Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Film Reviews, Musicals

Out of the Past: The Harder They Come

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

Perry Henzell’s Jamaican film The Harder They Come invites comparison with Marcel Camus’s Black Orpheus in its stylistic reliance upon pulsating rhythms to carry it along with a sense of inevitability, and in its literary use of the music and lifestyle of New World blacks as the milieu for a story of mythic heroism. But The Harder They Come, though never as self-consciously poetic as the Camus film, is much more fatalistic—as close to naturalism as such a stylized film can come. Black Orpheus increasingly restricts its meaning to the restaged Attic resurrection myth, while The Harder They Come consistently delimits its range of meaning to become not just a rehearsal of a mythic pattern but also a story of music, of crime and pursuit, of the uses and abuses of religion, and most importantly, of political impact. This may sound like a grab-bag of stylistic and thematic implication; but The Harder They Come is no pastiche—it’s a true Third World film in which every element relates to its central concern for the futile struggle of a people doomed to exploitation, whether in politics, crime, or business.

The populist spirit of the film is reflected in its opening credits, which list numerous cinematographers and editors. Only the direction credit is limited to a single name, and the emphasis from the very beginning is upon the collaborative aspect of Third World filmmaking. That collaboration has its disadvantages, chiefly in the limited and unbalanced range of the film’s cinematography. Lighting styles and focus ranges clash mightily from one sequence to the next, as do approaches to montage. The editing is generally contained by the driving rhythms of the captivating reggae score; but the photography has no such guideline to contain it, and Henzell does not seem to have worked under conditions permitting much of a controlled plan of camera technique. Over- and underexposures abound, to no specific stylistic purpose. The graininess might be explained as a naturalistic effect, but is surely equally due to the film’s low budget. Shallow depth of field and an often garish color process make the film anything but easy on the eye; frequent rack-focusing likewise seems the result of limited filmstock and equipment used, not an intended stylistic device. One can sense the change of cinematographers as the visual modes range from the brittle realism of a knife-vs.-broken-bottle fight to the soft, backlit mood of a largely irrelevant sex scene to the dimness of the palpably sweaty crowd scenes in Kingston discos.

But this stylistic discontinuity serves its own purpose in celebrating the populism of the film’s creators as an alternative to the self-serving oppression that drives most of the movie’s plot. Capitalist exploitation is the order of the day, police corruption an accepted fact of life, oppression of the uneducated and disadvantaged an open national practice. This is not the Jamaica of the travelogues. An ambience of slum, junkyard, and squalor contrasts sharply with the natural beauty of beach and countryside, the elegance of hotels and discos, which serve only to amplify the hopelessness of the dreams of Ivanhoe Martin.

Ivan’s aspirations and efforts to become a successful professional reggae singer—an occupation that plays much the same role here as prizefighting does in many American street kid crime films—are confounded when he learns that the Mr. Hilton who runs the business pays composer-singers exactly $20 per song for all rights, and that, without dealing with Hilton, no one can produce or distribute a record. Lured by Jose (the kind of friend who makes enemies superfluous) into the lucrative marijuana “export business,” Ivan quickly learns it’s the same story there: protection rackets, controllers, and corrupt officials take the heavy cuts, while the people who do the work and take the risks get pittance, live in poverty, and are victimized unrelentingly by the kind of hopelessness for which the little boy Rupert’s chronic disease is a toss-off metaphor.

There is a fine line between the film’s world and the Jamaican real world. Since The Harder They Come was completed, according to the soundtrack album notes, two of its actors have been shot to death; and when the Slickers’ tune “Johnny Too Bad” was being copyrighted, one member of the group was a fugitive from the law, another on death row. Not that someone has it in for the people involved in making the film—it’s just that these things are so utterly commonplace among the oppressed Jamaican people, a fact that is inescapable from the look and spirit of the film. This system of exploitation and corruption is what Ivan tries to buck—and he succeeds, if only temporarily. His wits help him elude the police while his nothing-to-lose boldness makes him a national hero. Finally the corrupt police official who heads the “export business” orders a complete halt on the trade, knowing that the marijuana growers and transporters will go penniless, until Ivan is captured. It is not clear from the film who ultimately betrays Ivan’s hiding place on his island Limbo, though there is a strong suggestion that his close friend Pedro and his former sweetheart Elsa need the reward money to secure treatment for Pedro’s brother Rupert’s deteriorating condition.

But if the two alternatives to poverty—reggae music and crime—prove finally to offer no financial relief, they do at least offer Ivan an alternative to anonymity. Having his record played in a disco doesn’t make him any more known to his acquaintances, but his flamboyant activities underground make him a pop-cult hero in the manner of “Johnny Too Bad,” whose ballad is sung by the Slickers on Ivan’s radio as he works ignominiously at menial labor in the yard of a Kingston preacher. He’s become part of the matrix of pop-myth evidenced in “007 at Ocean’s Eleven,” a reference in Desmond Dekker’s song “Shantytown”; or like Franco Nero in Django, the spaghetti western Ivan and some friends go to see early in the film. As a small army of gunmen closes in on Django, members of the audience express fear for his safety. “Don’t worry,” someone reassures them: “De hero can’t dead till de last reel”—and Django produces from his coffin a machine gun with which he wipes out the gunfighters.

Pistol-packing Ivan, on the island Limbo where he waits, having missed a boat to Cuba for want of swimming fast enough, is destined to face a showdown like the one in Django—and he wouldn’t have it any other way. The missed boat is an emblem of the failed revolutionary—though it’s important that Ivan never sees himself as a revolutionary. His motive is personal acquisition, not idealistic liberation; and this is another tendency in oppressed Jamaican youth that Henzell attacks, tracing it, too, to the corrupt and exploitive regime. “I’m gonna get my share now, what’s mine,” sings Ivan in the title tune; and he counters Elsa’s fundamentalist pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die resignation by passionately insisting “I want mine now.” He thereby sets himself squarely against his former boss, the preacher, who has raised Elsa; and the whole religious issue of the film assumes an intensity in relation to Ivan’s personal story. The preacher haughtily disapproves of reggae music and severely punishes Ivan when he catches him rehearsing his own compositions in the church. But the music he attacks is not substantially different in its effect from the bump-and-grind gospel singing that brings people off in his own services. Religion as practiced by the preacher is overtly sexual: preaching as music, music as sexual expression, religion as substitute for sexuality. The distinctions are further blurred when the Melodians sing “By the Rivers of Babylon,” pressing the 137th Psalm into service as a haunting reggae polemic against the oppressors who would exploit music and music makers. Significantly, they sing it in an impromptu audition for Hilton, as the music mogul leaves the driveway of his palatial estate.

The songs, clearly, are crucial to the film, providing far more than mere “atmosphere.” If the film is not always easy on the eye: it’s enormously appealing to the ear, in both the rhythms of reggae and the inherent musicality of Jamaican English. One oft-repeated number refrains “You can get it if you really want,” promising achievement but suggesting broadly that huge sacrifices may be exacted in repayment. Ivan scores a partial victory: he finally gets a hit record that even Hilton can’t suppress. Ivan’s own notoriety makes the public clamor for his song—which is emblematic of his rebellion against the system—and the clamor is one that profit-minded Hilton can’t ignore. Even so, Ivan’s own profits are measured in personal satisfaction, while it lasts. His fleeting enjoyment of luxury, in a stolen car, recalls a convention of the American gangster film: the crooks, socially rebellious as their intentions might be, discover that the fruits of their crimes are unspendable, that as fugitives they cannot enjoy the wealth they have broken the law to acquire, and that, finally, only fame itself has any realistic value. Ivan is reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde—mentioned conspicuously in the lyrics of Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites,” which a few years back became the first reggae tune to achieve international success—in his concern for getting his photo in the papers and his unspoken championship of the little people.

At the climax, Ivan with his pistols faces an army of Jamaican policemen armed with submachine guns, a grim inversion of the Django scene cheered in the first reel and now intercut with the squalid rubbing-out of Ivanhoe Martin. The reversal of weaponry indicates the hopelessness of Ivan’s brand of defiant heroism, and the tragicomic haplessness of his discovery that, in spite of himself, he is a martyr.

© 1979 Robert C. Cumbow

Direction: Perry Henzell. Screenplay: Henzell and Trevor D. Rhone. Music: Jimmy Cliff, Derrick Harriot, Scotty, The Melodians, The Maytals, The Slickers, Desmond Dekker. Production: Henzell.
The players: Jimmy Cliff, Carl Bradshaw, Janet Bartley, Ras Daniel Hartman, Winston Stona, Basil Keane, Bobby Charlton.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.