50 years since the release of The Harder They Come, Jamaica’s first feature film is still a brilliant take on its people’s struggles – with one of the best soundtracks of all time.
2022 marks the 60th anniversary of Jamaica gaining its independence from the British Empire. It is also the year of an important milestone in its national cinema. Because, 50 years ago, the country’s first feature film was released. Directed, co-written and produced by Perry Henzell, The Harder They Come quickly became a smash hit in its home country. Then it broke through overseas. It became a midnight movie hit in the US – thanks to Roger Corman’s New World Pictures – whilst its soundtrack brought reggae to a wider audience. And with The Harder They Come receiving a re-release for its anniversary, now is a great time to visit what is still a significant film.
The film starts with Ivanhoe Martin (reggae singer Jimmy Cliff) travelling to Kingston after the death of his grandmother. After his mother refuses to let him stay with her, Ivanhoe tries to find employment in the city. He eventually finds menial with a conservative preacher (Basil Keane) and becomes interested in his young ward Elsa (Janet Bartley). But Ivanhoe dreams of being a musician and soon gets the chance to record a song for big-time record executive Hilton (Bob Charlton). However, when the payment is extremely low, Ivanhoe is drawn into the world of crime and drug trafficking.
The Harder They Come is based on the figure of ‘Rhyging,’ a real-life Jamaican outlaw from the 1940s known as ‘the original rude boy’. And this partly true crime story is very matter-of-fact in its presentation. Henzell and co-writer Trevor D. Rhone section the film into distinct instalments, precisely tracking Ivanhoe from country boy to church helper, musician, marijuana runner and eventually an outlaw on the run. Why he ends up on the run is less exact. One explanation could be the exploitation Ivanhoe is subjected to. The best representation of this is his experience with Hilton, the one man who can make or break musical dreams. He knows it too since he offers only $20 for Ivanhoe’s record. And when Ivanhoe tries to sell the song to other people, they refuse in fear of Hilton. This sequence points to the theme of control and how the underclasses are kept down.
It also enforces how Henzell paints a more nuanced portrait of Jamaica than you might expect. The Harder They Come’s first imageis a crisp establishing shot of a scenic beach with lapping waves. Though this seems like a typical tourist image, it is not the whole picture. As soon as the film pans to an old bus, we get a more naturalistic portrayal of the country. The city is full of people playing dominoes, pinball arcades and screenings of Django at the Rialto cinema. Characters struggle to find work and earn money; people scour through giant waste tips. All this is why the film was a smash hit in Jamaica – because it was authentic. The audience saw themselves in these characters who spoke Jamaican Patois just like them.
One of the film’s three cinematographers, Franklyn St. Juste, was later quoted as saying: “I really didn’t know what was happening — and what was going to happen from one scene to the next or from one setup to the next.” That means there is a certain amount of spontaneity; one out-of-control shot is from the POV of a policeman murdered by Ivanhoe. Furthermore, the cast is full of notable Jamaican names, from ska legend Prince Buster to the man who launched Jimmy Cliff’s career, Leslie Kong. Meanwhile, Ivanhoe’s two drug-dealing friends are played by Carl Bradshaw – regarded as Jamaica’s most renowned actor – and Ras Daniel Heartman, a leading figure in the Rastafarian movement. Yet the star here is undoubtedly Cliff, who embodies the main character’s rebellious spirit faultlessly.
Cliff also wrote and performed six songs for the soundtrack, the undisputed ace up The Harder They Come’s sleeve. The reggae songs here are utterly fantastic, reinforcing that authenticity whilst serving messages of defiance. The opening song, ‘You Can Get It If You Really Want’ is a beacon of optimism that serves as a counterpoint to Ivanhoe’s experience in Kingston, whilst the title song, ‘The Harder They Come,’ would become a reggae anthem (mirroring what happens to the song in the film). With other songs by The Melodians, Toots and the Maytals and The Slickers, it is easy to see why this album was voted one of the 500 greatest albums of all time by Rolling Stone.
50 years since its initial release, The Harder They Come remains a brilliant watch. It is a lively, vicious film that boasts one of the best soundtracks of all time. However, it also manages to construct a genuinely authentic take on poverty, corruption and crime in Kingston. When director Perry Henzell started making The Harder They Come, he chose to create a faithful representation of Jamaica, a movie for Jamaicans instead of the tourist board. The result is deglamourized and bleak, yet hopeful. Take the song Ivanhoe records for Hilton, ‘The Harder They Come.’ Even after everything he goes through, there is a belief that it will all come good in the end. Or, as Ivanhoe puts it:
“So as sure as the sun will shine; I’m gonna get my share now, what’s mine; And then the harder they come; The harder they fall, one and all.”
The Harder They Come will be released in the UK in select cinemas from 5 August 2022, with BFI Presents previews at Vue cinemas on 27 July 2022. It is also available to watch through BFI Player in to the UK. The BFI Southbank season FROM JAMAICA TO THE WORLD: REGGAE ON FILM is running throughout the month of August.