Flashback: It’s midnight at the Orson Welles Cinema, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1980. Perry Henzell’s breakthrough Jamaican film “The Harder They Come” has been playing here every weekend for nearly a decade now, but tonight it’s still a full house. As the lights go down, the audience sparks up, and within a good 10 minutes the room is stewing in a haze of pungent ganja smoke and fine reggae music.
More than four decades later, I wonder, why? Not why people went to see the film — it’s a fierce tale of injustice avenged, based on a Jamaican ghetto outlaw/folk hero from the 1940s, but set in the ’70s reggae scene, and it boasts a legendary soundtrack including The Maytals’ “Pressure Drop,” The Slickers’ “Johnny Too Bad” and several hits sung by the film’s star, Jimmy Cliff. In fact, “Harder” played an integral role in breaking reggae music outside Jamaica; even Bob Marley followed in its footsteps, touring many of the same American theaters that screened the film.
No, I’m not wondering why they saw the film. The question is: Why did people keep going to see it weekend after weekend? Yes, it was to dope-smokers what “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” was to cross-dressers — a chance to flaunt your vice in public, to show strength in numbers that The Man couldn’t touch — but more than that, it was an attitude.
The movie begins with a promise: “You Can Get it if You Really Want,” the words to an irresistible can-do anthem sung by reggae star Cliff. It then spends the next two hours showing you what a sham that is; every little thing is not gonna be all right. They aren’t going to let you have it unless you take it. The Rastafarian ideal of One Love was replaced here by two six-shooters and the idea that outlaw resistance, however futile, was a grand gesture and of great symbolic importance.
This was the pop version of philosopher Frantz Fanon’s writings on violence as liberation; anti-colonialism set to a backbeat. It was “no future” before punk adopted nihilism, a modern gangsta tale long before “Scarface” (1983). “Harder” was potent.
Cliff appears in the film as Ivan, a penniless kid from the countryside, clad in ’70s blaxploitation floppy hats and wide-collared threads. Ivan wants to make it as a singer in Kingston, where life is hard.
Director Perry Henzell (1936-2006), a former advertising director who grew bored with prettifying reality, powerfully contrasted the sun-dappled tropical beauty of Jamaica with garbage-dump scrounging poverty. It marked the first time that a Jamaican filmmaker depicted Kingston in a way that the locals would recognize. Initial screenings were riotous. Henzell recalled in an interview how “they broke the doors down. When there were three people in every seat, we ran the film. People just started screaming; it was unbelievable, every director’s wildest fantasy.”
In the film, Ivan blags his way into a studio session, and Henzell lets us watch him recording the eponymous song “The Harder They Come” from beginning to end. Little did we know that it wasn’t lip-synching — Cliff actually performing the song, written just days earlier, in one take! He’s putting his all into it, sweating, twitching, stroking the big printed star on his T-shirt as if he’s willing stardom to happen.
The song is electrifying, but for Ivan, “Nuttin’ nah go right.” Want your sure-fire hit song on the radio, boy? Take your $20 and shut up. Want to earn a living selling a little ganja? Then you better give the bulk of your cut to the boss-man. Ivan is soon jobless, arrested and sleeping on the street. You can’t get ahead playing by the rules, he learns, and he reacts by shooting cops and going on the lam as his single, ironically, rises up the charts.
It’s at this point that Henzell creates one of the first metamovie moments of modern cinema: Ivan literally becomes the six-shooter-toting cowboy hero of the spaghetti Western movie that he was watching earlier in the film. When the heat on Ivan gets intense, his Rasta mentor Pedro reminds him that “Star boy can’t die till de last reel,” and Ivan’s final shootout with the cops has him replaying that line in his head as earlier images from the cowboy film are intercut with his last stand. And didn’t that cowboy look like Clint Eastwood … Or was it just the thick smoke in the cinema playing tricks on us?
Rewind to 1971. That year’s huge hit in the U.S. had Eastwood as a trigger-happy San Francisco cop in “Dirty Harry.” His iconic line comes when he confronts a wounded black perp who is reaching for his gun. Harry taunts the guy, asking him to guess whether he’s out of ammo or not, but since his .44 Magnum could blow a felon’s head clean off, he adds: “You have to ask yourself, ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, punk, do ya?” Audiences yearning for law and order after the social disruption of the ’60s would stand up and cheer.
“The Harder They Come” arrived barely a year later, and featured a funhouse mirror image: A black man shooting cops and uttering his own iconic one-liner of defiance — “Don’t f-ck wit’ me!” This was the movie for all the people on the receiving end of law and order, an anti-authority revenge flick that damned all of Babylon, i.e., the cops (corrupt), the gangs (more corrupt), the record biz (worst of all), and the church (keeping people docile with its promises of a better life in the next world).
Yet “Harder” also foreshadowed a grim future for Jamaica, where young men denied opportunity would turn to violence, with political killings in the ’70s, gang-fueled gunplay in the ’80s and beyond. The vicarious thrill of watching payback on a movie screen would become a real lifestyle choice for many young men.
Now the debate about whether art glorifies or inspires violence has become so intense in Jamaica — with daily shootings in West Kingston, many musicians flaunting gang connections and some currently in jail for murder — that just last year the parliament passed legislation prohibiting any “audio, visual or audiovisual communication” that promotes killing or violence. One wonders if Henzell’s film would be considered part of this ban.
As the cops close in on Ivan near the end of “The Harder They Come,” his girlfriend asks where he is going to hide, to which he replies “Hide? I not go into hiding.” His fate is looking grim, but his song is on every radio, and all over Kingston graffiti begins to appear, reading, “I was here but I disappear,” or “I am everywhere.” You can kill the I, but not the i-dea. Four decades on, Babylon trembles.
A beautifully restored HD version of “The Harder They Come” is playing at Shibuya Humax Cinema in Tokyo, July 5-18.