Thursday, January 15, 2009


The concept of "freedom" is often associated with Latin American history because of the initial conditions of oppression and control of the New World by the colonial European nations. The independence of Latin American countries is portrayed as violent and destructive, and is therefore so glorified. However, the "freedom" of Latin America thereafter remained imperfect, as the manipulation and exploitation of politics and economics in the region by imperialist powers continued. The image of Latin America’s history continues to be characterized by imperialism and violence.

Burn! posterThese themes are central in Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1969 film Burn!, set on the appropriately named Caribbean island of Queimada, a Portuguese colony. This island’s lucrative sugar plantations are the desire of the British government, and in order to procure them they have sent the cynical and unscrupulous secret agent Sir William Walker, played by Marlon Brando with an English accent, to weaken Portuguese control of island and secure a British trade monopoly. He will do this in three devious steps: first, he will trick the African slaves into a revolt and get rid of Portugal; second, he will grab the sugar trade for England; and third, he will crush the fleeting freedom of the slaves and return them to their servitude.

The first step of his plan begins with Walker’s selection of José Dolores, a lowly black porter, as the revolutionary leader of the slave revolt. Walker chooses Dolores because of his anger against the colonizers; it is only with the driving force of anger that a revolutionary leader is made. Walker orchestrates the revolt by mobilizing and arming the black slaves under Dolores until they are strong and destroy the Portuguese power structure on the island. Walker continues as the puppet-master, placing Teddy Sanchez, a local member of the white ruling bourgeoisie, as the head of the provisional government. Dolores, now the great revolutionary general, demands power and Sanchez hands the government over to him. However, attempts at creating a constitution between the white elites and José Dolores’ blacks fail because the blacks are uneducated and cannot run the country without the whites; in response, Dolores returns the government to Sanchez and goes back to the plantations to cut sugar, this time as a worker instead of a slave. Walker succeeds in procuring a trade monopoly for Britain with Sanchez’ government and returns to England.

Ten years pass, in which the blacks continue to suffer misery and powerlessness as workers on the plantations. Action is taken by General José Dolores, who returns as a revolutionary leader and sets the island’s main city on fire with his guerillas in a new revolt against the whites. The British government tracks down Walker, who is living in a London slum, and hires him as a military advisor for the British Antilles Sugar Company, whose interests he must protect by putting down the revolt. He must track down and destroy the man he created: Dolores. Walker is confused about the morality of his role, but his main priority is doing well the job he was hired to do. In order to find Dolores, he must destroy all his possible hiding places among the locals and smoke out all his supporters. Walker’s British military expedition proceeds to burn most of the island to the ground, and after immense destruction and massacre, catches Dolores. Walker is now hated by Dolores for his betrayal and manipulation, but he remains sympathetic to the cause of freedom. As he is leaving Queimada, the revolt crushed and control once again in the hands of the English, a black supporter of Dolores stabs Walker to death, taking final revenge.

This movie questions the concept of freedom in the Latin American colonial context. Dolores tells a black soldier who has captured him: "Freedom is something you must take. If the Man gives you freedom, it is not freedom." This statement questions the extent to which Latin Americans are free from the exploitation of imperialism, and portrays the continued manipulation of the colonies by their former colonizers, at the cost of the labouring population. It also portrays the incredible violence and destruction of the environment and population of the colonies that occurred in the name of controlling the valuable resources the Europeans so needed. The last scene focusses on the pain and anger-filled faces of the black locals, who have experienced years of devastation and loss in the name of a freedom they never achieved and seemingly never will.

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