Is Just a Movie? “Island in the Sun,” Eric Gairy, and the Fiction of West Indian Black Power

• February 2013

Yes. Yes, because if . . . if indeed it was just a movie, did he, did they not consider that I was . . . we were just actor?
Earl Lovelace, Is Just a Movie        

This is a story about a story. Partially recounting the British West Indian career of a fictionalization of the contemporary region in the years leading up to independence, it crosses curiously between history and creative historical representation. In this recollection of the fate of a storied depiction of Great Britain’s Caribbean territories, a portrait that dramatized the region’s postwar predicament in stark terms of color, the purpose is to do more than document the racialized cultural politics of decolonization through a turn to “fiction in the archives."1 It is to chronicle also a marvelously real episode in the history of “black power.”

The story at the heart of the following essay began its material life as a novel published in 1955 and titled Island in the Sun: A Story of the Fifties Set in the West Indies. Authored by Alec Waugh, the self-consciously less-famous older brother of Evelyn and a long-promising writer, the book bore a grandiose ambition betrayed in the mostly uncited subtitle. Indeed, for Waugh Island in the Sun was intended to be what one of its characters with serious writerly aspirations dubbed a great “novel of the West Indies.”2 Yet despite lofty literary intent of reckoning with the racial politics of empire as the sun set on its British Caribbean shores, the novel garnered little critical esteem. As literature, in fact, it flopped, falling under the weight of its heavy melodrama. Whatever gravity Waugh invested in the narrative was in the end overwhelmed by his penchant for naturalistic sensation, for an extravagant reliance on rape, murder, and mayhem.

Yet all was not lost for the author and his story. Good fortune and even fame befell Waugh when, within a year of publication, Island in the Sun was picked up by Hollywood movie mogul Daryl Zanuck. Zanuck’s company bowdlerized the narrative, snipped off the subtitle, and hired celebrity actors Dorothy Dandridge, Joan Collins, and Harry Belafonte. If the book went mostly unnoticed by readers in the British West Indies, the same could not be said for the cinematic adaptation.

Shot for the most part on location in Grenada and Barbados, Island in the Sun had West Indians abuzz. To be sure, their extraordinary bout of fascination with the film was partially a product of the famous talent, technology, and know-how that trailed its making in the region. More significant, though, was West Indians’ consciousness that Island in the Sun was not just any movie, that it was, in a creatively unlicensed sense, their movie. After all, even if Waugh would not admit that his fiction (much of it written while he was in St. Lucia in the early 1950s) had been inspired by real postwar West Indian events, readers in the region came away convinced that his novel was a roman a clef. In fact, a leading Trinidadian journalist (during an interview with Waugh) simply took for granted that a major protagonist in Island in the Sun had been modeled after Eric Gairy, the dashing young star of Grenadian politics and avatar of “black power” in the postwar British West Indian scene.3

Little wonder, then, that both the making and the actual showing of the motion picture was such a regional event. People from all walks of West Indian life—from governors-general to nationalist leaders to laboring men and women—flocked to cinemas to see Island in the Sun. For them it was an historic opportunity to screen themselves making modern history. What did they make of and do with this fiction of their historical present? How did these Caribbean people relate the “color problem” at the core of the story of Island in the Sun to the problematic experiences of race in their own lives? What, in short, was the story of this West Indian story in the real world of the West Indies? One of the most intriguing aspects of inhabitants’ engagement with this rendition of their contemporary historical experience, it turns out, was their appropriation of it as an occasion to play across the line that distinguished the real from the imaginary. To capture this carnivalesque drama, this blurring of the difference between the make-up of and the made-up in the West Indian social situation, it is perhaps best to revisit a couple of episodes involving the colorful political character of Eric Gairy.

Waugh’s Queer Story of Race in the West Indies

To appreciate the fabulous relationship between the life of Eric Gairy and the West Indian history of Island in the Sun, some rudimentary knowledge of Waugh’s original story is required. Despite a densely packed plot that defies easy summary, the novel might be understood as a sociological exposé written in imaginative prose. In fictionalizing events on Santa Marta, an island that so resembled Grenada that it might be half jokingly considered the alter geo of the “Spice Isle,” Waugh sought a scandalously subversive dramatization of a British Caribbean color problem that the colonial establishment labored to render publicly ineffable. Insofar as any novel can be charged with a rhetorical purpose, Island in the Sun appeared determined to disclose how intimate desires inwardly driven by race had pervaded the imaginations of British West Indians and, hence, perverted their dreams of a functional self-determination. In Waugh’s Santa Martan plantation society, white supremacy entailed the secreting of embarrassing interracial sexual habits and, accordingly, generated personalities passionately unsettled by a sense of racial insecurity. This held true not only for the demographically dominant yet socially degraded descendants of Africans but also for the other imponderably mixed peoples who inhabited the fictionalized British territory. So profound and confounding was Santa Marta’s color problem that it doomed hopes of achieving a fruitful independence on the island. In Island in the Sun, indeed, nationhood is metaphorically depicted as an ominous movement, one visited upon a volcanic Caribbean social formation with fatal consequences.

Waugh’s violently tragic tale is plotted through what might be termed a moral election. Over the course of a narrative that unfolds as an elite iteration of stereotypical Caribbean family drama (bastards, infidels, and unknown daddies), the underlying action involves a contest to determine who among three racialized male protagonists is best constitutionally equipped to shoulder the responsibility of leadership in a Santa Marta on the verge of self-government. Each of these contenders, Maxwell Fleury, David Boyeur, and Grainger Morris, embodies a different color designation and faces episodes that test and develops his character, a character presumptively informed by a naturalized (biological) category of race, readers come to appreciate. Women, to be sure, figure at every turn and twist in the plot; they, however, are mostly reduced to the realm of romance, performing effectively and affectively as bodies of evidence that either support or refute the masculine appeal of the protagonists competing for the role Santa Marta’s founding father.

Fleury is the frustrated scion of the local white plantocracy, a fatally insecure husband and a hopeful politician. His candidacy for leadership of the nation-to-be, though, is ultimately undone by a jealous rage that leads him to suspect and murder a single white male resident of Santa Marta. By the time Fleury discovers that the source of his problems is not some cuckolding colonist recently come from abroad but his long-concealed African ancestry within, it is too late for his crime to escape punishment. Boyeur, in contrast, is unmistakably and, as it happens, incorrigibly of African descent. For despite his abundant charisma, this dark-skinned trade union leader with a spellbinding rhetorical hold on the Santa Martan masses is also consumed by doubts of self-esteem. This psychological lack, in the end, disqualifies Boyeur from the race to lead the colony into nationhood. Seething with racially fueled resentment against local aristocrats like the Fleurys, Boyeur is driven, by the story’s end, to incite loyal striking laborers to murder Maxwell, his political and personal nemesis. Finally, there is Morris, the “mixed-blood” middle-class scholarship boy returned from Oxford to practice law in the land of his birth. A character of impeccable equipoise (tempting comparison with Barack Obama), Morris is left at the denouement of Island in the Sun as the last man with any legitimate political standing. So unfailing is his judiciousness that in the book’s final passages, he queerly declares himself as celibate rather than accept the amorous offer of his white female creole suitor.

Although Island in the Sun deserves consideration for its portrayal of British West Indian decolonization as a mix of dramatic irony and epic tragedy, this essay’s concern with the marvelous relationship between Eric Gairy and Waugh’s story demands focus on the character of David Boyeur. The dapper demagogue, Boyeur is figured as a fashionable yet pathological political product of the Santa Martan proletariat. Despite having excelled at cricket (in a story teeming with analogies between the game and government), he does not carry its hallowed imperial ethos of traditional fairness beyond the boundary of the sport. In the field of politics, in fact, Boyeur proves himself intemperate and showy, a hollow mockery of a hero.

In one of the book’s most telling instances, Boyeur is revealed as the political maestro behind a performance in which a small steelband side deliberately and repeatedly disrupts Maxwell Fleury’s debut speech as a candidate for electoral office. It is a scene that dramatizes both Boyeur’s spectacular political power as well as his disregard for the procedural rules of modern democracy. Thus if, for Waugh, Fleury signified historically the dying potency of West Indian “white boys” and Morris the reassuring character of the region’s “scholarship boys,” Boyeur spoke for the terrifying phenomenon of “saga boys,” young dandies who had made themselves into models of ungovernableness in the eyes of the respectable set. On disturbing display in his character were the grave consequences of permitting lower-class black male swagger into the colony’s highest political arena.

It was this terribly exciting combination of subcultural masculine style and raw political ambition that made comparison between the fictive Boyeur and the real Eric Gairy almost inevitable for British West Indians. At the very moment that Island in the Sun appeared, after all, Gairy was busy establishing himself in Grenada as the charismatic hero to the island’s admiring crowds. Cultivating a masterful and mesmerizing political manner that violated the colony's Eurocentric codes of respectability, he had been putting on the kind of spectacular performance that soon would be branded “black power.”

An Imitation of Life

The notion that Island in the Sun could have passed for a story about color problems in the real British West Indies and, accordingly, that Boyeur was Gairy’s doppelganger took on marvelously credible proportions with the adaptation of Waugh’s epic for Hollywood. Several reasons help to account for this heightened sense of crossover between reality and fiction when the narrative was projected for the big screen. To begin with, there was the choice of location for the shoot. By relying heavily on Grenada, Zanuck’s company had chosen an island that was the spitting image of Santa Marta; like Waugh’s fictionalized island, the “Spice Isle” was tiny, hilly, and laden with plantations named after French owners and worked largely by descendants of enslaved Africans. The motion picture script, moreover, aggrandized Boyeur’s character by assimilating into it the novel’s true and tragic apollonian hero, Grainger Morris; as a result, the film, unlike the book, was dominated by the figure of a Gairy-like labor leader. Finally, it cannot be ignored the effect of casting Harry Belafonte as the new composite Boyeur character. Belafonte was West Indian-born and, having charmed US audiences with folksy songs and flushing good looks, his growing global “it” boy status lent further credence to a the idea that Island in the Sun was principally about a popular regional hero, a man very much like Eric Gairy.

Above all, though, it was couple of completely unscripted moments involving Gairy that amplified the confusion between fiction and reality in the story of Island in the Sun in the West Indies. The first can be traced to an episode that occurred a week into film production on location in Grenada. On 22 October 1956, Joan Fontaine (who played opposite Belafonte as his ultimately sacrificed creole white love interest Mavis) celebrated her birthday with a big bash at the tony Hotel Santa Maria in the capital of St. George. As with much of the activity around the making of Island in the Sun in the West Indies, the festivities for Fontaine became an occasion for local dignitaries to bask in the Hollywood limelight. Among those in attendance rubbing shoulders with stars like Belafonte were Grenada’s highest official representative of the British crown, colonial administrator Wallace MacMillan; the mayor of the St. George, Norris Hughes; and the venerable T. A. Marryshow, the Grand Old Man of patriotic politics in the island and the region. Conspicuously absent from the scene, however, was the young politician then acknowledged as the “centre and circumstance of life in Grenada,” Eric Gairy.4 Thus even as the West Indian-born actor who played Boyeur was present at the Fontaine affair, the man whom many West Indians took to be the real-life model for Boyeur was not.

Amazingly, it did not go unnoticed that Gairy’s exclusion might have reflected the very color problem that Island in the Sun promised to expose. A week after the birthday celebrations for Fontaine, a Grenadian newspaper called the West Indian published a piece of correspondence that wondered aloud about the role of racism in the compilation of the guest list for the occasion. Signed “Factum,” the letter discerned in Gairy’s omission a case of “conspicuous discrimination against certain outstanding personalities.” It was simply proper, the correspondent explained, that as “virtually Chief Minister and head of the government,” as well as in his “capacity” as the “Minister of trade and Production” who had been instrumental in securing local cooperation and successful filming, Gairy should have been invited. “Factum” also preempted the excuse that the discriminatory omission was of foreign rather than local provenance, noting that the US film company would have “sought the assistance of local person or persons” in deciding on the guest list. By the end, the letter explicitly raised the question of color hinted at in the opening: “Finally,” wrote “Factum,” “may I ask what has given certain citizens precedence over others[?] Is it because of a difference in hue?”5

This interrogation of the color problem did not go unchallenged. A few days later the West Indian published a letter signed by Max Sterling. Upholding proper British West Indian form, Sterling refused to acknowledge color as a legitimate issue in Gairy’s exclusion from the birthday party. The decision not to extend an invitation to Gairy, he argued, was valid because, in the first place, this politician was only “remotely” concerned with event. More significant, for us, Sterling then added that given Gairy’s “unseemly behavior” in public, he had effectively “forfeited all clams to an invitation at private social functions.”6 For this correspondent, color was not the governing problem when it came to Gairy; the case, rather, was one of a legitimately discriminating rejection of an individual with a reputation for unrespectable conduct.

The fabulously imitative dance between art and life in the story of Gairy and Island in the Sun continued even after the release of the film in the middle of 1957. Indeed, the relationship between the man and the movie achieved its marvelous peak at the end of that year when Gairy was convicted for disorderly conduct and, like Boyeur at the end of Waugh’s novel, suffered a great political setback. With this guilty verdict (confirmed in December), Gairy lost his right to vote and his seat on the colonial legislative council. The resemblance between Boyeur and Gairy, moreover, went beyond the consequences suffered for breaking the law. A wonderful coincidence obtained, too, with respect to the alleged crime. Gairy, it turns out, had been charged for an electioneering stunt that appeared to have copied a page directly from Waugh’s novel or a scene from Zanuck’s film adaption. On 15 September 1957, he had directed a steelband to disrupt the campaign meeting of a rival candidate, L. A. Purcell. Just as Boyeur had in Island in the Sun, furthermore, Gairy was alleged to have summoned the band at short intervals, waiting for Purcell to speak before drowning him out. The ploy proved just as productive in Grenada as it had been in the fictitious Santa Marta; mocked by Gairy’s percussive hecklers, Purcell closed his meeting prematurely. At that point, Gairy along with his supportive side pranced away from the scene in song: “Who you voting for?” was their choral chant; “Uncle Gairy” was the response. Truth, in this case, seemed merrier than fiction.7

The story of Island in the Sun would soon be forgotten, but the same was hardly true for the legend of Eric Gairy. In the following two decades, Gairy would become notorious embracing to a disturbing degree the role of violent demagogue forecast in the character of Boyeur. By the early 1970s, though, one suspects that he might have wished for Waugh’s fiction to be remembered. At that time, as young radicals in Grenada invoked black power as part of their challenge to Gairy’s regime, he tried to convince people that his rise pioneered black power, that he had made it effective even before it became fashionable. Few, then, no doubt, would have found his boast believable. Yet, perhaps, had they known of Gairy’s real role in the historical fiction of Island in the Sun, they might have granted him a begrudging point. Or, maybe not; like characters in Earl Lovelace’s recent black power novel, they might have replied that his story was just a movie.8

 

Harvey R. Neptune was trained in the history at New York University and now teaches in the history department at Temple University.

 


1 Use of the phrase acknowledges the work of Natalie Zemon Davis, Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987).

2 Alec Waugh, Island in the Sun: A Story of the Fifties Set in the West Indies (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Cudahy, 1955), 13. This aspiring writer, it should be added, also imagined (in the same passage) that MGM would buy the “option” to make a film of his West Indian novel.

3 “A Ride and Interview with Waugh,” Port-of-Spain Gazette, 19 October 1956.

4 “Gairy Has Nobody to Blame but Himself,” Port-of-Spain Gazette, 29 September 1957.

5 “Fox Social Advisers Deemed Unfair,” West Indian, 29 October 1957

6 “Get Your Facts Straight,” West Indian,  7 November 1956.

7 “Hon. E. M. Gairy Convicted For Disorderly Conduct,” West Indian, 30 October 1957.  For more details on this incident, see also “Elections Case against Gairy,” Port-of-Spain Gazette, 24 September 1957.

8 See Earl Lovelace, Is Just a Movie (London: Faber and Faber, 2011). The quote used as epigraph to this essay is found on 33; italics and suspension points in original.

 

Related Articles