Ahead of the World Cinema Showcase, BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM revists an arthouse, post-colonial, cult classic.

PERRY HENZELL’s The Harder They Come could be viewed now as a slightly dated curiosity. The story of a country boy who comes to the city but is dragged down by the corruption and dastardliness is hardly the most revolutionary narrative, and the film, to a certain extent, drew on the early subversive elements of blaxploitation films (e.g. the amoral adventures and righteous anger of Sweet Sweetback for example). The story is based on real-life gangster Rhygin, a Robin Hood figure in 1940s Jamaica. But the film’s popularity rests on a number of key factors. First is the film’s relentless energy and anger. Sure, Henzell takes on the easy targets – the corrupt police, the church, and the simpering fools who attempt to plant their flag on the mountain of excrement that was left for them by the ravages of colonialism – but the film judges its protagonist as heartily as its villains. Second, is the film’s dense portrayal of urban Kingston, with the shantytowns and the intersection of crime, music, drugs and religion. And third is the film’s frankly astonishing soundtrack, one of the greatest musical soundtracks ever committed to celluloid, which in the process helped drag Jamaica’s barely kept secret, reggae, towards a global market.

And it’s the music that has perhaps remained the best known thing about the film. Coming just before Bob Marley became the global superstar of reggae, and before Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry demolished the rules for production (and in the process shifted music history), the soundtrack offered a potent offering of the musical genre that had been mutating for a considerable time. And detractors of the genre (it does not all sound the same) only need to listen to the tension, melodies, and rhythms of this soundtrack to realise how good reggae can be. The film’s lead is Jimmy Cliff, and he contributes the heart of the soundtrack. Songs such as ‘The Harder They Come’, the soulful ‘Many Rivers to Cross’ and ‘You Can Get It If You Really Want’ have justifiably become classics. Other greats, such as Scotty’s silky, desultory ‘Draw Your Brakes’, and the Maytals’ genius ‘Pressure Drop’ and ‘Sweet and Dandy’ pepper the soundtrack and the film.

Reggae, in some respects, was used in the ’60s to express a unified Jamaican identity, Jamaica being a newly independent country and having to deal with the aftermath of British cultural domination. However, the ’60s and ’70s also saw the development of the so-called “third cinema” (a potentially simplistic way of summing it all up, but hey why not), where third world countries used film as a way to challenge the colonial structures and express a ‘new’ kind of national identity. Countries such as Brazil, Senegal and Cuba (among others) made some of the most revolutionary cinema ever made during that period. The Harder They Come in effect was a Jamaican stab at this kind of filmmaking, Jimmy Cliff’s key refrain in the title track “I’d rather be a free man in the grave // than living as a puppet or a slave” gaining a perfect visual representation in the film. It’s of no surprise that the film gained considerable resonance in Jamaica upon its release – audiences were reportedly particularly happy with the strong anti-authoritarian streak of the film.

The film gained something of a worldwide reputation in both festival and midnight movie sessions. However, the dialogue did require subtitles – one may find that patronising given the characters do speak English, but the slang-heavy dialogue requires a bit of listening effort. And while the soundtrack is so damn good, it’s also easy to forget how damn enjoyable the film is. Jimmy Cliff’s anti-hero and Perry Henzell’s visuals are perfectly matched, and the grungy and righteously angry tone burns up the screen. An arthouse, post-colonial and cult classic all rolled into one.