donderdag 9 december 2010

Not quite “Jollywood” but…

Thinking about Jamaican feature (“fiction”) movies to many come to mind the legendary The Harder They Come (1972) featuring singer Jimmy Cliff. Though Jamaica’s film industry, being a small, developing country, is small, some movies appear now and then.
There are “developing” countries, ofcourse, with very extensive film industries, notably large and populous countries like India, “Bollywood”, and Nigeria, called “Nollywood”. Continuing the wordplay, I guess there is no “Jollywood”, or something like that. As many may know, Jamaica chose instead to specialize in music, with wide and international success.
Anyhow, The Harder They Come is not the only Jamaican movie, but it was the first one, boosting more Jamaican film initiatives. Here I’ll give a review of a few of these that I saw recently, while comparing between them. The working definition of “Jamaican movie” is: a movie set in Jamaica, with mainly Jamaican actors, and produced/directed in Jamaica. I exclude thus, for instance, the US-led Cool Runnings.

I try to analyse from the “movie perspective” – plot/story, acting, directing, filming, images etcetera - but also from a cultural and musical perspective, relating to what I have learned about Jamaican history, society, culture, and music.


I thought The Harder they Come (1972) was fine, but I stop short of calling it brilliant. It was entertaining, in part because of the Jamaican environment, people and dialogues, and had some good moments. There were emotional moments, even if somewhat hidden, aided by music, such as the images of poor parts of Kingston while Jimmy Cliff’s emotive song Many Rivers To Cross played.
Otherwise, not too many (deep) emotions were shown, and I find that a pity. The plot had the required mystery and tension to keep the watcher curious, but was at the same time somewhat weak, related in part to the lack of emotional depth. A country boy comes to the Jamaican capital Kingston wanting to make it in the music business as a singer, yet somehow becomes a criminal and even murderer, known locally as “rudeboy”. This status as “gunman on the run” eventually made his song(s) popular.
Somewhat weak - and even immoral - such a plot, to my opinion. An artist does for me not become more interesting or inspiring when he is capable of murdering other people, or doing other criminal acts against people. Hey, but that’s me.


Reggae music played a role in The Harder They Come, Cliff being a reggae artist, also in the soundtrack, but this is stronger the case in the movie Rockers (1978). Alongside reggae, Rastafari got attention in Rockers, the protagonist Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace being a Rasta (unlike Jimmy Cliff, who I believe became a Muslim). Wallace is/was in real life also a drummer on many reggae recordings.
Rockers is more than The Harder They Come a Rasta and reggae musicians movie, with many other musicians and singers playing large or small roles: bass player Robbie Shakespeare (of Sly and Robbie fame), Jacob Miller, Gregory Isaacs, Burning Spear, Kiddus I and others, as well as producers (Joe Gibbs and others). Musical performances in the studio and live are given much time in the film, and justly so. Recently (25 October 2010) deceased Gregory Isaacs’ live performance of his song Slave Driver in the movie is excellent, as is the studio session of Kiddus I.

Protagonist Wallace plays a role derived from himself: a musician (drummer) trying to get by with various jobs here and there. He encounters artists – some he works with - in different parts of Kingston.

All this is interesting by itself, but there is also actually something like a plot. Wallace wants to start a business selling records to producers to gain more income and become more independent, and (partly) for this purpose buys a motor bike. He is proud of this bike, tells his friends about it, lets it paint with a Rasta image and in Rasta colours. But, the bike then gets stolen when Wallace visits a dancehall.
Without betraying much more for people who have yet to see the movie, I’ll leave it to that. The plot may not be too thorough, but I guess this is one of those movies that doesn’t need a complex plot: there are enough interesting and engaging dialogues and happenings during the movie.


Countryman (1982) deals more with politics: elections, CIA intermingling, and the police. In relation to elections a political party is eager on finding a crashed airline pilot, presumably working for the CIA (or the other party). Police and soldiers search these two people. They, two white (US) foreigners, were crashed and then aided by a local Rastafari-inspired Jamaican fisherman (or “countryman”, hence the title).
I will not betray more of the plot, but I will say that it was entertaining and that the tension and the plot/story were told well.

Well and good, there were some aspects that one can consider odd, or remarkable. Jamaica is a predominantly black country, demographically, with about 90% of its people being primarily of African descent. Yet, relatively many of the cast had East Indian (from the country India) traits, also seemingly espoused Rastafari adherents. It is not impossible that such Rastafari with Indian traits exist (and there was some East Indian migration to Jamaica historically), but Countryman is presented as a Jamaican movie: at least let it be representative, seems a reasonable demand to me. Also, an “obeah” expert (Obeah is an African-based spiritual system) seems to be an Indian. Again, maybe not totally absurd, but neither very realistic.
It is on the other hand true, that among the cast of the movie there were also black Jamaicans, also as Rastas. This cast, by the way, was spontaneously recruited, the director explained. The only professional Jamaican actor was Carl Bradshaw, who some may know for playing “Boops” (a “sugardaddy”) in the Sly and Robbie videoclip of the song Boops.

The soundtrack was nice, but a bit limited to the Island record label (also producing the movie), and, predictably, recurrently Bob Marley and the Wailers.


More recent (1997) is the movie Dancehall Queen. Centered around the modern dancehall parties in Jamaica, with dancehall music. I am more a roots reggae fan than a dancehall fan, but I could nonetheless enjoy this movie. I do go to reggae dances, by the way, and found that I besides to “one drop” and “rockers” reggae I love so much, I could even dance to (some) “digital dancehall”, if I liked it. So the portrayed world in Dancehall Queen is not too far from my lived reality.
Modern dancehall music is overall just as or maybe more popular in Jamaica nowadays, at least in most dances, than roots reggae. I noticed this also during my recent travels to Jamaica (2006 and 2008), although roots reggae was not absent.
The movie Dancehall Queen is on a poor woman, working as street vendor who becomes at evening/night a dancehall queen, dancing in competition at parties (hosted by artist Beenie Man).
This fact is worked out nicely and entertaining in this movie, with relatively good acting as well. The plot is also good – though some consider it somewhat far-stretched -, and seems realistic: dealing with criminals in the ghetto areas intimidating other ghetto residents, and an overall modern, and realistic Caribbean “vibe” to my opinion.


There are more interesting Jamaican movies than The Harder They Come, that is what I at the very least can conclude. I can recommend therefore each of these to those who haven’t seen them.

Moreover, the movies discussed above seem to reflect the times and Jamaican societies broadly. The music industry is important in Jamaica, and is important in most of these movies. The studios, as well as old and modern dancehalls (as party venues), roots reggae and dancehall.
Violent elections and CIA intermingling were indeed happening in Jamaica around 1980 (thus the theme of Countryman), while also the recurring rough-handed and/or corrupt policemen seem to reflect reality, as do the portrayals of ghetto life and survival through several jobs, also present in several movies. Gun crime is also sadly a reality in Jamaica.

Interestingly, the soundtrack or musical side of the movies fitted the times: “early reggae” in The Harder They Come, somewhat later “roots reggae” in Rockers and Countryman, and dancehall in Dancehall Queen.
Musically, to my taste, Rockers was the most interesting, but it had a somewhat limitedly worked out plot (music says it all, you might say). Rastafari(anism) got attention in especially 2 of these 4 movies. This attention was mostly respectful, sometimes realistic, sometimes not so.

Several movies had great, very atmospheric imagery, also of rural and mountaineous areas and of urban Kingston.
I can furthermore also imagine how some may find it interesting for cultural reasons to see and hear how Jamaicans behave and talk Jamaican Patois – combined with Rasta speech, as in Rockers - amongst themselves.