Sunday, October 23, 2016

Queen of Katwe

Directed by Mira Nair, 2016

Starring: David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, and Madina Nalwanga

Production companies:  Walt Disney Pictures, ESPN Films, and Mirabai Films

A review of the film

There are few films at local theaters that I would actually recommend.  The Queen of Katwe is an exception and I highly recommend seeing it.

I’ve always been attracted to stories of athletes who overcome disadvantages to achieve distinction in their sport.  Most of those stories take place in this country.  Clearly one out of every six people in this country do not have enough food to eat, and there are tremendous obstacles to overcome here in order to become an athletic star.  However, looking at the reality portrayed in the Queen of Katw,e we can see a whole new level of seemingly impossible obstacles that need to be overcome every day.

Before we look at the reality faced by ten-year old Phiona portrayed by Madina Nalwanga, I believe it is useful to look at a bit of the history of Uganda.


Uganda, even in the ancient past, has been a center for food production.  One article I read argued that Uganda alone has the potential to feed the entire African continent. 

The capital Kampala is close to Lake Victoria.  The Banganda people who live in this area call this lake Nnalumbale and it is the second largest fresh water lake in the world.  The neighborhood of Katwe is one of the least affluent in Kampala.

Initially Ivory was the primary product European traders took from this region.  Then cotton production became highly lucrative.  Today coffee is the most lucrative export. 

Although the land of Uganda is very fertile, it is a landlocked country.  There is a rail line connecting Uganda with the port of Mombasa in Kenya.  This rail line facilitates the exports that have only benefitted a minority of the population.

Those who are at all familiar with Uganda think of the military dictator Idi Amin Dada.  Idi Amin was only one of the many military dictatorships the United States government has supported.  In order to sustain the poverty experienced by the masses of people all over the world, military dictatorships have been necessary.

Phiona Mutesi

The film Queen of Katwe begins when we see ten-year old Phiona selling corn in a highly congested area of Kampala.  We see that her brothers and sisters also need to sell corn for her family to survive.  Phiona’s mother who is portrayed by Lupita Nyong’o raises the family.  Her father passed away before the beginning of the timeline of the film.

Robert Katende, portrayed by David Oyelowo, had just graduated at the top of his class with an engineering degree.  In a rational world, engineers would be needed to modernize Uganda.  However, Katende is unable to find work as an engineer and takes a low paying job working with young people teaching them soccer and chess.

Phiona becomes interested in chess and Katende accepts her into his class.  During her first day to learn the game, no one wanted to play with her because she had an odor.  On her second day, she cleaned herself and began to learn the game.

The students at the chess class received a lunch that appeared to consist of corn meal.  Because Phiona and her brother had this lunch, they volunteered to give their dinner to their mother so she could have a larger portion.

When her mother learned that Phiona was spending time learning chess, she was initially outraged.  Her mother felt that this time would be better spent selling corn to get the money her family needed to live.  Gradually Phiona’s mother began to realize that playing chess could be a bridge to a better life for her daughter.

In another scene, Phiona’s brother was severely injured when he was hit by a motorcycle.  Phiona paid for someone to take her brother to the hospital.  After the surgery, Phiona’s mother learned that she could not afford the hospital costs and took her son home before he recuperated.  Because Phiona used money to take her brother to the hospital, her mother didn’t have rent money and the family was evicted from their home.

In the United States when there are heavy rains some people loose their homes due to flooding.  In Kampala this is a routine occurrence.  When the heavy rains came to Kampala Phiona’s family lost their possessions and her nephew nearly lost his life.

The chess team from Katwe travelled to a more affluent area of Uganda where they would compete in a tournament.  The team was offered beds that they could use for the night.  Apparently no one from the team had ever slept in a bed and the entire team slept on the floor.

Because Phiona’s family didn’t have access to running water, she needed to carry water to her home.  In order to cook food, the family needed to gain access to wood.  The wood used for cooking apparently is taken from the forests of Uganda.  This threatens the entire ecosystem of the country.

Learning to read had never been an option for Phiona.  Robert Katende’s wife taught Phiona to read and this would begin to transform her life.

In spite of all these obstacles, Phiona demonstrated that she had the ability to outsmart against some of the best chess players in the world.  While she eventually manages to improve her life, the conditions in Uganda for most of the population clearly remain unchanged.


Seeing this story we can gain a deeper appreciation of the Cuban reality.  Shortly after the revolution of 1959, the government worked diligently to make sure everyone on the island knew how to read.  The government also worked to make sure everyone had access to running water as well as electrical power.

Today Cuba has more doctors and teachers per capita than any other nation in the world.  No Cuban needs to pay for health care.

In the recent hurricane that devastated Haiti and parts of the United States, the Cuban government organized an evacuation.  While the hurricane caused the loss of lives in Haiti and the United States, no one lost their life in Cuba.

Clearly these are not the conclusions that the producers of the film Queen of Katwe would like viewers to think about.  Those producers include Walt Disney Productions and ESPN Films.   

The conditions that Phiona experienced in Uganda are experienced by billions of people all over the world.  About half of the world’s population lives on two dollars per day or less.  The film Queen of Katwe as well as the Cuban example demonstrate that working people clearly has the potential to transform the world.


Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Brazil’s Dance with the Devil – The World Cup, The Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy

By Dave Zirin

A review

A while ago I asked several of my co-workers a basic question: What language do most Black people speak in the Western Hemisphere?  Only one person knew that the correct answer is Portuguese, the national language of Brazil.

The answer to this question raises many other questions about the reality of Brazil.  Brazil is both the fifth most populous nation in the world as well as the fifth largest nation in the world.  More Black people live in Brazil than in any other nation except Nigeria.  Brazil has it’s own martial arts style, Capoeira, it’s own dance and music styles, Samba, as well as it’s own way of playing the game of soccer known to the world as football.         

Dave Zirin’s recent book Brazil’s Dance with the Devil gives us a unique view of the nation much of the world learned about through the World Cup, and the Olympics.  This book gives us a view of Brazil that was completely ignored by the mainstream press during the recent Olympic games.

Brazilian History

One of the reasons why Brazil has such a large Black population stems from the fact that Brazil and the Caribbean were the two places that received the most kidnapped slaves from Africa.  Slavery in Brazil was especially horrendous.  Life expectancy for a Brazilian slave was eighteen years.

Before the Civil War in the United States, slave owners were the dominant power in this country.  The Civil War was, in effect, the second revolution in the United States.  The defeat of the confederacy removed slave owners from their position of power.  When the U.S. government abolished slavery, the slave owners lost their most valuable so-called possession.  Slaves valued at literally billions of dollars became workers who received a salary for their labor.

Brazil has a different history with respect to the abolition of slavery.  For a time, the Portuguese King needed to escape the French conquest, and he sailed to Brazil.  While living in Brazil, the King opposed slavery. 

Brazil has a vast interior that was not developed during the time of slavery.  Brazilian slaves routinely escaped to the interior, and it became increasingly difficult to apprehend them.

Nearly 200 years before the slave revolution on the island of Haiti, a settlement of escaped slaves was established in Brazil.  This settlement, known as Palmares, was home to more than 10,000 escaped slaves from the years 1605-1694.  While the settlement of Palmares was overturned by the Portuguese military, slaves continued to escape into Brazil’s interior.  As in all nations where slavery existed, slave insurrections were a routine fact of life.

An article written in the Brazilian periodical O Rebate in 1889 gave the following reason for the abolition of slavery:

“Had slaves not fled in masse from the plantations, they would today still be slaves.  Slavery ended because slaves rebelled against it and against the law that enslaved them.”  The abolition “was nothing more than the legal recognition–so that public authority wasn’t discredited–of an act that had already been accomplished by mass revolt.”  

The other reason for the abolition of slavery had to do with the poor health of the slaves.  Because slave owners were indifferent to the health care of slaves, they suffered from diseases that spread to the rest of the population.  For all these reasons, Brazil became the last nation in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery in 1888.

São Paulo became the most important commercial city in Brazil, and today it is the most populous city in South America.  Historically São Paulo has been the center of coffee production in Brazil, and Brazil is the world’s leading coffee producer.  Next to oil, coffee produces more revenue than any other natural resource.

Like in many nations of Latin America, working people and small farmers had few resources to support themselves.  In Brazil, working people used available materials to build their homes.  In the areas surrounding the cities, these working class areas became known as the favelas.               

Brazil had a history of repressive governments that organized some development of the nation.  Then, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was elected to be President of Brazil.  He is known around the world as Lula.

Lula and the Workers Party

Reading the life story of Lula, I thought of Bernie Sanders, who ran for President in this country.  Sanders promised all kinds of reforms if he were elected.  Then, after his defeat, he endorsed Hillary Clinton who clearly isn’t interested in making any basic changes.

Lula was born into a working class family and became a factory worker.  Because of the dangerous conditions workers are exposed to, Lula lost one of his fingers.  He attempted to get treatment for the injury in one of the hospitals in that area.  None of those hospitals would treat him because he didn’t have sufficient financial resources.

Lula then became president of the steelworkers union.  The government arrested him for his union activities.  He was tortured while in police custody. 

Then, Lula helped organize the Workers Party and ran for president six times.  He finally won the election.

During Lula’s presidency, Brazil had a significant increase in revenue.  This was primarily due to the discovery of oil and the increase of exports to China.  Because of this new revenue, Brazil was able to pay off it’s exorbitant debt to the International Monetary Fund.  We should keep in mind that paying off this debt meant that Brazilian working people helped to enrich some of the most affluent people in the world. 

Lula did make some initiatives to improve the standard of living for the poorest Brazilians.  However, the lion’s share of this new revenue went to the Brazilian billionaires.  Some of the money collected by these billionaires went to purchasing the U.S. corporation of Anheuser Busch the makers of Budweiser Beer.  They also purchased the Kraft corporation Heinz that produces the ketchup many of us use.

Lula also had a different foreign policy from his predecessors.  He was critical of U.S. foreign policy and had friendly relations with the Cuban government.  The governments of Bolivia and Venezuela have similar foreign policies.  Throughout Latin America there was a resentment of the fact that the U.S. government had supported many of the repressive military dictatorships that ruled the continent. 

Then, Lula resigned from office and supported his Workers Party successor Dilma Rousseff. The former military regime held Dilma in prison for two years and tortured her during that time.   At the time of his resignation Lula was one of the most popular Presidents in the world with an eighty percent approval rating.

However, in the capitalist system financial upturns eventually develop into downturns.  This is what happened in Dilma Rousseff’s presidency.  By the year 2013 demonstrations rocked Brazil because of an economic downturn.  Apparently the demonstrators would have preferred that the wealth of Brazil be used for education and health care, rather than for beer and ketchup.  At the time of her impeachment Dilma had an approval rating of about ten percent.

Lula and Dilma both worked against the Landless Workers’ Movement, MST who have about 1.5 million members.  Trade union membership has declined under while the Workers Party ran the government from 30% to 17%. 

David Zirin had this to say about the Workers Party initiatives that caused increasing inequality:

“The oligarchs’ land ownership has not only increased but has become more concentrated than it was fifty years ago, a result of Brazil’s transforming into one of the leading agribusiness and beef-producing countries on earth.  As a part of this land grab, Lula and his successor Dilma have been far tougher on the landless peasant movement than his right-wing predecessors.”  

A direct consequence of the Olympics has been an increase in police murders of civilians.  Another consequence has been a drive to force residents of the favelas out of their homes to make room for the construction of new and more expensive housing.

Zirin quoted a teacher from Rio de Janeiro who said:

“I used to be a fan of Dilma, but I lost respect for her when she sided with the mayor’s plan for Olympic development.  There are some huge contradictions between her federal policy and the local impact of the Olympic development, which she supports.  .  .  Dilma is just a capitalist.  And this is just capitalism, its all about making money.  The poor are the ones who built this city.  You couldn’t be here without the poor of Rio.  But now, the people who built the city are being pushed out.  You can’t have a positive legacy of the Games when the poor who created this city aren’t part of that legacy.”

So the struggle to liberate Brazil continues.  A crucial lesson we can learn from all this is that the capitalist system needs to be abolished.  Union officials are incapable of making the capitalist system favorable to workers.  Only when workers take power and make human needs more important than profits will working people be treated with the dignity we all deserve.

The Cuban Revolution

When we look at the recent history of Brazil, we can also take a look at how the Cuban Revolution transformed the reality of that nation.  Shortly after the revolution, the Cuban government organized a literacy drive to make sure everyone on the island knew how to read.  Within a year this drive was an overwhelming success. 

We might consider that literacy drives in other parts of the world have failed to reduce the percentages of people who are illiterate.  The difference is that in Cuba the government has created an atmosphere where people want to continue their education.  Today all Cubans have a lifetime right to pursue their education.

One result of these policies is that today Cuba has more doctors per capita than any other nation in the world.  The infant mortality rate in any part of Cuba is significantly lower than that rate in the urban centers of the United States.

While Cuba continues to have many significant problems, those problems are clearly not the same as the problems of Brazil.  We can also imagine what would happen if a government that had the same priorities as the Cuban government, and also had the resources of the developed world.  A nation that had that combination would clearly have the potential to have the highest standard of living in the world.  


Thursday, September 29, 2016

The So-Called Clinton Trump Debate

I’ve always found Presidential debates to be difficult to witness.  Those individuals in the Democratic or Republican Parties appear to live in a completely different world from working people in this country.  They profess to care about people and argue that they are working in our best interests.

Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco quarterback who has refused to stand during the playing of the national anthem had this to say about the so-called presidential debate.  “Both are proven liars and it almost seems like they’re trying to debate who’s less racist.”

So a question to be asked is: Why is there such a disconnect between what government officials say, and the actual reality working people experience every day?

Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton asked the audience to fact-check their arguments.  Well, we can begin our fact checking by taking a look at the science of basic arithmetic.

When we pay for any commodity the money usually goes to private enterprises or corporations. Some of that money goes to the owners and some goes to the workers who produce all goods and services.  When the owners get more in terms of profits, workers get less.  When workers get more in terms of wages, owners get less in terms of profits.  This is basic arithmetic.

Looking at this relationship, we see that the interests of workers and owners are antagonistic.  The press argues against this perspective.  They routinely argue that when workers receive higher wages, employers simply raise prices.  This is not true.

Prices are set because of the system of supply and demand.  If corporations set their prices too high, people will not purchase commodities and corporations will go out of business.  We see this with respect to the price of gasoline.  Gasoline used to be about four dollars per gallon, and now it is about two dollars per gallon.  Corporations lowered the price because they felt they would loose money if gasoline remained at a price of four dollars per gallon.

So, we can conclude that the interests of workers and employers are antagonistic.  A fundamental problem with the Clinton and Trump campaigns is they argue that the interests of corporations and workers are the same.  By doing this, they are both clearly taking the side of corporations against workers.

Donald Trump has most of his business interests in this country.  He favors placing onerous taxes on commodities imported into this country.  In economic terms, this is called protectionism. 

Protectionist policies favor weaker capitalist economies.  By placing taxes on imports, domestic industries are in a more favorable position to compete. 

When Britain and France were the world powers in the nineteenth century, the United States had protectionist laws to encourage investment in domestic industries.  During those years, the prices of commodities were more expensive than in other countries because of these measures.

Then, after the Second World War, the United States became the world’s superpower.  The protectionist measures were abandoned.  U.S. corporations could undercut the prices of corporations in other countries, and placing onerous taxes on corporations during those years was counterproductive.

However, something else happened after the Second World War.  In the first part of the twentieth century, working people commonly toiled for twelve to fourteen hours per day.  The wages of those times were barely enough to feed a family.  Children routinely worked in factories.

So the labor movement organized and forced corporations to make significant concessions.  The civil rights movement also organized to give Black people rights they had been denied.  The women’s movement also organized to make real gains for women.

Corporations responded to these developments by making massive investments into manufacturing facilities where workers receive a salary of between one and ten dollars per day.  This was not done just because capitalists are greedy as some people argue.  No, a constant feature of the capitalist system is that corporations are routinely driven to cut costs.

One of the reasons why many capitalists favor Hillary Clinton is because her policies favor their investments in other countries.  So, this is the choice.  Trump’s policies might favor more U.S. jobs with higher prices.  Clinton’s approach might favor fewer jobs with lower prices.  Working people loose with both strategies.

We should also keep in mind that the banks nearly closed down in the year 2008.  These banks were saved by literally trillions of dollars in government assistance known as quantitative easing.  The government bought up nearly worthless investments to rescue the banks.  This crisis can not be averted and it is only a matter of time before the capitalist debt-bubble will break.

What do working people want?

Since the interests of workers and capitalists are antagonistic, we might ask the question: What do workers and farmers want?

I will only give my opinion on this question based on my life’s experience.  There are eight basic things that workers want.  These include: food, clothing, housing, transportation, communication, health care, education, and exposure to cultural activities like art, music, sports, recreation, dancing, theater, and film. 

The incomparable singer Etta James also said in one of her songs that she wanted “security.”  For me, this means that we need to have the right to all those things workers want and need throughout our lifetimes.  Of course, all these goods and services need to be of the highest quality.

Capitalists want us to be competitive.  They want us to think that workers who live in other cities, or states, or countries are our competitors.  My opinion is that working people have the same interests in all countries.  We all would like the things I just mentioned.

Politicians as well as the media argue that it is unrealistic to have these goals.  They argue that the way to get what we want is to work for a corporation directly or through a small business.  The idea of working people running a government where human needs are more important than profits is totally unacceptable to those who support the capitalist system.

However, when we think about the goods and services people want and need, we might question the role of some of the enterprises we’re routinely exposed to.  The cities throughout the world are filled with office buildings that house enterprises that include: banking, insurance, advertising, as well as stock brokerage houses.  Thinking about what these enterprises do, they don’t directly provide for the goods and services we want and need.  Yet, we need to pay for all these enterprises with every commodity we buy.

Both Trump and Clinton argue that they have plans that will reinvigorate the economy.  However, there is no real plan in the capitalist system.  Capitalism is continually regulated by the anarchy of supply and demand. 

In 1929 there were more commodities on the market than could be sold at a profit, so capitalists merely shut down the economy.  Millions lost their savings.  Working people experienced pay cuts and there was about thirty percent unemployment.  This same scenario almost happened in 2008.  Clearly, there was no plan for these events.

Donald Trump totally discredited Hillary Clinton’s claim that working people benefitted from policies she advocated with the following statement:

“You go to New England, you go to Ohio, Pennsylvania, you go anywhere you want, Secretary Clinton, and you will see devastation where manufacture is down 30, 40, sometimes 50 percent.”

However, Trump also totally discredited his character when he argued that he favors “law and order.”  Had there been a real debate, this statement would have destroyed any popularity Trump has.

The Central Park Five

 In the year 1989 a young woman was raped and brutalized in Central Park, New York.  The police arrested five Black teenagers for the crime and coerced them into signing confessions.  There was no other evidence connecting the Central Park Five to this crime.

Donald Trump paid $85,000 for adds in four New York City newspapers.  The headlines of these ads were: “Bring Back the Death Penalty.”  Theses ads, signed by Trump argued:

“I want to hate these muggers and murderers.  They should be made to suffer.”  ‘They should serve as examples so others will think long and hard before committing a crime or an act of violence.”
After serving seven years in prison, conclusive evidence emerged that someone else was guilty of this crime.  All of the Central Park Five were released from prison.  The city of New York eventually paid each of the Central Park Five one million dollars for every year they spent in prison. 

Donald Trump argued that this settlement was a “disgrace.”  He went on to say that, “The recipients must be laughing out loud at the stupidity of the city.”

So, Donald Trump argued that young Black teenagers, who were found not guilty of anything should be made to “suffer.”  When it was conclusively proven that they were innocent of the crime they had been convicted of, he offers no apology.  To the contrary, he calls the payment they received for being unjustly incarcerated, to be a “disgrace.” 

I read the newspapers every day.  Rarely have I seen any mention of Donald Trump and the Central Park Five.  Yet he is in the papers every day.

Hillary Clinton chose not to call Trump in this gross hypocrisy.  Clinton supported her husband, President William Clinton’s “Crime Bill.”  The effect of this bill was to dramatically increase the number of people living in prisons in this country.  Anyone who lives in the USA has a better chance of going to prison than citizens in any other nation in the world.      

I’m supporting Allyson Kennedy for President and Osborne Hart for vice-President.  They are the candidates of the Socialist Workers Party.  They understand that the interests of workers are antagonistic to the interests of corporations.  They understand that only by mobilizing working people will any basic changes happen.  They see the interests of working people throughout the world as the same and see our interests as being international.  They believe that it is clearly possible for working people to establish a government where human needs are seen as more important than corporate profits.

While they will not win the election, this strategy has the potential to transform the world.