Artifacts of the Metropol: signs and billboards tower over Ivan in the film’s opening scene.

The white convertible that catches Ivan’s attention early in the film is one method of signifying his desire for material wealth without indicating why that wealth is so unreachable, using legitimate, means to Ivan and others like him.

Desperate for food, Ivan attempts to steal from a market and is dissuaded by an armed shopkeeper. This tense shot is the first intimation of the black-on-black violence to come.

Scenes from a dump: Ivan watches as other city dwellers pick through rubbish for what they can find.

Ivan leaving the dump.

Ivan gives a well-dressed Elsa a ride on his bike as a white Mercedes passes by.

Even more “artifacts of the Metropol”: a jealous Preacher fishes through Ivan’s meager belongings.



A question of audience:
revisiting Perry Henzell’s
The Harder They Come

by Ulrick Casimir

Released in Jamaican theaters in 1972, just one decade after the island gained full independence within the British Commonwealth, The Harder They Come is a low-budget, locally-cast film based loosely on the life of Ivanhoe “Rhygin” Martin, a 1950s-era Jamaican gunman turned folk hero. Directed, produced, and co-written by Jamaican native Perry Henzell, the movie stars reggae icon Jimmy Cliff, is set mostly in the ghettoes and slums of Jamaica, and was the first chance for black Jamaicans to see characters like themselves on film in central or starring roles. U.S. critics commonly attribute the film’s international success to the combination of a storyline whose main theme is rebellion and a soundtrack that provided mainstream United States with its first taste of reggae, the musical descendant of ska and rocksteady, respectively.[1][open endnotes in new window] Michael Thelwell’s well-received novelization of the film, which was originally published in 1980, as well as the successful stage musical adaptation, which Henzell wrote and which debuted at London’s Theatre Royal Stratford East in 2006 before traveling to North America in 2009, attest to The Harder They Come’s continuing influence and popularity.

The madness of Kingston. Carl Bradshaw, who (despite Prince Buster’s prior experience on British television) is often termed the only real professional actor in The Harder They Come.
Whiteness at a cinematic remove: a scene from Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 “spaghetti” western Django, as screened in the film for an enthusiastic audience at the Rialto in Kingston. More “artifacts of the Metropol”: here Ivan gets sprayed by a car while sleeping in a bus stop. Note the advertisement on the side of the stop.
Hilton, the record producer, makes his entrance driving a white Mercedes convertible that recalls the white Mustang convertible that captured Ivan’s attention in the film’s opening sequence. Desperate to find legitimate work, Ivan visits a wealthy part of town and begs for employment, and change, from a housewife (played by Beverly Anderson, soon to be Beverly Manley).

Jamaica is the third largest island in a dappled, polyphonic region. Yet for a host of reasons (which include the island’s presentation of itself to the outside world, particularly foreign investors[2]), Jamaica continues to serve in the U.S. and British popular imagination as a synecdoche for the entire English-speaking Caribbean. Together with the film’s lasting status as cultural touchstone for an entire generation, this suggests that nearly forty years after its original, domestic release, The Harder They Come remains an avenue into the complicated and sometimes convoluted relationship between Caribbean cultural products and the foreign reception and use of them.

In this essay, I argue that The Harder They Come is a complex, ambivalent text that deserves (yet rarely receives) what Edward Saïd once termed a contrapuntal reading.[3] Such a reading would begin with the notion that this “uniquely Jamaican” film from 1972 may in fact be a colonial, rather than a postcolonial, text. The long-standing, well-documented, dialectical and recursive phenomenon of Anglophone Caribbean artists attaining success at home by first achieving renown abroad[4] suggests that The Harder They Come quite possibly owes much of its stateside and lasting domestic success to its strategy of holding carefully selected parts of the interior of Jamaica — effects but not their causes, the debilitating poverty of ordinary black Jamaicans but not the reasons founding that poverty — up for cinematic display. While the film permitted a “positive” viewing experience for its black Jamaican audience, it also allowed for a “positive” viewing experience for its predominantly white American and British audience by literally omitting them from the text and obscuring the roles of race, international relations, and foreign economic policy in determining Jamaica’s modern history. While certain production-level decisions and aesthetic elements of the film permitted its poor, black Jamaican audience negotiated readings of the text, aspects of the film’s formal approach read contrapuntally, in conjunction with the exclusion of whites from the film’s diegesis, reveal how The Harder They Come also promoted dominant readings by audiences outside Jamaica, particularly mostly white audiences in Britain and the U.S. The film’s gaze, in other words, though seemingly Jamaican, only appears to originate solely from a position within its subject matter.

The film’s dependence upon reggae is one of a number of thematic elements indicating a deliberate attempt at a uniquely Jamaican representation of Jamaica. Early in the introduction of Cut ‘N’ Mix, Dick Hebdige uses the term “two Jamaicas” to illustrate the wide gap that has long existed between the racial and socioeconomic realities of the island and the way that Jamaica is often perceived by those beyond its shores, in particular people in Great Britain and the United States.[5] For Hebdige (and others), reggae, which has morphed over time into a blanket term for all of Jamaican popular music,[6] has helped make that gap clear, publicizing the struggles of ordinary, black Jamaicans through lyrical explorations of “poverty and inequality and black identity” that are couched in “highly danceable rhythms”(22). The film’s emphasis on rebellion (which is both understandable and revealing, given Jamaica’s history of rebellion and resistance, in particular to black slavery) is also evident in the film’s soundtrack: Reggae itself is shot through with rebellion, or resistance, and here I invoke “resistance” specifically and deliberately according to Selwyn Cudjoe’s use and explication of the term in his Resistance and Caribbean Literature. Leonard Barrett, in The Rastafarians: The Dreadlocks of Jamaica, defines reggae as “a cultic expression that is both entertaining, revolutionary, and filled with Rastafarian symbolism”(x); reggae actually began as the music of Jamaicans who “rejected most of what is considered Jamaican, even to the point of spurning Jamaican nationality”(xiii).

Thus reggae itself is an ironic form of cultural resistance, and the musical form owes much of its international popularity to a film that follows a character whose actions occasionally qualify as socioeconomic resistance and always as political resistance. If as Cudjoe (and others) argue resistance is central to the historical and cultural development of the Caribbean as a region (and, by extension, Jamaica as a country), then the placement and expression of this type of story within and through this particular musical context, understood in conjunction with the decision to set the film in Jamaica and cast local people and almost no professional actors, would seem to intimate an effort at a uniquely Caribbean motion picture, while reinforcing the notion that resistance itself is perhaps the primary indicator of the uniquely Caribbean. Yet while trafficking in images and sounds of “Jamaica” that, through the film’s success, came to comprise or modulate a common perception of the country (and, by extension, the region), The Harder They Come lays flat beneath the pressure of the essentialism Stephen Slemon,[7] Jenny Sharpe,[8] and others have often warned is the dead end of the false binary basic to the notion of “resistance” as the most prominent cultural marker of a colonized people.

Third white convertible: Ivan begs for change from the driver of a white convertible parked outside of a hotel. And here Ivan is asked to leave by the white-clad doorman of the hotel.
Continuing vehicular signification: Ivan’s “automobile”/home in Preacher’s yard. Preacher (Basil Keane) in his church, which he intimates is actually administered from the United States.
Good Ivan, bad timing: Ivan flirts with Elsa as they sing in the choir near a watchful Preacher. The love scene between Ivan and Elsa, shown intercut with the near-orgiastic choir performance at Preacher’s church.

Henzell as a Jamaican was quite aware that the lives of ordinary, poor, black Jamaicans had yet to be made central onscreen. In the director’s commentary track of the 2000 Criterion DVD edition of The Harder They Come, Henzell describes in vivid terms the release and delight he witnessed the night of the film’s domestic premiere, at Jamaica’s overcrowded Carib Theater. Clearly the filmmaker understood that his “home” audience yearned to see themselves at the center of a major motion picture. My claim that the film’s gaze only appears to originate solely from a position within its subject matter is not meant to slight Henzell’s ability as a Jamaican filmmaker to provide passages through which ordinary black Jamaicans could identify with the events and characters displayed and developed onscreen. Setting aside Henzell’s nationality as well as his familiarity with the film’s subject matter, it becomes problematic to read the decision to emphasize the lives and bodies of black Jamaicans as chiefly responsible for the omission of whites from the “uniquely Jamaican” diegesis of The Harder They Come. It is also very difficult in this film to interpret that omission separately from the presence of artifacts of the Metropol, which suggest dominance without assigning it, and those disruptive formal elements that in this film tend to make objects of its subject matter.

The role of form in the construction of film narrative is the basis of David Bordwell’s constructivist account of film viewing, outlined in his Narration in the Fiction Film. While many film scholars have offered often radically different (yet equally valid approaches) to formal analysis,[9] Bordwell’s approach to narrative in film is pertinent here because it is geared toward producing close readings based primarily upon the interaction of formal elements to produce meaning. What follows are short, Bordwellian readings of two sequences from The Harder They Come that are meant to help separate those formal elements that work solely to construct the film’s narrative from those that more clearly indicate the racial messaging implicit in the film’s form. Both sequences indicate that the gaze of the film clearly originates without, rather than within, its subject matter. But while the first sequence demonstrates how that orientation often serves to draw and establish racial and ethnic distinction, the second demonstrates that an external orientation does not, by definition or necessity, lead to that kind of differentiation.

The first sequence (sequence A) starts immediately after the film’s opening sequence, in which Ivan takes a bus from the country to Kingston. Here, Ivan arrives in Kingston and immediately meets/is quickly the victim of a young, male thief, who steals everything that Ivan brought with him from the country. The sequence features four characters: Ivan, the young male thief, a man in a gray cap and a black-and-white shirt, and an old, black, half-toothless man. Of the four characters, only two, Ivan and the thief, have speaking parts. More importantly, of the two “speechless” characters, note that only one, the man in the gray cap, is anchored in any way, shape, or form to the events that take place in the clip. Sequence A ends just as Ivan crosses the busy street in pursuit of the thief who has just stolen his possessions.

Hilton in his studio with his assistant, played by an uncredited actor who resembles famed Chinese Jamaican record producer Leslie Kong (Kong’s productions dominate the film’s soundtrack). Ivan uses the church (and Elsa) to warm up for his session at Hilton’s
Black-on-black violence: Ivan and Longa (Elijah Chambers) in the film’s first scene of violence. Eight strokes of the tamarind switch”: an officer of the court shown briefly, moments before Ivan is whipped for slicing Longa’s face.
More black-on-black violence: Ivan is whipped by a black officer of the law, for knifing Longa. Elsa (Janet Bartley) comforts Ivan after his whipping.

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