The man behind the library: Film sets out to show CLR James’ ‘awe inspiring’ legacy

CLR James. Picture: WORLDwrite

CLR James. Picture: WORLDwrite - Credit: WORLDWrite

Emma Bartholomew speaks to Rob Harries from charity WORLDwrite about its film on CLR James – a revolutionary he believes has fallen under the radar, despite the enormous library that bears his name

CLR James. Picture: C Van Vechten

CLR James. Picture: C Van Vechten - Credit: WORLDWrite

When WORLDwrite was making a film about CLR James’ life and legacy, researchers stood outside the Dalston library named after him and asked passers-by if they knew who he was.

Guesses included “councillor” or “judge”.

“You might see his name on the library but most people didn’t have a clue who he was,” said co-director Rob Harries.

“Ultimately, here’s a really inspiring figure you don’t hear about much. We want to turn attention to this person who had a lot to say and we should take inspiration about the way he went about what he did.”

CLR James

CLR James - Credit: WORLDWrite

Volunteers from WORLDwrite in Millfields Road, Lower Clapton, initially planned to spend six weeks making the feature-length documentary about the life, writings and politics of the great Trinidad-born revolutionary CLR James.

But the project overran by four years.

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Some 200 volunteers from the educational charity, which provides free film training for young people to make “citizen TV”, travelled from Manchester to America and Trinidad to interview those who knew CLR James – including his ex-wife Selma Weinstein and Darcus Howe, the civil liberties campaigner he lived with in his final years.

The film Every Cook Can Govern: Documenting the Life, Impact and Works of CLR James is now available online Vimeo on demand, and interweaves their interviews with archive footage of CLR James himself.

The WORLDWrite team holds a Black Jacobins conference

The WORLDWrite team holds a Black Jacobins conference - Credit: WORLDWrite

Reading CLR’s voluminous work was also time-consuming due to the 800 articles and short stories he authored over his 88 years – as well as the books he referenced and the 14 he personally wrote.

His seminal work, The Black Jacobins, turned on its the head the myth that white people had liberated slaves in the colonies – an extraordinary premise at the time. The book is about the only successful slave revolt in history against Haiti’s plantation owners, which resulted in its independence.

“He actually put black urgency on the map in a way with that book,” said Rob.

“The account that CLR James wrote in 1938 is still seen as a definitive account, even after 80 years, which is remarkable for a history book as they often fade into the background fairly quickly,” he explained.

The WORLDWrite team holds a Black Jacobins conference

The WORLDWrite team holds a Black Jacobins conference - Credit: WORLDWrite

“But it’s hard to say ‘this is what he is’. It’s not like CLR James just wrote history books. He lived his life as a revolutionary and that’s how he saw himself, but his life was so varied.”

CLR James moved to Nelson in Lancashire in 1932 to live with his old friend the cricketer Louis Constantine. There, he became heavily involved in politics with the strikes going on at the time.

He later became a mentor to independence leaders Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, and Kwame Nkrumah, the first independent leader of Ghana,

His great passion was cricket, and his Beyond the Boundary is many people’s favourite book on sports, Rob said. It tells the story of the colonial struggle through cricket.

The WORLDWrite team holds a Black Jacobins conference

The WORLDWrite team holds a Black Jacobins conference - Credit: WORLDWrite

“Today it’s difficult to comprehend someone like him,” said Rob. “We were trying to explain in the film what it means to be a revolutionary. He didn’t just want independence. He wanted a working-class revolution.

“In Nelson he saw the hardships the working white class people endured. Wherever he went he was trying to think of how to do the revolution for a brilliant new society which he wanted to bring about, and part of that was independence for the colonies. He had a massive impact on the world – he’s in the background to all these great changes of the 20th century.

“He’s an inspiration to leaders fighting for independence. I’m in awe of what he was able to achieve.” To buy or rent the film see