Written, co-produced and directed by Bahamian filmmaker, Travolta Cooper, “The Black Moses” is a full-length documentary inspired by the Book of Exodus. From the post-colonial literary perspective, Cooper and the documentary, portray Sir Lynden O. Pindling, the first Prime Minister of the Bahama Islands, as one of the leaders from the developing world who, by virtue of his leadership and success, is endowed with the persona of the biblical figure, Moses, as he rose to the challenge of leading his nation from total domination under colonial rule and to asserting political, social, and economic independence.
The first striking feature of this documentary is Cooper’s choice of the figure of the Black Moses, a figure that rises from national/regional borders to assume universal significance. The Bahama Islands, as part of the Caribbean region (the region where the Old World met the New World), is portrayed as one of the nations that successfully asserted political and economic self-hood from British colonialism, though the film raises questions about the social and cultural levels of such assertion.
As writer and director, Cooper definitely reveals creativity steeped in the biblical and folkloric traditions, which characterize Caribbean life, while, at the same time, demonstrating the region’s un-severed historical and cultural ties with Africa and the Black Diaspora. He excellently traces the region’s history and the emergence of the figure of the Black Moses not only by his choice of story-telling technique, but also by having a first-person story-teller who combines the characters of the Biblical figure, Moses, and the popular trickster figure of the African tradition – Anansi – a role brilliantly executed by Dennis Haysbert and thereby, clearly reiterating the skills needed to be applied by leaders in developing countries to set the stage for success. Equally significant, is Cooper’s strategy of using the interviewing style to add to the intrigue the Black Moses/Anansi persona.
By starting with the quote from the Book of Exodus, Cooper sets the stage for the viewer’s understanding of the trials and tribulations through which the Bahamian nation had to journey in its attempts to free itself from colonial domination. He successfully traces this journey by first starting with the quote from the Bible and then dividing the film into three Acts with sub-headings such as; “Sideways”, “Exodus”, etc. In addition, the story-teller connects the historical and Diaspora links world-wide, thus laying the foundation for Pindling’s important role on the world stage. At the same time, in the non-fiction realm, he unhesitatingly features two of the key factors that may have facilitated economic self-assertion in the Bahamas – drug-trafficking and job entitlement.
Significantly, the “Sideways” motif as well as the separatist versus the integrationist thinking of Marcus Garvey and William DuBois, and the questions about whether the story-teller/the Black Moses/Pindling is true, false, drug-dealer, savior, corrupt, etc., all underscore the moral dilemma faced by leaders in developing countries as they struggle to assert selfhood in a world in which the dynamic of the dominant versus the dominated continues to thrive. Evidence of this in the film is shown in the references to the separatists like Randal Fawkes and other Caribbean Leaders, especially Lynden Forbes Samson Burnham of Guyana, and the integrationists like Martin Luther King Jr ., and Nelson Mandela, among others.
Also brilliantly portrayed in the documentary is the cunningness of Pindling (his Anansi trickster persona) as he charts the course for his nation by first winning the trust and loyalty of the Bahamian people as evidenced after he threw the mace (the symbol of colonial power) through the window to show that such power belonged to the Bahamian people in 1965. Then using non-violence means, gained political self-assertion through the legitimate process of adult suffrage and integration as was happening throughout the Caribbean.
However, Cooper’s focus on Pindling’s attempts at economic self- assertion, reveal this is by far the most challenging aspect of nation-building. Unlike Burnham who had complicated Guyana’s political and economic growth, by resorting to socialism, nationalism, and control by force, while scoffing at tourism, viewers learn about Pindling’s “Anansi craftiness” in promoting tourism and in allowing the drug trade to flourish, benefitting the few who had the means. He was indeed smart enough to ensure he took measures to ensure the growth of the economy through tourism and the illegal activities of drug trafficking, all the while preserving non-violence and the loyalty of Bahamian people.
Even though cultural and social development suffered in the country, the Bahamian Black Moses enjoyed political and economic stability and even though, as Cooper notes, his focus on tourism affected the evolution of genuine Bahamian culture, other Caribbean Islands followed his example. Cooper’s portrayal of this Black Moses clearly shows that having led his people from the shackles of one colonial master, he was favored by the now neo-colonial interests of the first world as long as he did what could be tolerated. However, as soon as he stepped out of the “box” and criticized, as he did, the Caribbean Basin Initiative of the United States, the economic status of the country suffered immediate set-backs, and he lost some of his political and economic power as the Black Moses of his nation. In the global context however, Cooper’s film shows how the Bahamian Black Moses skillfully applied his Anansi skills to earn the title of “Universal Black Moses” as he led the group of countries that engineered the end of Apartheid in South Africa and then to the release of South Africa’s Universal Black Moses – Nelson Mandela.
Generally, documentaries restate historical facts and are historical records that do not explore the human dynamics of those who make our histories. In this documentary, however, Cooper (who may also be perceived as an Anansi figure himself), skillfully combines fiction and non-fiction using a variety of techniques, including flashbacks, black and white and color scenes, interviews with those who were closest to Sir Lynden Pindling, etc., to show that life in general is never black or white, right or wrong, fiction or non-fiction and the variables which exist or emerge as a result of our actions prevent us from ever being able to label anything totally right or totally wrong. As a result, his choice of the figure of the Black Moses, the Book of Exodus, as well as the perceptions of those who are interviewed in the film, the use of music at relevant moments, and the reluctance of the story-teller to reveal who he really is, all combine to affirm the statement the Story-teller makes in the film:
“They call me Moses, the Black Moses
because I am, I was, and will never be”
Reviewed by Roslin Khan, PhD and Romola Lucas of The Caribbean Film Academy.
To learn more about Travolta and his work, visit his website: Y-Feye Media.