People love true crime stories, don’t they? Especially when there is a murder or two involved. And Caribbean people are very good at telling stories.
Hall, however, is a thoughtfully constructed documentary film that does not follow the regular format of evidence, diligent detectives, court case, crime solved. From the start, the focus is on one of the perpetrators, the leader of the so-called “A-Team”based in Horse Hill, Barbados. His name is Winston Hall – a petty criminal with soft, doe-like eyes, who progressed from burglar to wanted man to international escape artist of legendary proportions in the space of twenty years. This is the story of a Caribbean folk hero.
In this film, directed and produced by Romel Hall, the chapters of Winston Hall’s story are divided by dates, stamped in black and white. As each date arrives, we find ourselves asking: What next?
The first date – December 15, 1984 – is marked by a telephone call to the police (re-enacted). A white plantation owner in his seventies, Cyril Sisnett, has been murdered. His wife, in a wheelchair, is distraught. The entire house, Francia Plantation, has been ransacked and valuables have been stolen.
The shock of that early morning call contrasts with the happy vintage footage of a thriving 1980s Barbados, looking forward to a peaceful Christmas. There are no details of the investigation, but suffice it to say that Hall and three accomplices were arrested and charged with the murder of Mr. Cisnett and several other crimes. “The whole of Barbados” was at the courthouse waiting to see the miscreants. The defendants, however, arrived and left without the crowd noticing. You could say this was the first time – but certainly not the last – that Hall went missing.
Then there is the first escape – an opportunistic one, perhaps – on March 19, 1985. These events are described by several local journalists, who were involved in reporting the case. Historian Trevor Marshall adds socio-economic perspectives, revealing insights into Barbadian society. However, apart from these commentators, the body language of the many other players – extras in this drama – add a fascinating context. We observe the faces of the curious airport staff when Hall returns to Barbados; the shame-faced look of a burly prison officer at a Commission of Enquiry; the laughter of calypso singers; the tear-filled eyes of Hall’s relatives after his death. The newspaper headlines also help tell the story: “No Houdini tricks this time,” declares one, quoting the Superintendent of Prisons. Famous last words.
On November 7, 1989, Hall was recaptured in the Grenadines. Now with dreadlocks, Hall is seen, with a bemused expression, in one of the many clips of original footage, media reports, and interviews that bring the story to life. Later, Hall appears with head shaved – and is sentenced to death. In most true crime accounts, that would be “end of story.”
But, no. We are less than halfway through the film! Clearly, there is much, much more to come. September 5, 1991. June 26, 1998. September 23, 1999. And finally, May 27, 2004. 3:54 a.m.
The songs inspired by Hall’s career punctuate the film, adding witty and amusing notes to the at times somber narrative. The changes of mood are carefully managed, moving from excitement and humor to softer, sadder tones, accentuated by the background music. Music also illustrates an important cultural aspect to the film’s account. Calypso is a story-telling medium, and there is acting involved, too. “We always try to document whatever’s happening on the landscape,” says Eric Lewis of Madd Entertainment. His colleague Kevin Hinds adds that their musical techniques in telling the story emphasized a sense of urgency, melodrama – and fun. In their music video, a little gem of slapstick humor, the “fugitives” are seen running around several well-known streets, and, symbolically perhaps, the famous Bridgetown statue of slaves breaking their chains. Red Plastic Bag’s earlier song “Can’t Find Me Brother”plays on the fugitive’s name, without ever mentioning the escape incident himself. “I search every Kingdom Hall, I search every dancehall…”
Besides music, the role of the media, helping to shape public attitudes, is always important. Barbadians’ emotions are the background picture, veering from disbelief and shock to admiration and awe. Eventually, there appears to have been a great deal of sympathy for Hall.
As in many island societies, there were little pieces of fact or fiction (you decide). There is a blurring of reality. During his periods of freedom, there were numerous “sightings” of Hall. He was seen eating a cheeseburger, unrecognized, in a neighborhood shop at the same time as a group of policemen. Some said he was there, in the audience, when Red Plastic Bag sang his song at the finals of the Crop Over music competition. All created the picture of an extraordinary man: “An uncommon person with a heroic status”. He was a “Spiderman”who could scale prison walls, a man with a dog, a man in disguise, a man hiding in the woods. He was a Man of Mystery, with possible family connections to Barbadian “high society.”
The Caribbean imagination is sometimes hard to rein in. And attitudes of race and class are interwoven in the story of Winston Leroy Hall. We can pick them out, as well as the undertones of a small community, a small society.
Georgiana Adams, the author of “Winston Hall: Guilty or Innocent,” described Hall as a person – caring, likable, and indeed, a young man who stirred romantic feelings. Ms. Adams calls him by his first name. Women wanted to nurture him. He was sweet. He had devoted girlfriends in St. Vincent and Trinidad; he was often supported (perhaps protected?) by those close to him. He was concerned for his mother, who attended his murder trial. The interview with his Trinidadian lover, with whom he lived in poverty deep in the “jungle,” is poignant.
So, how does the story of Winston Hall end? The final chapter is heralded by a phone call, as was the first. After the upheavals of the previous twenty years, there is a sense of anti-climax. There is a huddled figure in a backyard. Rain falls. He was “no threat,” say his neighbors. The film turns from color to black and white.
“Maybe he deserved to be free!” says a laughing young woman on the street. Maybe.
This film tells his story. But we feel we would love for Winston Hall to have told it, himself. Like many folk heroes, we feel there is something missing.