The Harder They Come (1972)
Directed by Perry Henzell
Friday, August 3 at BAM's "Do the Reggae"
Jamaica declared independence from England in 1962. The new government made partnerships with industries that increased the country's economy while leaving many of its citizens poor. Those citizens voted out the ruling Jamaica Labour Party in favor of the more populist People's National Party in 1972, shortly before the first Jamaican feature film hit theaters. The land The Harder They Come shows is neither peaceful nor happy, full of shantytowns connected by bad traffic clogged along filthy streets. These opening shots come with a reggae song: "You can get it if you really want/You can get it if you really want/You can get it if you really want/But you must try, try and try/Try and try, you'll succeed at last."
Can you? That's the question facing Ivanhoe Martin (real-life reggae star Jimmy Cliff), a poor man born whose efforts to make a living honestly are running dry. "I'm looking for work," he says, and is told that there isn't any. His dreams of wealth through a hit record crash into the reality of a label owner who won't pay him more than $20. A knife fight leads to a beating from the authorities. If Kingston's employers are willing to kick Ivan's ass, its cops are all too happy to whip it. Driven mad, he turns rogue, renegade, outlaw, cop killer, and urban legend. The man who shamefully turned his head away from the sight of his own people scavenging through garbage grows overjoyed to have his picture published, his guns drawn and dapper hat cocked.
Ivan's record, too, gains stature. Radios across Jamaica blare, "And the oppressors are trying to track me down,/They're trying to drive me underground,"; shapely young women and scrawny old men alike dance to "But I'd rather be a free man in my grave/Than living as a puppet or a slave." Ivan's promise to them, as sure as the sun will shine, changes the film's opening message—instead of someone else saying you can get it, he sings, "I'm gonna get my share now what is mine." If you're troubled by the thought of a young man resorting to violence, you should be even more troubled by the violent system he's responding to. Ivan and his listeners, and viewers, dream together. He becomes not just the face, but the voice of his people.