The Review/Feature/

How The Harder They Come created Jamaican cinema

Reggae authority Klive Walker revisits the genesis of the island’s legendary first feature film

by Klive Walker
Dec 9, 2017

The Harder They Come screens on Sunday, December 10 as part of the TIFF Cinematheque retrospective Black Star.

I’m in the middle of an ocean of people, converging as one on the side entrance of Carib Theatre in Kingston, Jamaica. It’s Monday evening, June 5, 1972, and this cinema I’m slowly pushing toward is hosting the first public screening of The Harder They Come. Somehow the pressure of the push and crush forces open the theatre’s side door. We pour in. The cinema’s 1,500 seats are filled in an instant. Very few of us, if any, have paid—maybe some planned it that way because they can’t afford it. Others, like myself, were prepared to meet the cost. There’s way more people outside the theatre than in it. What unites all of us, both inside and outside the Carib, is the fear that we won’t witness the initial screening of the first Jamaican feature film — and more, that we won’t be able to see ourselves on the silver screen for the first time. We know that the people who populate The Harder They Come are African-Jamaicans: grassroots sufferers, strivers, the middle class, Rastafari, all of them mirroring the very audience seated in the theatre.

An announcement tells us that we have to vacate the theatre. The Jamaican prime minister Michael Manley is outside the theatre, but the chaos on the street is blocking his entry; his fiancée Beverley Anderson, a TV personality and actor who has a role in the film, is already inside. We notice that the temperature is rising, and realize that the management has turned off the air conditioning to get us to leave. The heat is suffocating, but no one moves. The stand-off simmers with an ever greater sense of urgency. Eventually, the management decides to start the screening. The tense mixture of defiance and anxious anticipation hovering like a thick fog lifts, and a collective exhale of excitement permeates the room. By the time the film’s opening scene appears on the screen — a truck and a country bus meeting head on in the middle of Flat Bridge, a thin beam strip over the Rio Cobre, just after star Jimmy Cliff’s fantastic “You Can Get It If You Really Want” finishes playing on the soundtrack — everyone is relaxed. Laughter fills the theatre when the drivers of the two vehicles exchange comedic insults with one another. The audience’s joy and wonder sustains itself throughout the entire screening. The incident at the premiere is how The Harder They Come enters the world; it is born in circumstances that echo its own rebellious, innovative energy.

Jimmy Cliff in The Harder They Come

What the audience sees on the screen at the Carib that day is the story of Ivan Martin (Cliff), a young man who, lured by the promise of Kingston’s urban embrace, is on that bus looking to escape his humble rural existence. Seeking fame and fortune as a recording artist, Ivan falls afoul of corrupt elements in both the city’s music industry and law enforcement; when he violently defies both, he finds himself an underdog hero, a flamboyant, daring outlaw in the mold of the real-life 1940s gangster/folk hero Vincent Martin, better known as Rhygin.

The Harder They Come was the brainchild of director Perry Henzell, who was born in 1936 in Annotto Bay, a Jamaican north coast town in St. Mary, and grew up on the Caymanas sugar estate operated by his parents and located in St. Catherine. Although his heritage was upper-class and Euro-Jamaican, an early childhood experience presented him with a visceral understanding of Jamaica’s racial and social hierarchy. The decade of Henzell’s birth saw the emergence in Jamaica of Rastafari, an Africa-centric spiritual movement demanding equity for the dispossessed. When Henzell was four years old, Leonard Howell established the Rastafari commune of Pinnacle not far from Caymanas. A few years later, the young Henzell rode his horse to a building site where some of the Rasta brethren from the commune were working. “They talked to me about the Bible, because in those days I loved Bible stories,” Henzell remembered. “They looked ferocious, but in fact [they] were very friendly to [this] little white boy on a horse.”

This face-to-face encounter with the reality, and humanity, of the Rastafari — who were commonly viewed as vagrants, outcasts, the dregs of society — allowed Henzell to develop an enlightened perspective on these people and their way of life: “I wasn’t moving around with the bourgeoisie. My hero was the guy driving the tractor. I grew up like a rebel but lived in the big house.” Henzell’s compassion for grassroots African-Jamaicans persisted throughout his time abroad, first at McGill University in Montreal and then in London, where he obtained work at the BBC; returning to Jamaica in the late ’50s, he directed commercials for several years before he began developing what would become his country’s landmark first feature.

Director Perry Henzell on set

Henzell’s decision to make his protagonist Ivan a singer brilliantly tapped in to the current cultural moment in Jamaica. In 1968, just one year prior to the beginning of pre-production on The Harder They Come, reggae emerged as the successor to the homegrown popular-music styles of ska and rock steady. Powerfully influenced by the Rastafari philosophy, reggae at that time was above all a singer’s medium, its lyrics reflecting themes of freedom, justice, and equality for people of African heritage everywhere and for humanity as a whole.

As the late ’60s gave way to the early ’70s, the reggae aesthetic began to permeate the mediums of poetry, non-fiction writing, theatre, dance, and canvas art, leading to a veritable golden age of the arts in Jamaica. The music itself, meanwhile, became both a local and international juggernaut, dominating sound-system dancehalls on the island and in the Caribbean communities in cities like Toronto, New York, and London; records by the likes of THTC star Jimmy Cliff, the duo of Bob Andy and Marcia Griffiths, Desmond Dekker, and Lee Perry entered the mainstream charts in America, the UK and Europe on a regular basis.

In The Harder They Come, Henzell captures the spirit of the moment through a powerful soundtrack featuring Cliff, Dekker, Toots and the Maytals, Scotty, the Melodians, and the Slickers. More than just accompaniment, the songs on the soundtrack are an integral part of the film’s story, texture, and meaning; the title song performed by Ivan/Cliff encapsulates many of the film’s themes in its defiant lyrics.

The Harder They Come’s relationship to reggae, however, goes beyond music. The film is immersed in Jamaica’s everyday life and culture reflected through the creative beauty of reggae’s flesh and blood: Ivan’s struggle for a better life in the face of a rigid class structure; the presence of the Rastafari (in the person of the character Pedro) as righteous beacons of peace, love, and equity; the use of the Jamaican language; the argot of body movement through action and dance; and, of course, the reggae rhythm itself. Deeply and vitally engaged with all aspects of the movement, The Harder They Come is the film component of Jamaica’s reggae-influenced golden age.

Making a film is a team effort, and for The Harder They Come Henzell assembled his cast and crew based on the cinema he aspired to create — a kind of cinema exemplified by directors like Ken Loach, Gillo Pontecorvo, and John Cassavetes, emphasizing collective creation, realism, and (in at least the first two cases) prominent political themes. Henzell thus met with such people as Rasta elder Mortimer Planno while conducting his extensive research for the film; he co-wrote the screenplay with the talented African-Jamaican playwright Trevor Rhone; selected noted Rastafari canvas artist Daniel Hartman for the role of Pedro; and, as the film’s hero Ivan, he cast Jimmy Cliff, a reggae singer with a prominent international profile.

For most of the talent in front of the camera — including Cliff, Hartman, Carl Bradshaw (as Ivan’s friend Jose), Basil Keane (as Preacher), Winston Stona (as the police detective pursuing Ivan) and Lucia White (as Ivan’s mother) — The Harder They Come represented their screen debuts. (Janet Bartley who portrays Elsa, Ivan’s love interest, was likely the only experienced actor in the film.) “I always cast on the assumption that I was trying to cast people that knew more about their role than I do,” said Henzell. That was certainly true of Cliff, who, like Ivan, moved from country to city and became a recording artist, and also of Hartman, who shared his character’s spiritual worldview.

The Harder They Come

The finely tuned authenticity of the performances is matched by the film’s attentiveness to the sights and sounds of 1970s Kingston, as captured by Henzell and cinematographer David McDonald (along with additional camerawork by Franklyn St. Juste and Peter Jessop). An early scene where Ivan first arrives in Kingston and is promptly ripped off by a handcart man neatly depicts the rhythm of abandon disturbing the city’s downtown streets. Sally Henzell’s art direction aids immeasurably in achieving the realistic textures that the director was aiming for, particularly in such settings as the humble room where Ivan’s mother lives. A sequence depicting a church service offers a precise depiction of how the sensual and the spiritual sometimes converge in these places of worship: a woman overwhelmed by spirit possession almost seems to be experiencing an orgasm, as the congregation itself reaches a frenzied climax to the pulsing beat of Jamaican hand-clap and tambourine gospel.

After its successful domestic run, The Harder They Come embarked on a world tour, with its director in tow (“I went to 43 different countries in six years,” Henzell recalled). The first stop was Europe, where it was met with an initially favourable reception: at Ireland’s Cork Film Festival it received the Editor’s Prize, while at the Venice Film Festival it earned an award for best soundtrack. Before Venice, the film arrived in the UK and played at Brixton’s Classic cinema, where the turn-out for the first screenings was disappointing, despite the neighbourhood’s significant Caribbean population. Henzell was forced to publicize the film himself by handing out leaflets in the neighbourhood, and — with these grassroots tactics and a positive review from the Sunday Observer’s George Melly — the audience and enthusiasm for the film steadily grew.

THTC’s next engagement was in November 1972 at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in L.A., where it screened as part of Filmex, the Los Angeles International Film Exposition. While the film was well-received by the packed house that attended, it initially failed to attract a distributor; however, Henzell’s dogged persistence paid off yet again, and it was finally picked up by Roger Corman’s distribution company New World Pictures. Film critics A.H. Weiler (in The New York Times) and Tom Shales (in The Washington Post) both praised the film ahead of its US release in early 1973, while Time Magazine’s Jay Cocks wrote that “The Harder They Come is always exuberant, and sometimes strong, as casually surprising and effortlessly sinister as the blade sliding out of a gravity knife.” Nevertheless, the release ran into problems due to New World’s promotional campaign, which had targeted the film at the blaxploitation market. Henzell proceeded to cancel the distribution deal and take charge of the marketing and publicity of the film himself.

A friend of a friend connected Henzell with Larry Jackson, the programmer for the Orson Welles Theatre just outside Boston, who was seeking “rebel films” for his midnight screening slots. Jackson watched the film and loved it, and agreed with Henzell that it should not be promoted as “Super Fly Goes to Jamaica.” The Harder They Come opened in prime time in the 400-seat theatre of the Welles triplex in April 1973, and, as Jackson recounts, “In the first few months 75, 000 people had gone to see the film. After six months we took it off the regular screening schedule and showed it at midnight,” where it continued to play to a full house for the next six years. This is but one example of the spectacular success that the film enjoyed on college and repertory screens across the US, from Boston to New York City, Washington D.C. to San Francisco.

In Toronto, the film’s host was the now-defunct Cinema Lumiere on College Street near Spadina, where THTC began screening in the summer of 1973 to enthusiastic audiences that included many Caribbean-Canadians. “The Harder They Come surges with exotic life and an exhilarating sense of continuous movement,” The Toronto Star’s Clyde Gilmour wrote at the time, and the city’s Black community press was just as effusive in its praise: in the pages of the monthly Spear magazine, film critic J. Ashton Braithwaite flatly declared “The Harder They Come… is a good movie, period.”

Perry Henzell's No Place Like Home

At 11:00pm on September 13, 2006, Perry Henzell — now 70 years old and battling cancer — stood in front of the screen at the Cumberland 3 in Yorkville, looking out on a capacity crowd that had just finished watching TIFF’s world premiere of his new work No Place Like Home. Henzell’s long, grey, bushy beard, erudite voice and insightful comments give him the presence of a hippie intellectual rather than an elder statesman of Caribbean cinema. The Festival showed The Harder They Come in its “Dialogues: Talking with Pictures” programme a few days later. Just two months after his visit to Toronto, Henzell died back home in Jamaica. But his spirit still thrives in his art, most powerfully in his first and greatest film, which put Jamaica on the world cinema map for the very first time.