(The views expressed herein are my own and not that of the OECS)
On Saturday night I went to Caribbean Cinemas for the inaugural viewing of “The Ballard of Botham Jean”. Despite the fact that I had closely followed the case as it unfolded, I was honestly not prepared for what I experienced. I left the cinema trying to process the maelstrom of emotions and analysis – head and heart contending with a sense of pain, a burning anger, and a sense of awe at the Jean family. As I drove out of the cinema parking lot, by sheer coincidence, Bob Marley’s “Burning and Looting” was playing on the vehicle radio…
“How many rivers do we have to cross/ we must have really paid the cost/ burning and a looting tonight/burning all illusions tonight/ weeping and a wailing tonight…”
– Bob Marley
How many rivers do we have to cross? – in the Ballard of Botham Jean the long night of pain that has been the history of our African American brothers and sisters intersected with the short luminous life and light of a young, bright Saint Lucian who became the most unlikely victim of the systemic racism of their system. In Botham’s tragedy now resides the fear of all of us who have relatives – especially male relatives – living in that Diaspora. The dice of fate against every and all conceivable odds rolled against him that fateful night. Death barged right into the sanctuary of his apartment while he was relaxing in his shorts, watching sports and eating ice cream. He was not in a riotous fete; he was not on a crime block; he was not “in bad company” – he never was! If the random hand of fate could so strike such an improbable person, in the most improbably of places and in the most improbably circumstances, then who is truly safe? The Ballard of Botham, which by the logic of his God-fearing life should have ended on the most triumphant note, was silenced by two police bullets.
We must have really paid the cost – for all of its improbability, Botham’s story reminds us that in the vortex of history, we are all connected. As Martin Carter reminded us “all are involved; all are consumed”. His tragedy is not just a Saint Lucia/Caribbean tragedy. It is also an American tragedy. Through his circumstances because he is us, we feel and understand the heavy burden of pain and the emotional drain of that unending night of oppression. No one has felt the heaviness of that cost more than Botham’s family. And no one – as Botham’s mother Allison reminds us in the documentary – knows the magnitude of the loss that they feel; no-one truly knows the intensity of their loss.
Burning and a looting tonight – watching the Ballard of Botham unfold leaves one with an angry sense of incredulity that in America – a land we have long revered as a place of opportunity – a police system can so klan-ishly (deliberate choice of word) protect one of their own in the face of such an ultimate wrong for which there is no recompense. Tonight, in the cinema there was burning and looting: our hearts were on fire at the injustice, we were smoldering over the undeserved fate of one of our own who showed such promise and we felt that his and our future had been looted by all who conspired to obstruct the colorlessness with which justice should have been served. The family lawyer Lee Merrit was a voice of clear judicial reason intersecting the narrative of the case with unequivocal explanations of the persistent efforts to clothe his killer as a victim and to denigrate the integrity of the true victim. Those of us who attended the viewing were burning with anger at the attempts at the looting of Botham’s reputation in the course of the trial.
Burning all illusions tonight – so the Ballard has helped, even those of us who followed the situation closely, by burning all illusions about the depth of the pain, the justification for the Black Lives Matter Movement, and the injustice that patrols the street of too many US cities dressed up in the uniforms of law and order. The Ballard of Botham Jean was a fitting exposé of that carnival of injustice and a reminder that we too must entertain no illusions about where we can end up when murders go undetected and killers roam unidentified among us.
Weeping and a wailing tonight – There was not one dry eye in the cinema but the tears that we shed tonight was nothing compared with the torrents of grief that the Jean family has experienced since 2018. The Ballad was simultaneously a celebration of the light that was the brief life of Botham as it was a raw but delicate exposition of his family’s grief. We thank the Jean family for their courage and honesty in allowing us to enter into the shuttered house of their grief. Each in their own room individually battling the demons of acceptance, anger, loss, regrets but collectively shouldering the burden of his loss. His mother Allison as the more public face of the family pain has earned the right to insist on the magnitude of the loss that they have all experienced. His father Bertram, more reticent, profoundly introvert, his outward stoicism punctuated by occasional exposure of his wounded heart. His younger brother Brandt who stunned the world with his unimaginable expression of forgiveness is revealed in the Ballard as initially the most hurt and angry of the family – which makes his act of forgiveness even more remarkable. His sister Allisa courageously and articulately describing her own tumultuous journey navigating the complexity of feeling as the case unfolded through its twists and turns. And clothed in the armor of his memory she managed to balance his narrative with insights into the dynamic of her family.
This documentary needs to be seen island wide, across the Caribbean and in the Diaspora. The Ballard is biography. It is historical narrative. It is a bridge between the Caribbean and its US Diaspora and it is a bridge across the wide chasm of injustice now shared by Caribbean people and our African American sisters and brothers. And above all – as his family intended – it is their ultimate tribute to Botham, their “Northern Star, of whose true fixed and resting quality there is no fellow in the firmament”.
Thank you to the Botham Jean Foundation – may his light never diminish!