The Harder They Come
Cultural colonialism and the American dream

by Julianne Burton

from Jump Cut, no. 6, 1975, pp. 5-7
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004

When Ivan, a six-gun in each hand, gold star blazing on his T-shirt, steps out from the brush on the shimmering Jamaican cay to meet a phalanx of machine-gun bearing infantrymen, his attempt to live out the American dream on that colonized Caribbean island has reached a dead end. He is a rebel whose options are revealed to have been predefined and controlled by the very forces against which that rebellion is directed. A country boy determined to “make it” in the city, he seeks stardom by way of pop culture. Reggae music and the ganja (dope) trade, the only apparent paths to wealth and power, have long since come under the monopolistic control of the police and the monied entrepreneurs. It is only through violence that Ivan succeeds in achieving fame. But his violent response and his highly individualistic version of “making it” isolate him. They make him a target in such a way that no matter how hard he really wants, he can “get it” and enjoy it only for a brief moment before they get him.

The opening scenes of Perry Henzell’s THE HARDER THEY COME depict the last moments in the process of Ivan’s separation from traditional life. The initial footage moves from a shot of virginal Jamaican coastline, rain-swept and apparently untouched by civilization, to the teeming, menacing streets of West Kingston, where Ivan is immediately initiated into the ethics of brother ripping off brother. He is promptly divested of everything including a treasured mango, last proud token of life in the country, which he carried as a kind of offering to his mother.

The thread linking the backwater with the capital is an emblem of third world experience. It’s an ancient rickety box of a bus, interior crammed with anxious passengers, roof decked with their luggage, careening down sinuous mountain roads. In this light, the near collision with the oncoming truck takes on a symbolic dimension, prophesying Ivan’s imminent clash with his new environment. Still, the sequence’s tremendous comic vitality and its precise recreation of a characteristic third world experience make any symbolic significance supplementary at best. A billboard touting “Shell, The Good Mileage Gasman” (sic), followed by another which exhorts, “See Phillip Waite for a Better Life,” herald Ivan’s arrival in civilization. The driver of a long white convertible, flanked by two attractive young women, provides Ivan’s first real glimpse of what the “haves” have. His exposure to the lifestyle of the affluent continues as he desperately hunts for work at construction sites and in the plush suburbs, and (after being accused of doing nothing but begging) unsuccessfully bums small change at posh hotels.

This fruitless quest brings Ivan face to face with the imbalance and injustice of the society he so unsuspectingly came to join. He confronts its underbelly. Exhausted and penniless, he surveys the last alternative—ragged human scavengers pawing through the detritus of a society that has relegated them to a dump which seems to have no end. Desperation drives him to appeal to the Preacher, whom his mother had referred him to. It is while he is in the Preacher’s employ that he begins to court Elsa, the Preacher’s ward, and gets his chance to make a record. Banished from the Preacher’s premises for violating the sanctity of the church with his music, he takes both Elsa and the bicycle he had painstakingly reconstructed with him. Elsa comes voluntarily, but Ivan is forced to fight for the bicycle, and he is subsequently jailed and publicly flogged.

Success follows close on the heels of humiliation, or so it appears, when the head of the recording company likes his record. But rather than accept a meager twenty dollars for his song, Ivan goes all over town in a futile attempt to break Hilton’s record monopoly. All legitimate paths to success only offer him, at best, token participation in the world he longs to be a part of. The ganja trade, though subject to the same patterns of exploitation, is at least slightly more lucrative. But here, too, Ivan asks too many questions, and so he becomes an outlaw even among the “criminals.”

His daring escapes, his flashy style, his defiant resistance make him folk hero of the ghetto and the scourge of the police. But the heat inevitably becomes too intense. All the forces which have separately conspired to keep him (and others like him) down now converge to capture him. With only the vaguest notion of what might await him there, Ivan agrees to flee to Cuba. But he literally misses the boat and, wounded and exhausted, summons all his nerve for one last stand.

Despite his rejection of existing structures and his attempt, however faltering, to unravel the network of exploitation, Ivan never overcomes the isolation to which his own narrow self-interest confines him. His idea of the alternative to misery, squalor and exploitation is a purely individualistic one, shaped as it is by the same forces responsible for the conditions of his oppression. Reacting to the injustices of a capitalist dominated, neocolonial society, he can only emulate the Wild West gunmen and underworld hoods—always cut off from their fellow human beings—which that society exalts and exports as its (ill-fated) heroes.

But for the skill and subtlety with which it is done, the film might be seen as a glossary on modes of commercial, consumption oriented popular culture. Ivan’s first act, after conveying the news of his grandmother’s death to his aging mother, is to go to the Rialto to see a spaghetti western in which Franco Nero, surrounded by a horde of red-hooded assailants, uses his technological advantage (a machine gun) to mow down his attackers on the spot. Ivan begins to dress in slick city style like the local “rude boys,” with flashy hats, shades, shiny shirts and black vinyl vents. The sounds of reggae are ever present on the ubiquitous transistor radio. Ivan’s only private space in the early part of the film, the carcass of an old car in the Preacher’s yard, contains other evidence of the new-found cultural forms which are re-shaping his consciousness: a “Top Guns of the West” comic book, an issue of Playboy magazine, a garishly surreal toy pistol, and a number of nude pin-ups, all white.

In the course of the action, the toy gun is replaced by real ones, the reconstructed bicycle by a Honda bought with earnings from the ganja trade, the wrecked car with an enormous convertible. This last possession is white like all the other vehicles in the film which symbolize power and wealth—Hilton’s, the police detective’s, and the convertible in the opening sequence. We also hear one radio ad captured in its entirely on the soundtrack:

“You can tell it’s Chantal Olive Oil Pommade.
Makes your hair soft, smooth, and easy to manage.”

Such an ad is the prototype of commercialism and profit-making based on encouraging a race’s rejection of its own physical characteristics.

A wide range of media serve as agents of Ivan’s notoriety, but he realizes their inherent distortions. “They say that you killed a policeman,” Elsa tells him. “I killed three,” is Ivan’s reply. Aware of the formative importance of media in the society, Ivan tries to channel them to his own uses. Flamboyantly dressed, he has a photographer capture his ferocious gun-toting poses end sends his favorite to the editor of the newspaper. He scrawls a note—which he sends to the same source—revealing the existence of the record which Hilton, loathe to promote the career of an unmistakable “trouble maker,” had long since filed away but now greedily unearths. It is never clear whether the crude scrawls on the walls of the shanty town (“I was here but I disappear”) originate with Ivan or are merely a spontaneous expression of popular identification with him.

These modes of popular culture are clearly of secondary importance when compared to the central cultural metaphors of the movie: music and film. THE HARDER THEY COME is framed, slightly asymmetrically, by references to another film, giving this movie a kind of self-reflective awareness that goes far beyond the now-clichéd use of the play within the play, the novel within the novel. The filmmakers chose to convey Ivan’s story through an artistic medium—film. But as they go about their creative task they are also exploring and exposing the impact of that medium on the culture they are trying to portray through it.

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.

Music is a constant presence and such a powerful, multi-faceted one that I am tempted to assert that never has a lyric score been so well integrated into a film. It functions on a number of levels, catalyzing the emotions of the audience with its sensual beat, conspiring with the visual image to draw the viewer deeper into the emotional experience of the film, supplementing or offering ironic counterpoint to the meaning of what is registered by the camera eye. The songs of the score work to foreshadow (“Johnny Too Bad”), to integrate disparate sequences (“Many Rivers to Cross”), as a counterpoint to the action (“Sitting in Limbo,” “Pressure Drop”), and as an ironic expose of false consciousness. In this instance, the words to the song which Hilton rejects in the impromptu driveway audition are these:

“We are all one big brother, all belong to one father. We were fashioned perfectly, made to live in harmony. Let peace be our motto...”

The gospel music, indeed the entire church sequence, is a poignant illustration of enforced cultural sublimation through conformity to expressive modes acceptable to the oppressor. The lyrics of “Rivers of Babylon” are heard:

“By the rivers of Babylon
Where we sat down
And there we wept
When we remembered Zion
But the wicked carried us away into captivity
Require from us a song
How can we sing King Alfa song
In a strange land? ...”

Though not a part of the church sequence, the words articulate this cultural phenomenon beautifully through the image of the slave experience and the fact that it must be conveyed through borrowings from an alien cultural context (the Old Testament). Only in this way will

.”.. the words of our mouths
And the meditations of our beards
Be acceptable in thy sight
over I.”

It is not the divine but the earthly master who requires much strict control of speech and thought. On another level, this song serves am a metaphor for the events of the film, describing Ivan’s experience in capsule form. For he does, in fact, aspire to produce the song required by the master. That is the only means by which he can hope to achieve a spurious dignity within the existing structures. But since his song is indeed a “song of freedom,” “the wicked” reject and banish him.

The meaning of the two theme songs, “You Can Get It if You Really Want” and “The Harder They Come,” evolves and changes as the action progresses. The film opens with the former song as Ivan, full of innocence and optimism, approaches the city. The song recurs when he triumphantly coasts over a golf course in a car he commandeered at gunpoint. The jubilance of this scene, the beauty of its fusion of song and image, should not obscure the superb irony here. Ivan had to become a criminal and an outlaw to get what he considers to be his rightful share, to realize his “dream.” This fact precludes more than a momentary savoring of him triumph.

In comparison, the title song is more complex. Allusions to “persecution” and “opposition” give way to the concept of “the oppressors.” There is an attempt to identify the means and methods at their disposal:
·religious palliatives: “Well they tell me of the pie up in the sky / Waiting for me when I die.”
·indifference: “They never seem to hear even your cry.”
·the threat of social isolation: .”.. trying to drive me underground.”

The first song acknowledges the necessity of confrontation and struggle, but the title song goes further in articulating the price:

“And I'll keep on fighting for the things I want
Though I know that when you're dead you can't
But I'd rather be a free men in my grave
Than living as a puppet or a slave.’  

In the larger context, both music and film—and, to a lesser extent, the entire catalogue of forms of popular culture which appear in the film—are depicted in such a way that they offer an explosive self-indictment. Movies are not a harmless fore of diversion and escape, but a powerful agent of socialization and mystification. The music industry, though it may still be viewed by oppressed Jamaicans as the only way to get into the mainstream, is here revealed to be a delusion and a trap. The dream of wealth, power and social integration for anyone who wants it bad enough and strives hard enough, a dream which all these forms of popular culture are marshaled to simultaneously tout and protect, is here exposed as a manipulative myth.

When it fails—or, as in Ivan’s case, when it succeeds too well—this camouflaged first line of defense parts to reveal more brutal mechanisms of social control. The film makes it clear that those who preside over the chaos end apparent freedom of the cultural marketplace (symbolized by Hilton) are in close alliance with those who defend the existing power structure from any real threat (Detective Jones, his troops, and him superiors). This explains why Jones can prevent Ivan’s picture from appearing in the newspaper and even dare to tamper with the hit parade.

Some may see Ivan’s death as an apotheosis, or as a mythic reconciliation of an irreconcilable conflict. If the context of the film is carefully considered, it is seen instead to represent the final exposé of the futility and vulnerability of the “make it on your own, get your share, and never mind the others” philosophy. Ivan’s rags to riches dream is exposed at the end of the film to be the corrupting, deceptive lie that it is. To what end his martyrdom? Nothing has changed in shantytown. The ganja trade will resume under the vigilant control of the police as before. Jose will return to keep the traders in line. Though the latter may receive a slightly larger cut and thus reap some benefit from Ivan’s example, Ivan will, as he himself predicts, be completely forgotten. The only seeds of hope in the movie lie in the possibility that the traders, so successfully manipulated by their police “protectors” that they become the would-be agents of Ivan’s capture, will act on the implications of mutual solidarity suggested by Ivan’s failure to overthrow those who exploit others’ risk for personal profit. This mental trajectory takes us out of shantytown, out of Kingston, out of Jamaica, and into the larger world of the powers who control what was in the film only a microcosm of neocolonial exploitation. The fact that the film both exposes the dead-end nature of Ivan’s each-man-for-himself trip and implicitly raises the question of how to avoid such dead ends is what makes this much an extraordinary movie.

Few ethers succeed as it does in using the film code to clarify rather than to mystify the workings of oppression. Its ideological significance is a function of the disparity between Ivan’s limited perspective and the broader analysis conveyed to the audience by the composite experience of the film. I do not claim that this is a truly revolutionary film—who among us has seen one? But it is not faint praise to say that THE HARDER THEY COME is a committed and genuinely progressive film, of both artistic and ideological integrity. (1)

And the film does succeed on an artistic was well as an ideological level. Viewers should not be deceived by a certain grittiness of film style, a rough-edged articulation in places. Though made on a low budget with an inexperienced cast and filmed primarily outdoors with natural light, this is not a “home movie.” Intelligently conceived and skillfully executed, it is of undeniable cinematic quality despite the inevitable financial and technical limitations which plague filmmakers outside the net of corporate industry. The visual style of the film achieves an unusual synthesis of Hollywood and cinema verité. Particular techniques derive from such disparate sources as experimental underground cinema and publicity spots. The important thing is not to trace the derivation but to note how the filmic language, as it interacts with the plot and the score, rises above mere imitation of foreign models to create an original synthesis.

It is in its pacing that the film demonstrates its greatest debt to Hollywood style and its greatest divergence from other third world films. The plot line is pared down to its essentials and the action comes on swift and hard-hitting, in the best Hollywood tradition, through the sophisticated use of several techniques:
·multiple short episodic sequences: e.g., job hunting in the suburbs and on a construction site, the threatening vigilance of the vegetable vendor in the market, the panorama of the dump; or the numerous short sequences which depict all the police methods used in searching for Ivan
·intercutting: e.g., Jose’s blowing the whistle on Ivan, and the subsequent motorcycle chase; the bicycle ride along the ocean as the Preacher ransacks Ivan’s car; the church celebration, the preacher’s suspicious glances at Elsa and Ivan, Elsa’s sexual fantasies, and the orgasmic gyrations of particular members of the congregation
·voices over: e.g., Jose’s thoughts as he pursues Ivan through the alleyways of shanty town; the news story of Ivan’s exploits over scenes of the shanty town’s excited response
·the skillful use of music, already discussed.

In the close-ups of mouth and tongue and hard-to-identify skin surfaces (Ivan’s making love to one of Jose’s women), we see an incorporation of techniques confined not too long ago to underground cinema. Throughout the film, the camera skillfully shifts points of view, using subjectivity sparingly but well (e.g., the departure of the street vendor-thief glimpsed across the congested street; the fatally wounded motorcycle cop’s loss of control). There is perhaps an inordinate fascination with the zoom lens, but this only merits comment because of the danger that the expressiveness with which zoom shots are used in several sequences might pass unperceived if the technique is overused.

Perhaps the most striking instance of this technique is the parallel tracking shot—beautifully composed of multiple horizontal planes—of Ivan and Elsa bicycling along a causeway between two bands of water. When the camera zooms out we realize that what at first appeared to be an idyllic setting is really another dump filled with discards and debris. It is a visual metaphor for the fact that their relationship cannot but be contaminated and corrupted by the surrounding environment, that they will be defeated by the larger context.

Unexpected transitions serve to underline changes in Ivan’s situation. The lyrical sequence of graceful white egrets scattering into flight as Ivan triumphantly cruises the flawless greens of a golf course in an open convertible is brusquely supplanted by a shot of crabs scurrying through the ooze of the swamp before the soldiers threatening tread. Ivan’s triumph gives way to flight and inevitable capture. The unreality of the hotel sequence, independent of the magnificent still montage of Ivan’s shoot-'em-up poses, results from a particular style of shooting not seen elsewhere in the film. Camera angle, composition, and lighting recall Madison Avenue publicity techniques—cigarette ads of couples at poolside upstaged by the rugged individualist male smoker in the foreground, liquor ads of a man and a woman, glass in hand, silhouetted against a tropical sunset. The contrived publicity techniques (director Perry Henzell worked in advertising in Britain for ten years) used to draw Ivan and others like him into the world he so desperately aspired to join are used by the filmmakers to expose the artificiality of that world.

There is throughout the film a conscious attempt to avoid easy exoticism and folklorizing, a common pitfall of third world films. The exotic elements which do appear in the film—the hairstyles of Pedro and Rupert, the remarkable hookah—are a function of realities essential to the film’s development. (A Jamaican audience would immediately recognize Pedro and Rupert as members of the Rastafarians, an important political-religious sect in Jamaica who, inspired by a text from Leviticus, never take a razor to their head; the pipe smoker’s skill serves to point up Ivan’s naiveté and inexperience.) In the light of this refusal to compromise standards, the final sequence of the film—a gyrating female-pelvis, clad in shimmering multicolored lamé, over which the credits are viewed—appears to be the most facile and commercializing of the entire film. One is tempted to call it cheap. Still, in juxtaposition to the opening scene of timeless primeval coastline, this faceless woman’s rhythmic undulations symbolize “modern,” “civilized” Jamaica. The beat goes on after the hero’s death with an indifference which underscores the futility of his martyrdom.  

The restricted view of female anatomy which closes out a film so dominated by the macho mystique calls the sexual assumptions of the film into question. The female figures, most often portrayed in association with the collaborative and regressive agency of the Church, are almost incidental to the plot, except for the inescapable fact that it is Elsa who betrays Ivan at the end. (The impact of her betrayal is only slightly undercut by the fact of Jose’s betrayal of Ivan earlier in the film.)

Is this but another clichéd instance of the treacherous woman who, inexplicably but inevitably, turns on the hero? Or is the character of Elsa, despite the progressive diminution of her role, given at least a modicum of justification for her final decision? It is never clear whether the one scene of sexual fulfillment between Elsa and Ivan—two black bodies half-immersed in the shimmering sea—occurs independent of Elsa’s fantasies. What is certain is that there is no other scene which portrays a mutually fulfilling interaction between them. The nude sequence after Ivan’s beating, silent except for his agonized moans, suggests an act of succor rather than one of lovemaking. And the close up of Elsa’s embittered face at the end of the sequence proves an accurate forecast of her future life.

In fact, there is only tension, misunderstanding and bitterness between the two of them for the duration of the film. She is too tired and too disapproving to share in Ivan’s celebration the night his record is released. Ivan and Pedro conceal their participation in the ganja trade from her, then make jokes based on her ignorance of the real purpose of their “fishing” expeditions. It is only in Pedro’s motherless son Rupert that Elsa finds a willing and needy recipient of her affection. In that farewell day at the beach, she is never even seen in the same frame with Ivan. He is left standing alone on the cay as Elsa and Pedro and Rupert, like a family trio, wave goodbye from their departing skiff.

Though often used, taken advantage of, and ignored, Elsa maintains her strength and determination throughout. Realizing that Rupert’s illness will only recur indefinitely unless he receives adequate nutrition and that without resumption of the ganja trade this is impossible, knowing full well that Ivan’s capture is the price of Rupert’s recovery, she decides to appeal to her former guardian. Her bitter observation as she decides to take this step—“Every time I play, I lose”—reveals the extent to which she is aware of the contradictions of her own existence.

A more secondary female figure, but one of tremendous emotional force, is Ivan’s aged mother. That she symbolizes the accumulated suffering of the race is conveyed not only through her performance but through the lyrics of “Rivers of Babylon” which play softly in the background during the entire sequence. As she is a paradigm of suffering, so she is also a paradigm of wisdom. She urges Ivan to return to the country. But when she realizes the extent of his determination, she calmly predicts, to Ivan’s great distress, his inevitable outcome, saying that without a job he is certain to become a “criminal.”

Such powerful ironies give great strength to the story line, indicating on yet another level the film’s mastery and control. As Ivan is tried, sentenced, stripped, bound, and beaten, a solemn judicial voice intones:

“You have had every chance to make good. You have been taken into the Church and given a chance to lead a good Christian life. Instead of that you have filled your head with foolishness and violence.”

Detective Ray Jones, interrogating the most sad eyed and downtrodden of the ganja traders, asks in an incredulous rage, referring of course to Ivan,

“Since when does another dirty criminal like yourself mean more to you than me?”

But if Jones succeeds in making the ganja traders squirm, he in turn wriggles under the keen observations of Hilton, the most clear minded and cognizant of the oppressors. Hilton tells Jones, unabashed,

“Of course, I'm interested in the ganja trade. This is the only thing that brings money into this area ... Once these jokers get hungry enough to start trading without you, then you are finished. Then law and order is finished in this whole area. You understand that, don't you?”

It is through this use of narrative irony, as well as through the interaction of song, storyline and image, that the awareness of the viewer of the film is made to exceed that of its protagonist.

Perhaps the best way to close this article is with a reference to two instantaneous cuts buried somewhere after the middle of the film. Both are stills of the printed word, which flash on the screen during one of the many sequences in which the police attempt unsuccessfully to track Ivan through the shanty town maze. The first, in bold and well shaped letters, counsels, “Skip town. Fly Pan Am to New York.” The second, a hasty scrawl, proclaims, “I am everywhere.”

Each statement demands to be understood in ironic counterpoint to the other. The first underlines the insularity of Ivan’s plight, the fact that he is indeed trapped on that island without means of escape. But his proclamation is a reply to the mocking mobility of the affluent, for his rebellion—misguided though it is—his search for freedom from oppressions and his rightful share of the human estate, is more ubiquitous than the mighty Pan American machine. Ivan is—and Ivans are—everywhere that economic and cultural oppression breed them. Their rebellions will not always be a dead end.


1. The history of the filming, the intentions and background of the filmmakers, the sources of financial backing, the social contexts within which the film has been viewed and the audience response to it are all questions directly related to my interpretation of the film. Such information is, however, extremely difficult to find and may, in the short run, tend to substantiate a much more pessimistic and negative view of the film’s content. Perry Henzell is after all a son of Jamaica’s white ruling class, though he perceives himself as much more closely tied to the marginal milieu portrayed in the film.

The story line fuses elements of Jimmy Cliff’s own life with the history of Rhygin, a Rastafarian outlaw and folk hero ruthlessly pursued by the Jamaican police some years ago. The story was shaped to accommodate what Henzell considered to be some of the foremost reggae tunes, and not vice versa. Numerous members of the cast played themselves on their own turf; others came from another part of town, but none are professional actors. Hilton, for example is an insurance salesman in real life. Pedro is played by Raz Daniel Hartman, a well-known artist and sculptor.

A Rolling Stone account claims that when the film premiered in an elegant section of east Kingston, the theater was virtually stormed by “rude boys” from the shanty towns who crammed in three to a seat and were dancing in the aisles long before Ivan finally gets gunned down in the final scene. Such a response suggests that the immediate impact of the film medium might be stronger than its message, that the experience of seeing their lives portrayed on a screen might initially be perceived as an unqualified justification rather than a call to critical appraisal. Less important, but still troublesome, is the fact that, for Jimmy Cliff at least, Ivan’s example night seem irrelevant, for the film has certainly served him as a vehicle for making it big outside of Jamaica.