BY: KABRENA ROBINSON
The 1972 Jamaican Crime Drama film ‘The Harder They Come’ written, directed and produced by Perry Henzell was screened recently as part of the TIFF Cinematheque Retrospective Black Star: Celebrating 100 Years Of Black Excellence On Screen, a collection of classic black films that ran from November through December.
The film over four decades later stands refreshingly compelling and can still be regarded as a thrilling authentic ode to Jamaica. Though reflective of an earlier era in Jamaica, the film persists to reign as a creative masterpiece that gives the world a glimpse into the birth of reggae music with its riveting original soundtrack and the scenery of urban Jamaican struggle.
The film tells the story of Ivanhoe “Ivan” Martin (played by renowned reggae artist Jimmy Cliff in his first screen debut), a character based upon a real-life Jamaican criminal of that name, better known as Rhygin who achieved fame in 1940’s Jamaica. In the movie, Ivan is an aspiring poor musician from the countryside of Jamaica who moves to the city in Kingston with the hopes of “making it big” by becoming a successful reggae singer. Upon arriving in the city to a sick and destitute mother unable to assist him, Ivan ends up homeless in his pursuit of a job. Ivan later finds himself tied to corrupt elements in both the city’s music industry and law enforcement; when he violently defies both, he falls into the category of both the antagonist and protagonist; becoming a flamboyant “ghetto” hero in his community and a wanted outlaw in the face of justice.
The film was brilliantly orchestrated by Henzell a European-Jamaican born in St Mary, Jamaica and grew up on the Caymanas sugar estate operated by his parents and located in St. Catherine. Though an upper-class wealthy Jamaican, Henzell managed to depict the lifestyle and hardships faced by lower class Jamaicans living in a crime infested urban area in an authentically flawless manner. This is depicted through various characters and sceneries. From the struggling and homeless Ivan/Cliff who resorts to a life of crime to “make a living”, to the character of Jose (played by notable actor Carl Bradshaw) who leads the marijuana trade business, the main source of livelihood for the improvised people of the community. It is also referenced in the scenes of market life, the presence of Christianity and the church and the Rastafari movement a form of religion indigenous to Jamaica.
The film also stands as an essential staple in Jamaica’s reggae history. Henzell’s cult classic is notable for its pristine reggae soundtrack, which helped popularize the genre internationally. Popular classics by main character Jimmy Cliff (Ivan) such as ‘You Can Get It If You Really Want’ and ‘The Harder They Come’ reflect the economic strive and ambition of the main character. The songs respectively starting and ending off the film rings the theme of rebellion and persistence, telling the tale of the average lower class Jamaican’s hunger for success and social mobility.
Decades later after its international success and the passing of Director Perry Henzell in 2006, the film birthed from the small island of Jamaica with an all Jamaican cast in full Jamaican dialect (Patois) shines brightly at TIFF among other notable classic blockbusters from an extensive array of black actors, actress, and filmmakers.
This is no surprise given Toronto’s large Jamaican influence from its diaspora which makes up one of the largest non-European ethnic groups in Canada representing almost 1% of the total Canadian population with 85% living in Ontario according to Statistics Canada.
A film like ‘The Harder They Come’ not only carries a huge cultural influence because of its success but because it resonates with Jamaicans able to see elements of their lives in Jamaica depicted. A tale not far-fetched from an immigrant’s dream of moving from Jamaica to a city in Canada for a better life. The character of Ivan remains relevant and timeless, reflective of Jamaica then and now, it provides a window for the rest of the world to view Jamaica through a raw and realistic lens.