The arc of the boomerang

More than class solidarity alone, more than a technocratic climate justice, a reckoning with empire is necessary for our collective survival.

Football legend John Barnes and narrator Kojo Koram. Still from Boomerang: How the legacies of empire are breaking Britain's economy © 2022

In Discourse on Colonialism, Aimé Césaire issues a warning to Europe about the consequences of imperial violence over the longue durée. He writes: “We must study how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relativism; and we must show that each time a head is cut off or an eye put out in Vietnam and in France they accept the fact, each time a little girl is raped and in France they accept the fact, each time a Madagascan is tortured and in France they accept the fact, civilization acquires another dead weight, a universal regression takes place, a gangrene sets in, a center of infection begins to spread.” The point is not so much that the barbarism of the colonized outside will seep back into the metropolitan center, although that is also implied. Instead, the boomerang reveals that the violence, the horror, and the excess that cannot be contained—they all start in the imperial center. This is the place where the boomerang’s arc of flight begins, spilling out degradation across the spaces of empire, before circling back to where it started.

The colonial boomerang is a kind of karmic judgment. The violence done to others returns to violate the colonizers. All of that violence was always blowing back into the imperial center, always amending the terms of who could be seen as human and extending the ranks of those who could be used and abused in any which way, because they were deemed lesser and the benefits arising from their degradation were deemed more important.

The pithy and much too timely film Boomerang grapples with the consequences of this unhappy history for Britain. Viewers may be surprised to find a kind and sorrowful account of the shared vulnerabilities unleashed through colonial violence, including for those living at the heart of empire. Perhaps we have become a little too accustomed to taking up an accusatory tone when exploring the legacies of empire—and there is no doubt that countless acts of violence were enacted. But it can be hard to grab the attention of people who feel scolded or embarrassed, or perhaps genuinely guilty.

Boomerang bypasses all of that to ask, “what are the consequences of the imperial project for our collective well-being today?” It takes the “so what?” question and runs with it, bringing us right up to the present day—and to the scary collapse of living standards in what was (once upon a time, not so long ago) the heart of the world’s pre-eminent imperial power.

The film builds on the analysis of Kojo Koram’s wonderful recent book, Uncommon Wealth, and Koram offers a compelling and relatable presence as the film’s narrator. What, we are asked, shapes the strange mystery of post-imperial amnesia? Why is it that “Britain went from glorifying its colonial past to all but erasing it”? The promise of the film is that understanding the role of empire in the roots of the current crisis is a path toward building an economy that works for all.

To answer this question, the film takes us on a journey through the history of Liverpool, reflecting on the city’s central role in the Atlantic slave trade and its status as the home of one of the oldest Black communities in Britain. In a lovely moment, after reminiscing about his childhood, Koram interviews his childhood idol, soccer player John Barnes. This is an opportunity to hear Barnes’ reflections on his life journey and the impact of imperial consciousness on his sense of self, including through the internalization of colonial attitudes toward Africans. Taking place on the picturesque grounds of the city’s International Slavery Museum, the conversation with Barnes lays out the need to excavate the historical legacies of colonialism, including learning about the Atlantic slave trade. It also highlights the urgent need to think about the systemic impacts of racism, which—as a structure—wrecks lives in ways that rarely receive the levels of attention given to “racist incidents” suffered by those with money and class privilege, including Black soccer players.

This profoundly important but so often underplayed insight is the heart of the whole film. Despite the seductive fictions of empire-infused nationalism, the colonial boomerang smashes lives on the way out and the way back in. Democratic states are captured by corporate interests, in the process becoming instruments of transnational class interests. At a time when the planet is burning, and only justice can stop this particularly deadly curse, the wealth hoarding of global elites threatens to escalate our collective vulnerability to early death. It might be slightly awkward to understand and come to terms with the legacies of colonialism, but the alternative is far worse. More than class solidarity alone, more than a technocratic climate justice—and despite the urgent importance of those things—a reckoning with empire is necessary for our collective survival. This important film is a step toward understanding why.

Further Reading