THE HARDER THEY COME B+ Jamaica (120 mi) 1972 d: Perry Henzell
When the film was first released in American theaters no one saw it, gaining popularity on the midnight circuit, playing for several years to largely white audiences, mostly students, developing a cult status, then disappearing from sight altogether for several decades even as the music became wildly popular, actually preceding the popularity of reggae giant Bob Marley, whose albums caught fire a year later. While Jimmy Cliff was never the performer nor the legend that Bob Marley was, but he did get a fictionalized film made at the peak of his career where he was the star, turning into a Blaxploitation flick, an outlaw on the run movie where people would get high just to watch the stunning real locations in Jamaica and hear the gorgeous musical soundtrack, which helped introduce reggae not only to America but around the world, remaining one of the best concept albums in movie history, where the soundtrack may actually be better than the movie. In this sense it resembles the Marcel Camus film BLACK ORPHEUS (1959) which similarly introduced Brazil’s samba music and Carnaval to the international stage, beautifully intermixing the music’s sensuality into the film’s broader themes. The first Jamaican-produced feature film, among the biggest thrills is watching Toots and the Maytals do a soulful live recording in a studio before anyone knew who they were, singing “Sweet and Dandy,” The Harder They Come (1972) - Clip: Sweet And Dandy ... YouTube (3:14) with a starry-eyed Jimmy Cliff standing there watching. Loosely based on the life of Vincent “Ivanhoe” Martin, aka Rhyging, an escaped jailbird that wreaked havoc as a legendary outlaw and folk hero in the late 40’s, committing a string of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) robberies and murders in Kingston, described as the “original rude boy,” displaying unmistakable swagger, sending taunting letters to the press and a “must see” photograph of himself holding guns, eventually gunned down in true gangster fashion, becoming mythologized in Jamaican movies, turned into a folk hero for the poverty-stricken residents of the Jamaican ghettos, acquiring an anti-hero persona, The Slickers - Johnny Too Bad, 1970 - YouTube (3:01). That’s basically an outline for the low-budget film, shot on 16mm for just $200,000, using a social realist style with non-professional actors, offering a realistic portrayal of Jamaica even as it glamorizes gangsters and underrepresents women, but it doesn’t shy away from the horrific lack of economic opportunities, where corruption infects every aspect of society, including the music business, the ganja trade, the police, and the government. Jimmy Cliff as Ivan is a rural Jamaican musician who comes to the city with big dreams, also news of his grandmother’s death, supposedly bringing a mango for his mother, but all his belongings are stolen within minutes of his arrival in Kingston, leaving him destitute, sleeping on the street, deprived of work opportunities with no previous experience, eventually finding his way to a morally righteous Preacher (Basil Keane), doing menial work, running errands, singing in the choir, but his real focus is on Elsa (Janet Bartley), the Preacher’s devoutly religious ward who is also blossoming into a beautiful woman. Assembling a bicycle out of scrap parts, he takes her for a ride along a narrow causeway surrounded by water, heavily romanticized with sensuously photographed oceanside views (an idyllic setting that is later revealed to be an immense dump site), incurring the wrath of the Preacher upon their return for expressing an interest.
Ivan operates by his own rules, asserting his own independence, which pits him in conflict with the Preacher, as he doesn’t embrace the church’s way of life, and Mr. Hilton (Bob Charlton), the all-powerful record producer who controls the entire distribution process, as records don’t get played on the radio without his consent, with music suppliers only dealing with him, so there are no independent producers, while also butting heads with the police, who are paid-off by the government to look the other way on local drug trafficking, with police collecting their share of the ganja trade, cutting into the profits of local farmers and dealers, where the entire process exploits the poor, who end up paying protection money, with the government embracing the role of mafia kingpins. Ivan’s initiation into the Jamaican business world mirrors Jamaica’s newly gained independence from Great Britain in 1962, both seeking to establish their own path into newly discovered freedoms. With huge discrepancies between rich and poor, Jamaican society is divided by major class differences, with Ivan becoming a stand-in for the poor, revealing there’s no easy path out of poverty, with obstacles in place that are designed to frustrate anyone’s aspirations and maintain the status quo. With no white presence to speak of, different characters in the film come to represent various aspects of Jamaican society, where Ivan’s pursuit of a music career is immediately thwarted by those running the industry, with Hilton paying him a meager $20 for recording a hit record, Jimmy Cliff Recording The Harder They Come In Studio Session YouTube (3:35), effectively devaluing the worth of the creative artists themselves, who are completely reliant upon Hilton for any hopes of success. Similarly, with cops controlling the ganja trade, small market operators have little hopes of elevating their economic status, as authoritative powers basically control the industry, with small-time operators despising the built-in payoff system that keeps them poor, but if they don’t pay it they immediately get arrested. Like Odysseus on his epic journey, Ivan makes his way through Kingston’s economic land mines by continually asking “Who’s makin’ all the money?,” in search of justice not only for himself but for others in similar circumstances. Curiously, much of the film is subtitled (the first English language film requiring subtitles in the USA), representing the Jamaican Patois language spoken by Ivan and most of the street characters, which is largely incomprehensible to American audiences (distinctly different than the Standard English spoken by the rich), yet uniquely associated with Jamaica, gaining considerable popularity in reggae music lyrics, retaining a connection to the island’s historical roots to the African slave trade, providing a sense of identity and solidarity amongst the lower class island residents, with reggae defined as a working-class milieu, with the film offering an uncompromising view of shanty town poverty. The film director Perry Henzell was born into white privilege, raised on his family’s sugarcane plantation and sent to British boarding school, but at an early age he had experiences with local Rastafarians, developing a curious interest that led to the making of this film.
The film highlights the importance of the Jamaican dancehall, the place where music is born, as the setting is jovial and upbeat, almost celebratory, where dance music is such a significant aspect of the culture. It’s a place where people leave their problems behind and just have fun, with Ivan mingling anonymously among the crowd as they’re playing his music. The religious church services express a similar extreme, with parishioners singing joyously, some “touched” by the spirit of the gospel, with music and religion seemingly clashing with one another. The Preacher’s overt jealousy drives Elsa away, violently accusing her of “fornication,” leaving her emotionally devastated, as she placed her complete trust in his authority, so she runs away with Ivan, who is equally shattered by his musical experience, where even making a hit record puts no money in his pocket. So he turns to Jose (Carl Bradshaw), one of the first people he met in Kingston, who sets him up running ganja from the country to the city, which is no different than the music industry, as both are defined by poor pay. When he becomes aware of Jose’s collusion with the police, Jose considers him a troublemaker, asking too many questions, setting him up on his next operation where he’s flagged down by a cop, but rather than be arrested, he shoots the cop. He ends up killing more cops after they surround him in a shanty hideaway (having sex with Jose’s girlfriend), angrily chasing Jose out of the neighborhood afterwards, believing he was set up, but this also eliminates the police protection payoffs (at least temporarily), with Ivan becoming a local folk hero. Notoriously making all the headlines, his music played round the clock, he’s launched into the precarious position of becoming an iconic gangster star overnight, leaving cryptic graffiti messages all around town reading “I was here but I disappear,” or “I am everywhere.” Sending photos to the newspapers waving six-shooters, this only enhances his legendary rebel status, though his lone act of liberation is stealing a white Cadillac and driving it all over a carefully manicured golf course. The police trace him to his country hideout, leading to a bloody shoot-out, with Ivan taking a slug to the shoulder, taking refuge deeper into the mountains, befriended by one of the growers, Pedro (Ras Daniel Hartman, a well-known artist and sculptor, the first Rasta to ever appear in a feature film), who becomes his most trusted friend. Rastas are black nationalists that trace their roots to the slavery era, with Bob Marley introducing Rastafarian themes in his music, viewing themselves as African exiles living in Babylon, a term for Western society dominated by whites, The Melodians - Rivers Of Babylon - 1970 - YouTube (4:19), with Rastas viewed as sacred figures, morally devout, heavily involved in ganga production and consumption, living on the outskirts of society. It’s all part of Ivan’s epic journey through various levels of Jamaican society, a microcosm of Third World neocolonial exploitation, leading only to dead-ends, layered in subversive music that is perfectly integrated into the storyline, with Jamaican residents enthralled by the film, becoming their highest grossing box-office hit, emulating the lone individual in the Wild West genre, espousing a male-dominated macho domain where only the mythical legend lives on through the poetic musical refrains, “I’d rather be a free man in my grave/Than living as a puppet or a slave.”