Last night I and my lovely wife rented what we expected to be some mindless entertainment from the local Blockbusters. With a title like “The Bank Job” and starring British actor Jason Statham, veteran of action-oriented B movies like “The Transporter”, we fully expected car chases, eye-gouging and all the other guilty pleasures associated with this genre.
As it turned out, “The Bank Job” was a far more understated movie that touched on some interesting social and political questions. Based on a true event–the 1971 Baker Street robbery in central London–it explores the venality of British law enforcement and corruption at the highest levels of British society.
The movie begins with unidentified people involved in some kind of orgy at an unnamed Caribbean resort (this was the swinging 60s after all). As one couple is going at it hot and heavy in a bedroom, somebody is taking photos through the window. It turns out that the woman is Princess Margaret and the photos become the possession of Michael X, a leading Black Power advocate in Great Britain who styles himself–as the name implies–after Malcolm X.
Next we see Martine Love (Saffron Burrows), a fashion model returning from a vacation being stopped by cops in Heathrow Airport. Caught with an ample supply of heroin, she is pressured by her boyfriend Tim Everett (Richard Lintern), an MI5 spook, to recruit her old boyfriend, a small-time criminal named Terry Leather (Jason Statham), to organize a bank robbery to retrieve the photos from a safety deposit box. Yes, I know, the negatives could have been kept somewhere else but this is a movie after all.
Statham goes about recruiting a crew to tunnel into the bank vault from the basement of a nearby clothing store. The robbery itself is not played for high drama, but is only a device to move the plot forward. Once they open the safety deposit boxes, they discover a virtual treasure trove of documents that are just as compromising for the British authorities as Michael X’s photos. There are photos that the madam of a brothel has taken of members of the upper crust in S&M sessions at her establishment. A porn merchant has a ledger book with entries reflecting payoffs to the London cops.
Most of the drama takes place after the robbery and depicts a cat-and-mouse game between Statham and his crew on one side and the MI5, London cops and the porn king’s goons on the other.
Of the greatest interest to me was the Michael X character who I remember from coverage in Intercontinental Press in the late 1960s, when I was in the SWP. IP was edited by Joe Hansen, one of Trotsky’s bodyguards in Coyoacan, and served as a kind of press digest from leftist sources around the world, not always Trotskyist–thank god. I could be mistaken, but I remember Michael X, who was charged with two murders in his home country of Trinidad, being defended by the Trotskyists as a police frame-up victim like Mumia. One of the two murder victims was Gale Benson, a daughter of a prominent Tory who became the lover of Michael X’s brother. There were suspicions at the time, supported by the movie, that she was an MI5 spy sent in to infiltrate Michael X’s group.
The movie’s version of Michael X is in accord with that of fellow Trinidadian V.S. Naipul, a hardened reactionary but accomplished writer. In “The Bank Job”, he is a total conman who was the accomplice of the aforementioned porn king, a slumlord, a drug dealer and a murderer. For Naipul, Michael X is a symbol of the decadence of 3rd world liberation struggles. As a kind of parallel, David Horowitz launched a career as a rightwing ideologue after becoming disillusioned with the Black Panthers who he described in the following terms in an interview with a rightwing talk radio host:
I encouraged a woman named Betty Van Tanner, who was 42 years old at the time and the mother of three children and who was my bookkeeper at Ramparts to do the bookkeeping for this school. And in December, 1974 Betty disappeared. Six weeks later the police fished her body out of San Francisco Bay. Her head had been bashed in by a blunt instrument and I knew at that moment that the Black Panthers had murdered her. And that was really the end of my career in the “left.” I was devastated. I felt responsible for encouraging her to take the position. I saw that the police were paralyzed and couldn’t conduct a serious investigation. They knew the Panthers had killed her but it’s very difficult when you have a gang for the police to identify the killers.
In another parallel with the American left, Michael X was lionized by certain left-leaning personalities. For conservative novelist Tom Wolfe, Leonard Bernstein had to be punished for hosting a fundraiser for the Black Panthers. In “Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers“, Wolfe wrote:
. . . and now, in the season of Radical Chic, the Black Panthers. That huge Panther there, the one Felicia is smiling her tango smile at, is Robert Bay, who just forty-one hours ago was arrested in an altercation with the police, supposedly over a .38-caliber revolver that someone had, in a parked car in Queens at Northern Boulevard and 10th Street or some such unbelievable place and taken to jail on a most un-usual charge called “criminal facilitation.” And now he is out on bail and walking into Leonard and Felicia Bernstein’s thirteen-room penthouse duplex on Park Avenue. Harassment & Hassles, Guns & Pigs, Jail & Bail-they’re real, these Black Panthers. The very idea of them, these real revolutionaries, who actually put their lives on the line, runs through Lenny’s duplex like a rogue hormone.
Naipul described Michael X’s relationship to John Lennon and Yoko Ono in exactly the same terms. In a hundred page article that appeared in the London Times in 1973, Naipul describes Michael X as a master manipulator who deceived Lennon and Ono, two people he held in disdain.
Naipul was obsessed with Michael X, viewing him as a kind of Satanic figure incorporating everything that was wrong about radical, 3r world politics. He wrote a novel “Guerrillas” that is based on the killings in Trinidad. He also wrote a long article in 1979 titled “Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad: Peace and Power” that covered the same terrain as the 1973 article and the novel. You can read the 1979 article at http://social.chass.ncsu.edu/wyrick/debclass/npmix1.htm and see Naipul at his dyspeptic best (or worst):
Revolution, change, system: London words, London abstractions, capable of supporting any meaning Malik – already reassembling his gang, his “commune” – chose to give them. There were people in London who were expecting Malik, their very own and complete Negro, to establish a new government in Trinidad. There had been a meeting; someone had made a record. The new government was going to underwrite the first International University of the Alternative, “the seat of the counter-culture of the Alternative.” Words, and more words: “I cannot go into details,” Malik had said. “But I can say this. The new university will be an experimental laboratory of a new and sane life-style.” But – the eternal warning of the X, the eternal thrill and flattery – the white people who came to Malik’s Trinidad (an airbus service was promised to all international capitals) had to remember that there was “a just hatred of the white man” in the heart of every black; and they had somehow to get over the fact that they “belonged to the race of the oppressors.”
According to Jon Wiener in his biography of John Lennon titled “Come Together”, Michael X did not quite have the same cachet with the Marxist left. That is why I am not so sure that my memory of IP’s account is completely reliable. A couple of important Trotskyist figures of the time, Robin Blackburn and Tariq Ali, were not that impressed with Michael X, according to Wiener.
Blackburn told Wiener that he “didn’t have that much confidence in Michael…who presented himself as the English equivalent of Malcolm X.” All in all, he “was a rather shallow and derivative figure.” Tariq Ali was even more forthright: “I knew him. I never clashed with him, and he never clashed with me. He read Malcolm X’s autobiography and started acting it out. The Blackhouse [Michael's cultural center funded by John Lennon] was a fraud. It was just making money for himself.”
Stuart Hall, another New Left Review editor, but not a Trotskyist, had a somewhat different take on Michael X. Despite being an enforcer for a slumlord, Michael X was genuinely trying to set up a tenants association in the 1960s. He also had memories of Michael X coming up to the NLR articles and having intense discussions about political and social change long before the Black power movement developed in Great Britain, so the accusation that he was trying to hitch a ride on the movement was inaccurate.
After Michael X returned to Trinidad, he set up an agricultural commune that was supposed to be a model for economic development that clashed with Prime Minister Eric Williams’s plans to make the country reliant on oil revenues. Despite his shady past, Wiener characterized Michael X as a forceful defender of black rights in Trinidad.
In another historical irony, Williams did not have the typical past of a pro-capitalist Prime Minister. As the young author of the classic “Capitalism and Slavery”, which started out as a PhD dissertation, Williams had been strongly influenced by CLR James, the Trotskyist theorist who tutored Williams at Oxford. It seems that James read both drafts of Williams’s dissertation and had a significant role in formulating the book’s primary thesis, namely that sugar plantations, rum and slavery trade helped to catapult Great Britain into world domination at the expense of the African peoples in the Diaspora.
I doubt that we’ll ever know the true story of Michael X, especially from either V.S. Naipul or “The Bank Job”. At least with the movie, you will not feel like the victim of a rightwing ideological assault.