Film: The Harder They Come (1972)
Director: Perry Henzell
Starring: Jimmy Cliff
The Harder They Come, directed by White Jamaican Perry Henzell, is the first film made by Jamaicans for Jamaicans. Up until this film was made, Jamaica had been a popular film location because of its beautiful beaches and lush tropical forests, however, much like the country’s tourism industry, the films did not depict the harsh realities of Jamaican life. The Harder They Come is a grim portrait of a brazen criminal you just wants to be famous.
Ivanhoe Martin, played by Black Jamaican reggae legend Jimmy Cliff, arrives in Kingston from the countryside after his grandmother’s death. He has brought along several possessions, including a mango for his mother but all are stolen and he arrives at his mother’s shack with nothing but the little money remaining from the sale of his grandmother’s house. His mother, who is devastated by the news that her mother has died and she wasn’t able to attend the funeral, tells Ivan that he must return to the countryside because if he stays in the city he’ll just become a criminal. He also informs him that he can’t stay with her. He leaves her shack but as he is walking out the door she asks if he has brought a mango and he tells her that the mangos didn’t grow well in the countryside that season.
Ivan tries to find work but he has no skills and there is no shortage of labour in the city. But he persists. He gets work from “The Preacher”, who his mother has refered him to. He also develops an interest in Elsa, who he sees singing in the church choir. She is the ward of the Preacher. Ivan joins the choir just to get close to Elsa. At one point in the film, we see images of choir-singing at a revival juxtaposed to images of Elsa and Ivan naked on the beach. Elsa is seduced by Ivan and eventually leaves her home with the preacher to live with him. But she soon realizes that Ivan isn’t at all serious and seems to expect her to find work to support them while he goes and tries to become famous by making a record. Ivan pursues record producer Hilton, who agrees to record Ivan’s song “The Harder They Come”.
There is a Chinese Jamaican character in the film who works closely with Hilton producing records. This character reminded me that one of the leading record producers in Jamaica in the 1960s was Leslie Kong, who was the first Jamaican producer to get international hits. He started his career as a record producer after meeting Jimmy Cliff, who was singing a song outside of Kong’s family’s record shop/restaurant/ice cream parlour in the hopes that Kong would record him. This inspired Kong to launch his own record label, Beverly’s. He recorded Cliff’s song “Dearest Beverly”, thus also launching Cliff’s musical career. Kong recorded with the likes of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Desmond Dekker. He died young of a heart attack in 1971, allegedly due to a “curse” cast on him by Bunny Livingston of The Wailers because of a dispute over the release of the album, The Best of the Wailers. Kong died about a week after the album was released.
Hilton tells Ivan that he will distribute the recording and get it played by DJs but Ivan must sign over his rights and he will only receive $20 for the recording. Ivan refuses as he believes that he deserves much more money. Ivan tries to get his song played by DJs at clubs and at the radio stations but all refuse as they have agreements with Hilton only to play recordings he gives them. Disheartened, Ivan agrees to sign away his rights and only receive $20 just so that he can get his record played but Hilton takes revenge but telling DJs not to play it too much because he thinks Ivan is a trouble maker.
Ivan gets into the ganga (marijuana) trade with the help of his friend Pedro as there isn’t other work for him to do. But Ivan soon realizes that people like him and Pedro are just low-level dealers and are not making the real money. But at one point, to avoid getting caught by the police, Ivan kills a police officer. During this scene, we see a flashback to an earlier scene in the film when Ivan gets whipped for having slashed the face of a man who stole his bike. We realize that Ivan is afraid of receiving more corporal punishment so he kills the police officer. Ivan goes into hiding but he is ratted on by his friend Jose Smith. Ivan is able to escape from the police who are after him, killing most of them. Ivan then goes on a spree through the city, robbing people, stealing cars, and at one point demanding that a photographer take pictures of him at gun point. He wants to send one of the pictures to the local newspaper to be published. He seems proud that he has achieved fame because of his ability to avoid getting caught by the police. Hilton starts getting Ivan’s record played now that he’s a famous criminal and it becomes a hit.
The police decide to force the local people living in the slum who are surviving off the ganga trade to give Ivan up. They stop the ganga trade so no one is able to make any money. People in the slum begin to suffer, including Pedro’s son, Rupert, who Elsa has grown close to. Elsa decides to turn Ivan in so that the trade can start-up again.
Ivan is supposed to escape to Cuba by boat but he is unable to swim out to the boat in time and is left on the beach. He decides to go down in a blaze of glory in a shoot-out with the police.
The Impact of The Harder They Come
The Harder They Come inspired a novel of the same name by Michael Thelwell. The novel follows Ivan but develops the plot further; including giving the reader a portrait of what Ivan’s life was like back in the countryside before he came to the city.
The film brought reggae music to an international audience and although the film was not well-distributed, its soundtrack was, paving the way for the success of Jamaican musicians like Bob Marley. The film is referenced in the legendary British Punk band The Clash’s song The Guns of Brixton, a song with has obvious reggae influences. From the song:
You see, he feels like Ivan
Born under the Brixton sun
His game is called survivin’
At the end of the harder they come
I didn’t really like the character of Ivan at all. He frankly has no admirable qualities, other than blind determination. But this didn’t stop me from enjoying the film. The “realness” of the film is what captured my attention, as well as all the small moments that make up a portrait of slum life in Jamaica. From Ivan’s mother asking, so sadly, if he brought a mango for her from the countryside, to an elderly drunk laughing at Ivan when he sees him running the streets with a gun and only his underwear on, you can tell that this is a film meant to resonate with people in Jamaica. Its gaze isn’t from outsiders looking in but for insiders finally having a chance to see themselves on-screen. One of the most brilliant moments of the film is at the end, during Ivan’s final shoot-out with the police on the beach, we shift from seeing the shoot-out to seeing an audience of Jamaican movie-watchers laughing with excitement at the image of Ivan on-screen confronting the police. We had seen a similar audience, equally as excited, watching a shoot-out in a spagetti(Italian-made films copying the style of American Westerns) starring Franco Nero earlier in the film. It is as if Henzell is trying to say “We have our one anti-heroes, our own outlaws to watch, admire, and be entertained by. We don’t need to consume the stories of others. We have our own stories.” That said, is this really an image these people should be looking up to? As Julianne Burton observes:
The action of the final scene reverts to the massacred sob and the cheering crowds at the Rialto. Jose’s contemptuous dictum that the hero can’t die until the last reel rings in Ivan’s ears an he faces his own posse. Amidst the indistinguishable shouts of the audience, one cry—“Ivan”—stands out because it was absent from the original scene. Whether it is an indication of Ivan’s mythification of his own death in order to face it, or a cry from the masses of his downtrodden countrymen/women who (either, at that moment or long after his death) hail him an a hero, is not a crucial distinction. In both cases his is revealed to be a hollow heroism.
The Harder They Come by Michael Dare (article available online)
The Harder They Come: Cultural colonialism and the American dream by Julianne Burton (essay available online)
Interview (2001) with Peter Henzell available online
The Harder They Come Musical Website
Last week, I had the chance to listen to Don Letts’ BBC Radio 4’s Documentary about the life and work of Peter Tosh.
Here’s the description:
Peter Tosh found international fame alongside Bob Marley as a member of The Wailers. As a solo artist he released several landmark reggae albums and even recorded with the Rolling Stones. But he was more than just a successful pop star: he was a revolutionary and a hero to many of Jamaica’s poor. He spent his life as a strident campaigner for civil rights and for the legalisation of marijuana. He was more militant and political than his former band mate and his uncompromising arrogance often landed him in serious trouble. For that reason, as this documentary reveals, his life could be as brutal as the way it ended. Grammy award winning film-maker Don Letts explores his career.
The documentary opens with excerpts from interviews with people who knew Peter Tosh:
Peter Tosh was the Malcolm X to Bob Marley’s Martin Luther King. One was the arouser and one was the healer. But Peter was much more on the side of militancy. (Roger Steffens, Reggae Historian)
His songs have been recorded by Eric Clapton, Peter Gabriel, Jackson Brown, Ben Harper, Chrissie Hynes from the Pretenders, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, Sinnead O’Connor. (Wayne Jobson, DJ and producer)
Peter was adored as a revolutionary in Jamaica. He was so charismatic and he was saying very much what the people thought. (Vivien Goldman, Journalist)
Don Letts’ opens the documentary with the following statement:
Peter Tosh was not your average rockstar and as a person you probably won’t even like him. He could be arrogant, unpleasant and intimidating. But for me he was also a completely awe-inspiring performer, a revolutionary who stood up for the equal rights of the Jamaican poor and Black people all over the world. They always call Bob Marley the Reggae Rebel but Peter Tosh was far more militant and political than Bob ever was. His uncompromising attitude often caused controversy and landed him in serious trouble and as you will hear his life could sometimes be as brutal as the way it ended.
As Bob Marley archivist Roger Steffens states:
He made a guitar out of wire and a sardine can and taught himself to play by watching an older man who actually had a guitar.
According to Jamaican-American Wayne Johnson, producer of the documentary Red X, about Peter Tosh:
I think with him growing up in Jamaica during the colonial days in the 50s and so it was you know as Peter said you never saw a Black school teacher, or a Black preacher or a Black bank manager or anything like it was all English people who came down and took the big jobs and therefore you know eventually you would want to rebel against this especially with the church where he was forced to go to church two, three times a week and every day he was singing “O Lord wash me and I’ll be as white as snow.” You can’t oppress anybody worse than that you know and so Peter said it was almost like apartheid in those days.
In a 1983 BBC Interview, Peter Tosh explains:
I was the first one in the group who played music. I used to play my guitar. I used to play the keyboards. I taught Bob to play guitar and I taught Bunny to play guitar because it was a part of making your music perfect see. And in those times is like we had a good voice but we wasn’t creating music that music that much it was just singing people song and singing people son and the people been telling us that we sound good why don’t go to the studio so we got together once and we did some recording recorded the first one which was Simmer Down and the people loved it. It sold well.
As Vivien Goldman explains:
I don’t think I’ve ever had as many arguments with anybody in my life as I did with Peter Tosh.I remember once I was interviewing him, he was like “Women are inferior to men!” I was like “Why is that?” you know “Oh look at the docks , if you go down to the docks a woman can’t pick up a heavy bag and carry it the same way a man can.” And there was you know there was quite embedded in Rasta certain things for women their period was regarded to be unclean but he was really into it “Oh!!!!” you know “ Are you having your period? Should you be in the room with me know?” I was like excuse me, I’m here as a working professional matey.
The Guardian’s Review of Arise Black Man The Peter Tosh Story by Elisabeth Mahoney
Roger Steffens’ Reggae Archives Website
Vivien Goldman’s Blog
The many voices of Rastafarian women : sexual subordination in the midst of liberation by O. Lake (essay available online)