worth seeing. Who knew that someone wearing braces could be sexy?



To learn about advertising opportunities with Classical FM use the link below:

Listen on the Go

Classical Logo
Download Apps
Download Apps
Marilyn Lightstone Reads
Art End World
Part of
© 2024 | Executive Producer Moses Znaimer