October 02, 2012

The Harder They Come

The Harder They Come (1972) is the film that really put Reggae music on the map. It was made in Jamaica, and it may be the film that really captures the soul of its people and their poverty, the injustices they face, but also their resilience and their expressiveness. The film is set to the soulful and imbibed rhythms of Reggae. The story, which suffers more than a bit from continuity problems, involves a young hood named Ivan (played by singer Jimmy Cliff, who wrote and performed the title song), who's keen on making a hit record, but after too many failed attempts at making an honest living, turns to a life of crime: particularly selling marijuana. Soon he becomes a fugitive from justice--for killing several police officers--and his song becomes a hit as a result. It taps into the popular consciousness: a prescient moment in which the film paralleled its impact on the music world.

There were a handful of thoughtful, subtle (but imperfect) films about the African American experience made in the 1970s. Bill Gunn's Ganja and Hess (1973) was one, The Harder They Come is another. These two films aren't particularly concerned with narrative structure. Rather, they have a rhythm to them that feels more like music, like Reggae in fact. That's not to say they're more artistic than all the blaxploitation movies that were being churned out in the 1970s, although they do tackle issues like race, poverty, freedom, and culture with more finesse and more genuine curiosity than their exploitationist counterparts. In many ways, The Harder They Come feels like the precursor for City of God. This movie wants to dismantle the image we might have had about Jamaica as a tourist paradise. Instead, we're introduced to the real Jamaica, a land where the people are struggling to get by, just like many in the rest of the world. But the beauty of Jamaica also comes through, and not the cheap beauty of resort hotels but the natural beauty that is somehow missed by the tourist's agenda.

But the film lacks the power it needs to really strike its target. It meanders, and gives in to an aimless repetitiveness at times. You start to squirm with boredom, and somehow, there's no real empathy for the struggles of the people. (Or maybe that's what was intended: it may be that we're not supposed to watch this movie and feel the appropriately phony self-congratulatory outrage that prosperous people often do feel when they "experience" poverty in developing countries via the movies.

Still, it's not a total washout, and The Harder They Come found an audience eventually. It's a fairly impressive "first feature" to come out of Jamaica. The director, Perry Henzell, and the technicians (the cinematography is by Peter Jessop, David McDonald, and Franklyn St. Juste), are competent generally, and they capture some beautiful images of the island. And Johnny Cliff has an undeniable cult appeal as the self-interested Ivan, who's tired of working to find work. He seems destined to become the tragic "hero" of the people, although what he stands for isn't anything that will cure the country's stultifying poverty. But more than anything, Ivan--and the movie for that matter--is about Reggae. The music comes through loud and clear, even if the story doesn't.

With Janet Bartley, Carl Bradshaw, Ras Daniel Hartman, Basil Keane, Bob Charlton, and Winston Stona. 120 minutes. (Some prints run about 108 mins.)

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