Riz Ahmed’s The Long Goodbye starts with a downcast eye, so close to the camera that it’s out of focus. His first lines are murmured.
They ever ask you where you from
Yeah but where you really from
The question seems simple but the answer’s kinda long.
Even after he meets the camera’s gaze, it’s clear he’s not sure he wants to be doing this. In the 30 minutes that follow, Ahmed sometimes shies away from the camera lens, even in shots where he’s holding the phone himself. All through the show, his spoken refrain is: Do I belong here? Should I have come here? Sometimes he’s repeating the question his grandfather asked at the end of his life about bringing his family from Karachi to England; sometimes it’s Ahmed asking about the wisdom of forging ahead with a show under shutdown. The answers are complicated and changeable, bobbing and weaving just as Ahmed does, evading our reach like a boxer.
In 2020, Ahmed released The Long Goodbye, a high-concept breakup album in which the dumpee (or possibly dumper) was England. In some of the songs, Ahmed seemed to be rapping about a woman who had broken his heart, or possibly offering advice to someone who’s better out of an exploitative relationship. In the short and blistering show by the same name, he hasn’t got the time to waste on extended relationship metaphors. Apart from the superb “Toba Tek Singh,” which retells Saadat Hasan Manto’s short story in a modern idiom, these songs name the problem directly.
Skinheads meant I never really liked the British flag
And I just got the shits when I went back to Pak
And my ancestors Indian, India was not for us
My people built the West, we even gave the skinheads swastikas.
Before the shutdown, Ahmed was planning a tour of The Long Goodbye, in which he would perform the album and also tell family stories, including harrowing tales about his grandfather’s forced migration from India to Pakistan after World War II and the family’s second move to London in the 1970s. The pandemic scuppered those plans, so he, his director Kirsty Housley, and his creative director Andrea Gelardin converted it into a streamable filmed event, which is now (briefly) available on demand. In this elegiac and furious production, he wanders the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco (“there’s nowhere further west to go”), doing his gig without an audience, speaking into a mirror in the bathroom or finding his costume rack in the green room. He moves through the guts of the building, finding his way slowly to the old, gorgeous, golden theater where he sings, “Once we were kings, when will we be kings,” spinning in a glittering emptiness. On the track in the background, you can also hear his mother singing a prayer.
The songs are like stars, supermassive, dense with rhyme and anger — but the spoken sections have their own kind of gravity. Ahmed tells us that his uncle, his lungs wrecked by work in an asbestos factory, was killed by COVID. Ahmed’s banker uncle worked in that factory because his bank, the notorious BCCI, was shut down in the wake of a money laundering scandal exposed by the CIA, whose own hands, he alleges, weren’t clean. Ahmed thus tracks the spear backwards from the wound: first showing us the way the coronavirus hit Asian bodies, then tracking the slow-moving weapon back through dangerous workplace exposures, and further back to American adventurism. He’s accusing, he’s specific, he’s gutted by the lives that have been lost. Once you’ve given thanks, link arms clench fists / From the colonies to COVID it’s a very long list.
The whole time Ahmed seems utterly alone, speaking into his phone, to us. Still, he makes a spectacle out of every song—performing elegant costume changes, leaping through explosive lighting shifts, and, finally, dancing away from the camera. Occasionally a shadow double shudders at the edge of the frame, like a figment of imagination. Ahmed is ambivalent about all this showmanship, though. His superstardom — a part in a Star Wars movie, an Emmy for The Night Of — hasn’t stopped him from being profiled at airports. If you rattle your cage, he says, you draw attention to it. Are all his rhymes and stories just content, to be bought and sold? Is it just more press for white supremacy? Caught in the Catch-22 of “trying to sing songs of freedom in language of our oppression,” he looks for the right way to frame the show without giving away even more power.
This sensation that Ahmed is trying to refuse the engagement, even as he brings the camera close to his face, is what makes The Long Goodbye such a stunning experience. Every moment of the show is confident enough that it can threaten to discard itself. Look at this beautiful thing I’m making, he says. It’s precious enough that it might not be for you. In fact, he decides that his performance is actually for the ghosts—those in the theater, those in his life. He’s trying “to tell their stories back to them to keep them alive,” he says. It reminds me of a show happening this weekend in a theater in Sunset Park, Babylift by the dancer/choreographer Anh Vo. No one is allowed to come, no one can watch, no one is recording. According to an interview in The Brooklyn Rail, the dance is being offered in tribute to the ghosts of the Vietnam War. “Having no audience helps relieve some of the pressure to bear the culture for the Western gaze,” says Vo. I wonder if Ahmed would agree. Certainly if Ahmed had never turned the cameras on for The Long Goodbye, it still would have been wonderful. We wouldn’t have been able to see it, sure. But the dead would have seen, and been grateful.
The Long Goodbye is streaming on demand via the Brooklyn Academy of Music until March 1.