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The Harder They Come, Movie by Perry Henzell

The connection between Jakes, Jamaica and the classic cult film, The Harder They Come? Justine Henzell explains

JUSTINE HENZELL

orty-five years ago, a young filmmaker, named Perry Henzell, knew he had to make a decision. Would he make his first film for a local audience, or for the rest of the world? A passionate nationalist, that filmmaker, who was my father, made the conscious choice that The Harder They Come would be for Jamaicans, using the Jamaican vernacular, music, cast and crew. It was a career risk, he realized, as little was known about Jamaica past our outstanding beaches, Olympic athletes and beauty queens.

After three years, four different shoots with three different cinematographers, countless script rewrites, numerous edits and editors, The Harder They Come had its historic premiere at the Carib Theatre in Kingston. Perry had overwhelmingly achieved his goal. Jamaicans heard and saw themselves on the big screen; they laughed and shouted for the entire 100 minutes and came to see the film in record numbers, resulting in riots around the cinema.

Now came the hard part. Would anyone outside the island care about the story of a country “bwoy” come to town to fulfill his dream of becoming a singer, who turns to a life of crime when he sees no other options and eventually becomes a folk hero outlaw? Sure, that theme had been used in Westerns, but in those films no subtitles were needed to decipher patois and the actors looked like the audience.

In 1972, Perry embarked on a journey that would take him away from home for months at a time. He began on the film festival circuit, and though the film won awards in Cork and Vienna, it failed to attract a distributor. Undaunted, Henzell traveled with 35mm film cans in hand to 43 countries over the next six years. The parallel with the film’s protagonist Ivan and his vinyl 45s was undeniable and ironic. The movie was shown screen-by-screen to the world and in the process paved the way for reggae music, with the pulsating soundtrack showcasing the brilliance of Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker and Toots and the Maytals among others. Whether it was Harvard college coeds lighting up joints at the “midnightly” showings at the Orson Welles theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts or outdoor screenings on a white sheet in Lagos, Nigeria, Henzell received little money for these screenings, but through the film, Jamaican culture was infiltrating the rest of the world.

In Jamaica, reggae had emerged from the earlier sounds of ska and rocksteady to be the dominant rhythm of the 70s and Chris Blackwell had signed Bob Marley and the Wailers to Island Records. Their now-classic albums Catch a Fire, Burnin’, Natty Dread, Rastaman Vibration and Exoduswere all released between 1973 and 1978. Where the movie played, the Wailers performed and the one-two cultural punch was impossible to resist. The Harder They Come has become a bona fide cult classic and is universally acknowledged as the great Jamaican film.

—JUSTINE HENZELL

We screen The Harder They Come most Thursday nights, alternating with other classic Jamaican movies, on the outdoor screen on the lawn by Jack Sprat. There is no charge.

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