A Martyr’s Silence:
BURN! & Sonny’s Blues Intertextual Analysis

“Why? What good does it do? What meaning does it have, José? Is it a revenge of some sort? But what revenge is it, if you are dead?”

What meaning is there if you are dead? As Sir William Walker asks the question out of perplexity in the 1969 revolutionary film Burn!, he is asking in the face of José Dolores, college students of the 1960 Greensboro sit-ins, people of ACT UP performing the San Francisco die-in movement, George Floyd—of every human soul pushed to the peripheries of society. They formulate a pain from not only deaths as victims of history but also deaths to change history. Pushed to the edges of history, their souls run wild in wrath only to lay their marks on redefining the term freedom. It is a freedom that allows disclosure to the untold past and enables people to live out meaning that is no longer defined in hands of others. As one unveils the curtains of colonialism and imperial violence, one will see the martyrs of political turmoil are standing up to speak the myth of rewriting and creating history.

Lying in between the hunters and hawks of history is a pool of blood shed from eternal segregation that one must confront as the oppressed. In Burn!, When William Walker first arrives on the island of Queimada, the shipman introduces to him the “large flat white rock laying offshore” with its exceptional whiteness derived from the dust of killed slaves’ bones penetrating the rock beds. Yet, how ironic it is that this exceptional whiteness—a color once and now used violently to mark one as the master while another as a slave—is now a biological product of the dead black body. People tend to forget whiteness as the tint of human phosphorus that exists in every human being's bone. An absence of pigment that should have bonded one as a family to another, is now exploited by the imperial narrative to seek superiority in white skin, leaving people who could have been included now excluded.

Running down the cycle of historical wrongdoings, silenced pain exists for martyrs to levitate from sunk oblivion. The pain from which our civilization’s ancestors have walked through leaves a long trail for whoever following behind; for it passes down the lessons and misdeeds of history to make clear where the future for equality and inclusiveness lies. In Burn!, the Portuguese have burnt the entire island to suppress previous slave rebellions. By the time audience is shown with William Walker burning down the same crops and plantations to cease José’s insurgence, this repetition of imperial violence is what proves necessary for persistent rebellions. It is such a rebellion that keeps people thinking and feelinginsufficiencies of the current hierarchical system, shaping freedom in the way one truly needs other than offered.

To ignore such pain is an act of assimilating oneself into the unjust hierarchy and denial of one’s intimacies with their past. Before Dolores realizes that he was manipulated by Walker to defeat the Portuguese in favor of the British sugar industry, he rejoices over the victorious rebellion. He was told that stealing Portuguese’s gold meant “to be rich and free” until he tastes the bitterness of English whiskey again. The moment when Dolores replies that African rum is better off, Dolores is resisting the form of assimilation by heart even though drinking Walker’s liquor and wearing the Portuguese Soldier uniform. In the former scene where Walker and Dolores try to exchange their drinks in cheering their rebellion plan, the two’s inability to tolerate each other’s drink is a significant implication of the inability to assimilate. To drink whiskey when one has their blood and tongue formerly accustomed to the taste of rum is therefore ignoring one’s roots of history as one is gradually blinded into another renamed social hierarchy. Ten years later when Walker comes back to the Antilles to stop José Dolores, black and white men are dressed in the same white British uniforms as the representation of the assimilated group. The assimilated blackness into British superiority has forgotten how their ancestors have been bloodlessly murdered by the colonizers, and now hold steady the rifles to murder Jose Dolores and men once of their same blood and skin. The assimilated imperial violence is explicitly performed in the scene where they burn down the plantation to force out Dolores’s rebel army, resonating with how the Portuguese once burnt down the island to put down Indian resistance. As each rebel runs out of the sugar crops, they are killed one by one like targets doomed in hands of once known brothers. Other than envisioning hybridity where they get to taste the sweetness of African rum while others indulge in the bitterness of English whiskey, this row of black soldiers assimilated into the British colonial army is forcing themselves to swallow whiskey in discarding rum. Such assimilation creates an endless cycle of hierarchy that the oppressed can hardly escape.

To confront such pain and feel the songs of martyrdom is necessary as another sitting above the hierarchy is always benefiting from its obscurity. In Burn!, it has been the Portuguese, the British, Teddy Sanchez, William Walker—people who have been selling and justifying war, chaos, and slaves to make a fortune. In their version of dictionary lies the devastating power of persuasion. As William Walker blatantly notes in his conversation about whether Dolores stole his bag or not, he testifies the necessity of persuasion only to shape imperial violence profitably. Contradictory to how persuasion is usually used to induce critical lenses to confront over a debatable matter, it is now a skill exploited by the lofty colonizers to shape freedom and civilization into their definition. Within the colonial narrative, Walker claims it to be the “logic of profit” 
where spoken in his lines, “to go on making [profit], or to make more, sometimes it is necessary to destroy.” By modifying annihilation into a necessity for profit, Walker is denying the death of Indians and Africans as blunt manslaughter. Applied with a subtle sarcasm shortly after overthrowing the Portuguese, Walker exploits Dolores further as he asks Dolores to apply the skill of persuasion onto the African slaves to convince them back to labor as paid workers instead of slaves. As Dolores ponders in confusion, his rejection to exercise the white persuasion exemplifies his denial to assimilate into the white hierarchy. As long as persuasion exists for the whites to alter narratives and assimilate the colonized, freedom will only exist on the mere facade.

However, is it true that the other end of the path against oppression is death? Facing the inescapable wildfires, Dolores’s soldiers slit their throats across the lake as if they have lost the battle, but did they? When William Walker answers to Sheldon that a martyr immediately becomes a myth, his assertion “better silence than songs” is of acknowledging the ineffaceable nature of a myth. A martyr’s mythical character is what holds visceral force in attaining freedom and make the colonizers truly terrified off. Walker is clear of the fact that Dolores’ martyrdom may spark revolutions across colonized islands for sugar plantation, hence he tries to tempt Dolores into running away as a betrayed hero that will soon be forgotten. Death, in such a case, represents faith in freedom. A faith that holds one of the oppressed tightly with another to run against colonialism as a whole. Martyrdom builds onto an idea that gives soldiers the power to fight more recklessly despite being outnumbered, though not in Dolores’ time of life, but sometime in the future, hopefully soon as new generations of José Dolores blossom.

The form of pain does not carry freedom to a form of extreme where anyone who fought for it will be laid on their death bed, it merely pleads one to confront instead of ignoring the deaths of people who fought for its idea. A form of dichotomy then exists when Walker’s remark of “destroy to create” on the notion of profit is juxtaposed with the idea of freedom Dolores is fighting for. The death of José Dolores does not put an end where the efforts of revolution are destroyed. His mythical martyrdom sings to the creation of new generations. When Dolores is captured and put on a horse near the end of the film, his conversation with the little soldier verifies the passing down of an idea despite his execution. Dolores tells the soldier the story between the hawk and hunter, “ If a man gives you freedom, it is not freedom. Freedom is something you, you alone, must take.” Though the soldier is left confused at the moment, this is the sort of confusion that Dolores is trying to evoke, for it means the soldier is starting to ponder over this ambiguously defined freedom that will soon lead to another inevitable revolution; in no longer living in the colonizer’s socially constructed freedom since any man who remains working for another is still a slave. Near the end when Walker is about to leave the island, a familiar voice “your bag, Senõr” reiterates the succession of José Dolores’ physical body and mind as his army carries on with his belief in revolting against the colonial power. As the man stabs into William Walker without hesitation, the murder of William Walker further adds to the power of silence.  The idea of freedom Dolores has both lived and died for is now contemplated by tens, hundreds, and thousands of others who witnessed or heard about the mythical martyrdom to reclaim authority. 

As long as some confront the pain of their historical bloodline, other’s wrongful perception of such pain hinders the process of revolution. When diving deep into Sir William Walker’s character, his ambivalent attitude towards the life and death of José Dolores remains unclear. It is arguable that everything Walker has done was out of colonial hypocrisy and immorality, but taken from a humanist perspective, there might have been a sense of hope where Walker wanted José to survive because he was a friend. The moment Walker walks up to the already captured Dolores, he defends himself in irritation that it wasn’t him who invented or started the war, “I arrived here and you were already butchering one another.” Whether out of excuse or denial to his hypocrisy, Walker’s defense shows a certain degree of guilt waiting to be forgiven, though ultimately overthrown by the roots of colonial violence at the end of the film. Even if Walker truly wanted José to live not for the sake of a betrayed hero, the hypocritical indecision where he teaches Africans how to tie a hanging knot the same time he tries to set Dolores free suggests Walker’s imminent death. Such ambivalence proves the colonizer’s inability to understand the necessity of martyrdom and pain as one will remain as an outsider in their lofty, colonial positions.

After all, as much as Walker wants everything happening on the island of Queimada settled in his imperialist planar, he is another slave and another dead body working for the colonial center. Walker can't come up with all his theories and methods of persuasion without the socially constructed narrative prevailing across the British empire. Even till the end, his perplexity in contemplating the pain Dolores is confronting is being devoured by a higher power that has sent him as simply a mercenary to flourish the British sugar business. As a paid worker to the British Empire, one can interpret William Walker as a slave as well; in the same manner, he has convinced the African slaves to continue labor as paid workers. In Walker’s words, “[his] ideas at the moment are concerned with how to get something done, not with why to do it.” Held in comparison to Dolores’s idea, Walker is also a martyr of the colonial dictionary as he is convinced by a higher form of power that it is better to “know how to go and not know where” instead of  knowing “where to go and not know how.” As a slave to Royal Sugar, Walker serves to be another misguided victim of history when colonialism has brainwashed people like Walker into the belief of a civilization belonging to white men and an offered freedom for black men. Hence when looking at the death of both José Dolores and William Walker, audiences are being forced into enduring a long spectrum of casualties existent in the imperial narrative.

One can be constrained into the colonial lens. Seeing José Dolores as a fine specimen living and dying from the ideals Englishmen have taught him, little did Walker know that Dolores is deriving something new—the discovery of a New World—one that Christopher Columbus has never laid his foot on. Dolores’s death speaks the myth in envisioning the hybridization of African Rum and English whiskey where no one claims civilization belonging only to oneself. William Walker built a socially constructed new world for the peasants of Quiemada when he introduces the abolition of slavery as paid workers, but perhaps even himself is well known for the fact that he is merely renaming the master-slave relationship. In rejection of the dreaded cycle of colonialism, Dolores is fighting a rebellion that is still existing today against the imperial renderings of individualism and freedom. 

The martyrs’ pain envisions a new world that grants one the ability to regain authority and subjectivity after walking through the past’s obscured narrative. Given in a more contemporary setting in the twentieth century, James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues analyzes freedom in not only reiterating the pain of death but also creates new meaning to existing life. Diving into Sonny’s relationship with his brother, one relives the effects and revolutionary moments of the colonial history of BURN! to seek freedom in a collective and relapsed memory.

Dressed like the assimilated black soldiers of Burn!, Sonny Brother’s is cloaked similarly that he used to deny his history. Nothing is inherently wrong