You know that moment in a celebrity documentary when we meet our subject as a child? There she is, in grainy home video of a school play or a family reunion, looking nothing like a pop star. It helps us relate: she seems something like we all did, we imagine. Sweet, awkward, guileless.
We do not get this moment from MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A., the new documentary about the British pop star and Tamil rights activist whose 15-year career is marked by both chart-topping hits—at the very least you’d recognize “Paper Planes,” with its Clash sample and gunshot chorus—and a reputation for being difficult and controversial. (A highlight reel: music videos depicting children being shot point-blank in the head; being called a terrorist by the Sri Lankan government; flipping the bird while sharing a stage with Madonna during the Super Bowl.)
Yes, there’s a tiny bit of footage in this doc of Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam as a small child. But the girl with whom we spend the most time is far from guileless: she’s a sharp and charismatic would-be filmmaker, a young woman equally at home behind and in front of the camera.
Director Steve Loveridge sorted through more than 700 hours of the artist’s own self-shot footage in order to make this documentary, and the result is a feeling of impressive foresight on M.I.A’s part. Eyes open, a teenager who loves Madonna and Public Enemy films herself in her family’s apartment in Tooting, south of London. She dances. She drinks. She addresses the camera, makes sure it’s picking up the things around her. She discusses being poor, being an immigrant and a refugee, interviews her siblings about resenting their absentee father (a founder of the militant Tamil revolution in the family’s native northern Sri Lanka). It's relentless self-documentation, a full two decades before Instagram or reality TV or selfie culture—and years before she had an inkling anyone might care.
Of course, it helps that the camera loves her right back: she was stunning, even then. But the urgency is what pulls you in. This is a young woman who knows she has a story worth telling, and doesn’t trust anyone else to tell it.
Turns out, she had good reason.
In a culture with the attention span of a gnat, it can be difficult, once an accepted narrative about a famous person has settled into place, to remember how it got there—let alone to question its plot points. (Witness America just beginning to reconsider the tale of Monica Lewinsky a mere two decades later.) No, the easier thing is to form a sort of composite sketch about a person or event based on incomplete information, without even realizing you’re doing it: a particularly vivid rumor; a magazine interview you skimmed in the supermarket checkout line; a knee-jerk reaction based on your ex having liked their stuff.
Heading into this film at the Roxie this week, I knew I loved some of M.I.A.’s songs—I was in college in 2005, when her trailblazing blend of hip-hop, pop, electroclash, punk and world music first stormed the charts in the shape of collaborations with then-boyfriend Diplo. (Exactly who deserves credit for whose career here is a fight for another time.) I knew she had an outspoken, combative public persona, and had cultivated a “bad girl” image (literally, her 2012 single is called “Bad Girls”). I knew she espoused revolutionary politics, and I kind of knew she had been cut off on television while speaking about the plight of the Tamil people (which she’s said were victims of a “genocide” in northern Sri Lanka; the Sri Lankan government has basically said “you are mistaken, please stop talking”).
But I also believed M.I.A. to be something of a loose cannon—one whose ammo wasn’t exactly grounded in reality. In retrospect, this was mainly thanks to a brutal 2010 New York Times Magazine profile that portrayed the star like a pampered college freshman who just read Howard Zinn for the first time and ran out to buy a “Free Mumia” bumper sticker. At the time of the piece, she was engaged to Benjamin Bronfman (heir to the Seagrams fortune), regularly appeared at swank Hollywood parties, and had songs at the top of the pop charts. The juxtaposition, in the story, rendered her activism naïve at best, disingenuous at worst.
At the very least, she didn’t know to not talk about her radical politics over cocktails and truffle fries at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. From the New York Times piece:
"I kind of want to be an outsider," she said, eating a truffle-flavored French fry. "I don't want to make the same music, sing about the same stuff, talk about the same things. If that makes me a terrorist, then I'm a terrorist."
The irony was just too delicious. For years, our collective conscious held onto that damn truffle fry.
To the degree that a documentary directed by the subject’s school friend can be described as a more reliable narrator, MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A. provides a corrective course. It suggests that the “M.I.A.” we in America have come to believe we know is a lazy caricature, and also that that’s far from accidental: it’s the result of sexism, racism, and censorship by a culture that has no idea what to do with an outspoken, brown-skinned female pop star. (Footage of talking heads on Fox News decrying her costly Super Bowl stunt and questioning why we can’t have some “American” in our football, like Blake Shelton or Miranda Lambert, is a nice bit of supporting evidence.)
These are also the major underlying reasons, the film offers, that her career has sort of ... slid sideways over the past decade. She continues to work, but the U.S. in particular seems to have moved on. Her most recent full-length, 2016’s AIM, came with the announcement that it was her retirement record. Then she said maybe never mind. It was her first record not to crack Billboard's Top 40 since her debut.
I left the theater on Monday night consumed by thoughts of Bono.
Because here’s the thing: M.I.A. may be more of a shapeshifter than most, but you can drive yourself crazy trying to get at the “real” or “authentic” version of any celebrity. Direct celeb-to-fan contact via social media has provided a simulacrum, but in today’s landscape, we all know that a personal-seeming Instagram account is just one more required tentacle of a savvy #brand strategy.
Besides, what's more interesting to me than authenticity is standards. Specifically: if we acknowledge that M.I.A.’s activism and lifestyle might not quite align—and I can—then can we also acknowledge that no white man working in entertainment has ever been held to the same standard she has in this department?
Do you know how many starving children $1,500 could feed? is a question I have never seen in a New York Times Magazine profile of Bono. Bono was wearing a $12,000 suit and drinking a $400 bottle of wine while talking about AIDS and poverty is an irony I have never seen stick like rubber cement in the minds of a million Americans.
I've been trying, since I saw this documentary, to think of a white male pop star who's been raked over the coals in a way that even remotely resembles what our culture has done with M.I.A., all for the hypocrisy of being a rich person—who lives like a rich person—while speaking about the plight of poor people. Or one who, in discussing their politics, has consistently been described by the press not as "controversial" or "bold" but as “naïve” or “a loose cannon." So far I can't think of one.
If I were the kind of person who felt sorry for celebrities, I would say I’ve felt sorry for celebrities over the past two years. After the 2016 election, conventional wisdom about how to use one’s platform for social causes went out the window. The ground has shifted; posting about Black Lives Matter is par for the white celebrity course; even Katy Perry is “woke,” or something. Everyone’s scrambling to learn the new playbook, all while the rules continue to change.
“It’s time!” one of her publicists must have cried. “She’s out of step with the rest of America by not weighing in.” Or maybe the team all gathered around someone’s computer, did some tallies on Quickbooks, realized she was worth more than THREE HUNDRED AND TWENTY MILLION DOLLARS, and shrugged. They hit “post.” Voter registration spiked.
It’s interesting, in this context, to think about what M.I.A.’s career might have looked like if she was coming up right now, as opposed to 15 years ago. She might be more image-savvy. She might not give interviews like the one she did to the New York Times. Even if she did, she might not launch a personal attack on the journalist who conducted it. Or tweet this, uh, in general.
“Why don’t I just shut up and get a hit?” is one of the first things we hear her say in this documentary, in a weary way that suggests she has fielded this question countless times. Her answer, and I believe her here, is that she can’t.
If she could "shut up" and follow a now-established political celebrity path, she might have teamed up earlier with more traditional activists—like folks from a nonprofit working on sexual violence against Tamil women, as we see her eventually do in this film. She might have an easier package to sell; she might have been more manageable. She might not be portrayed as difficult, or “crazy,” or “paranoid” for saying that tech companies are tools for government surveillance. Commercially, at least, her career would certainly have been better for it.
But here's where it’s tough not to go back to that first version of M.I.A., the teenager we meet early on this doc. Because that funny, intense young woman obsessively documenting herself—plotting films, fingerpainting with the sounds and attitudes of British punk and American hip-hop and Madonna through her headphones at night, sure in her belief that her little life will be one that makes people sit up and take notice? As it turns out, she was right about a lot.
She may well be difficult. But it’s also entirely possible that M.I.A. was just ahead of her time.
Emma Silvers is a writer living in San Francisco. Find her on Twitter here.
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