Splat the Movies, Episode Three
Kino films recently released a DVD and Blu-ray of an obscure British-made film called Babylon (1980). The film was unavailable for years and did not receive a theatrical release in the United States until March 2019. Produced by Italian film producer Franco Rossi, Babylon was co-written by Martin Stellman who penned the screenplay for the Mod vs. Rocker classic Quadrophenia (1979). Although it is a British production, Babylonfills a gap in a canon of excellent films depicting the roots and rise of reggae music from a regional trend to a worldwide phenomenon, along the way providing invaluable historical documentation of Jamaica after its liberation from England in 1962. Since its early days of hosting film production, Jamaica’s film industry has grown and documented some important turns in the island’s history.
Jamaica has long been a destination for film production. An early example is the 1939 film The Devil’s Daughter. You don’t have to look very hard at cinema in the thirties to find films that are racially insensitive. The people and culture of the island are not portrayed with dignity in the film. The first few minutes of the story utilize the island’s music and culture to depict a happy, singing populous who play simple games and make bets around cockfights. The crowd on the scene does little but reinforce the myth of the noble savage. Among those in attendance at the cockfight is Percy (Hamtree Harrington). Percy is a hepcat from Harlem who has moved to Jamaica with the woman he works for to help manage a banana plantation she has inherited. The film devolves into a typical voodoo plot scenario often used in early horror films set in island backdrops during these times. It was an often-problematic era for the film industry’s depiction of voodoo. As an actor, Mr. Harrington is left little to do with his character Percy in the script. He portrays a bungling servant who bugs his eyes out for an occasional laugh. Although the plot and Mr. Harrington’s character are problematic, the film is an early example of an all-African American cast. But the film’s portrayal of island life is skewed towards myths and misnomers perpetuated by culturally unaware producers.
The 1950s found larger productions coming to the island. The Disney hit 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) was partially shot in Jamaica. The James Bond films Dr. No (1962) and Live and Let Die (1973) also had scenes shot there. But films using Jamaica as a backdrop rarely fore fronted any of the island’s culture. Jamaica was generally portrayed as a destination where tourists congregated exclusively around safe resort facilities. If anything resembling Jamaican culture seeped in, it was often a menacing bad guy or a voodoo trick meant to cause harm to the protagonist. Here again are by now well-worn stereotypes being utilized to create an antagonist.
That changed in 1972 with a low-budget production starring early reggae superstar Jimmy Cliff called The Harder They Come. It shifted the way Jamaica was viewed around the world and served as the first in a canon of films documenting the rise of reggae music as an internationally recognized art form. The film was an indigenous production, one of the first in Jamaica. The film has an art house vibe and a “gangster as robin hood” arc in the story. The film was praised for its realism and showing an important time in the island’s history. The Harder They Come was produced during a tumultuous time in Jamaican history. In 1962, Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowden, was sent to Jamaica to sign papers ending British rule over the island. This era of new independence turned the page in Jamaica’s history but was also marred by corruption and adjustment. Politically and artistically, Jamaica sought a national identity.
It’s interesting to compare The Harder They Come to the neorealist movement of Italian films in the ’40s and ’50s. Italy faced comparable obstacles and struggled with its national identity after the dictator Mussolini was killed in 1945. The film style of Italian neorealist emerged from this era, marked by a very stark manner of narrative filmmaking. Traits of Italian neorealism include filming real people instead of actors, shooting on location instead of using sets, and working class stories, often showing relatable struggles. One of the most famous examples is the film Bicycle Thieves (1948), the story of Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani). Ricci relies on his bicycle to make a living in post-war Italy. And as the title suggests, his bicycle is stolen while he is on a job. The film has since had an impact on the world, acting as a model for Italian filmmakers and influencing later filmmakers that went on to work in influential eras like the French New Wave. Many of the watermarks of Italian neorealism came out of a need: there was no money for locations or big production values. It led artists to tell more personal and of-the-moment stories.
The Harder They Come has many traits in common with neorealism. The film primarily uses non-actors in leading and peripheral roles. Locations are generally confined to the streets of Jamaica where the story takes place. The story centers on a working class Trenchtown citizen struggling to survive and maintain his independence in an oppressive setting. The Harder They Come also touches on many points of Jamaica’s national identity. One cultural touchstone the film illuminates is the beginnings and rise of reggae music as an art form. Ivan Martin (Jimmy Cliff) can’t find work and writes songs in his spare time. Ivan sings his songs in front of a famous studio whose producer is unnamed in the film, but is actually portrayed by the famous producer Leslie Kong. Ivan eventually records the tune, but an argument over his payment causes Kong’s character to bury the song. Ivan eventually turns to a life of crime, which ironically leads to the tune becoming a hit for Kong. This story merges a favorite Jamaican prototype hero of Robin Hood and the actual procedure by which many reggae singers are recorded and consequently ripped off.
In 1978 another Jamaican-produced film with similar traits emerged. Rockers is the story of Horsemouth (Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace), a musician who wants to buy a motorcycle to use for distributing records. Here Horsemouth portrays a version of his own life as a struggling musician in Jamaica. The story follows Hoursemouth around Kingston to a variety of record sellers, some very organized and some run out of small, self-made buildings. It’s a fascinating look into the island’s need of self-dependency and self-distribution. In a nod to the Italian neo-realist classic Bicycle Thieves, the motorcycle is stolen, and it leads Hoursemouth in an adventure around the island in a quest to regain his transportation. Like its Italian Neorealist counterpart, Rockers is shot on locations around Horsemouth’s actual life, filming him dealing with his actual associates and friends, and dealing with situations the average Kingston citizen would encounter.
Babylon is not a Jamaican production, but it tells the story of a group of Jamaican youths living in Britain during the late seventies, early eighties. Babylon tells the bleak story centered around a young man named Errol (David N. Haynes) and gives an honest look at the struggle Jamaican people faced during a time of mass immigration to England. Jamaicans moved to Britain en-masse during this time and brought with them musical traditions. Errol and his friends work a sound system at late-night parties in London. Errol and his friend Ronnie (Karl Howman) work days as mechanics and spend what little money they make dancing at illegal parties put on in warehouses, apartment buildings, and wherever the police deem unworthy of enforcing a noise complaint. Their sound system, The Lion, includes cohorts Blue (Brinsley Forde), Lover (Victor Romero Evans), and hotheaded Beefy (Trevor Laird). Ronnie is a white native of London; the rest are first generation, West Indian immigrants. The film does a startling job of showing the overt racism in their everyday lives. Even Ronnie is not immune, regularly called a “race traitor” so often by other white people the insult rolls off his back. Many of them endure bigotry with somewhat humorous aplomb. Beefy is the one in the group most willing to pull a small blade he carries and shuffle off to start an actual fight. Ronnie and the others scuffle to keep Beefy from engaging anyone due to a deep-seated knowledge that no one would ever believe they were provoked if arrested during a street fight.
The overt racism is best exemplified during scenes where it’s apparent the group has to carefully pick their battles. A scene where Errol is caught out late, walking alone and the police chase him down and arrest him—assuming he’s committed a crime because he is young and out walking the street—is hard to watch. Despite Beefy being built up as the harder case, Errol’s frustration builds gradually until the end of the film where The Lion is trapped at a party the police want to shut down. The doormen have thrown a flag of defiance and while a few people leave amidst the threat of a police shakedown, it’s up to Errol to encourage the remaining partygoers to stand their ground. The film’s slow build leading to this moment culminates into a tense and beautifully shot standoff.
These low-budget productions telling the story of Jamaica’s struggles and the role music plays in their everyday life has empowered the image of the island beyond the voodoo-laden storylines rampant in their beginnings. Besides these excellent Jamaican and Jamaica–related productions, Jamaica’s image in mainstream film has improved somewhat in recent years with films depicting new points of view of the modern Jamaican lifestyle. Cool Runnings (1993) is a part-historical, part-comedic view of the oddly realized 1988 Jamaican bobsled team. As a sports film, it is a very typical come-from-behind- story. But the Jamaican team became heroes in Jamaica and showed the world what an inspired effort looks like. It’s an amusing film to boot, with the coach portrayed by comedian John Candy in one of his final roles.
Another film to take a look at a more dignified Jamaica is The Mighty Quinn (1989), an excellent and overlooked buddy cop-style mystery starring Denzel Washington as Xavier Quinn, a local policeman torn between whether or not to believe if an old acquaintance named Maubee (Robert Townsend) is telling the truth about a murder he was arrested for. Maubee has a history in the peripherals of the drug trade, but is known too well as a peaceful person. Quinn must decide if it’s possible Maubee did the crime and how to help him if he’s been wrongly accused. Both Washington and Townsend give excellent performances.
Jamaica has also developed a thriving indigenous film industry. Shottas (2002) is a Jamaican production telling the long story of a group of gangsters in the tradition of Goodfellas (1990) or Brazil’s City of God (2002). The long-standing effect of The Harder They Come is evident in Shotta’s tagline “In the tradition of The Harder They Come.” The Jamaican film board more recently has created the Jamaica Film Festival and the Reggae Film Festival, two international film fests aimed at promoting Jamaican filmmakers and showing examples of how the island can be a destination for film production.
A small canon of music films helped define and shape how Jamaica is perceived in the film industry. Kino films made a real film treasure available again and Babylon is highly recommended. If you’ve got the time, I recommend starting with The Harder They Come and Rockers. These films create an invaluable overview of the history of reggae music. They also contain engaging narratives. Beyond that, the three movies together show facets of an underground phenomenon in its early stages. The story of how independent music is made and distributed at a street level unfolds nicely across the films’ narratives.
Billups Allen graduated from the University of Arizona with a major in creative writing and a minor in film. He lives in Memphis, Tenn. where he publishes Cramhole zine, contributes regularly to Razorcake, Lunchmeat, and Ugly Things, and writes fiction. cramholezine.com