The Harder They Come

Jimmy Cliff’s cult classic

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Premiering one year after the release of Shaft and one year before Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Catch a Fire dropped, Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (1972) combined blaxploitation fantasies with developing-world realities and in the process, brought reggae music to the world. The first feature-length film from Jamaica—which at the time of THTC‘s release had been an independent country for only 10 years after three centuries of British rule—Henzell’s debut is the definitive postcolonial cult-movie musical. Raw and rough, The Harder They Come mixes verite footage of Kingston privation (shacks, shanties) and exultation (rapt moviegoers taking in a Western, swaying-to-the-spirit church attendees) with a rude-boy bildungsroman.

Henzell, who was born to a plantocratic white family in Jamaica’s north coast in 1936, and his co-writer, Trevor Rhone, a playwright instrumental in shaping the island’s indigenous theater, based the story on an actual cult hero: Ivanhoe “Rhygin” Martin, a prison escapee known as the “Jamaican Dillinger” who was shot dead by the police in 1948. Played by Jimmy Cliff, who had released four albums by the time of his acting debut in THTC, Ivan is introduced as a naif on a bus headed to his mother’s house in Kingston with a mango and news of a death in the family. Although the bumpkin—often addressed as “Country Boy”—is robbed of everything within his first hours in the capital, he still holds out hope he can make it big as a singer. He soon finds work doing odd jobs for a preacher—and acquires a new nickname. Peacocking in apple caps, skintight tees, elaborately patterned rayon shirts, and snug, pinstriped trousers (Cliff’s sartorial style in the film is almost as iconic as its soundtrack, electrifying nuggets made by various artists between 1967 and 1972), Ivan now answers to “Pretty Boy,” and he can’t help but wear down the resistance of the minister’s chaste ward, Elsa (Janet Bartley).

Ivan takes off with Elsa and finally persuades the corrupt music tycoon Hilton (Bob Charlton) to give him some time in the recording studio. His single—the film’s infectious, mercenary title track (“So as sure as the sun will shine/I’m gonna get my share now of what’s mine”)—becomes a smash, for which Ivan receives only $20. “Who’s makin’ all the money?” he asks after being stiffed once again during his short career as a pot dealer. Gunning down some cops—many involved in the ganja trade—Ivan lams it, his record in constant rotation, and his legend sealed.

There are almost no white faces in THTC, yet the dysfunctional legacy of 300-plus years of colonial rule is present in every frame. “I AM HERE I AM EVERYWHERE” reads the graffiti Ivan has sprayed to torment his pursuers—a tag that endears him to those powerless to fight against endemic corruption. The Harder They Come debuted the same year that Jamaicans had just voted out the conservative Jamaica Labour Party, but civil war between the JLP and the left-leaning People’s National Party would erupt shortly after. Henzell would make only one other film: the tourist-board-friendly No Place Like Home (2006), which premiered in Jamaica the day after his death. That project’s softness reflected the dilution of the music that his first film had been so instrumental in exporting.

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