Early on in Perry Henzell’s “The Harder They Come,” the film establishes itself as firmly aware of the cultural and cinematic context from which it emerges. There’s a scene where protagonist Ivanhoe (Ivan for short) and a mostly male audience watch a screening of the western “Django” in Kingston, Jamaica. Naturally, the scene that has them enraptured is a shootout. In the film within the film, Franco Nero’s Django coolly observes a group of men advancing to kill him. There is little tension here for either audiences for as Ivan’s companion whispers, “Hero can’t die ‘til last reel.” Django, although outnumbered, manages to kill all the men and the camera cuts to Ivan, who is watching, entranced. “Hero can’t die ‘til last reel” is a promise the film holds on to.
“The Harder They Come” debuted at the Venice International Film Festival 45 years ago in late August. It would have its theatrical release in early 1973 in the United States and beyond. It was a big hit in Jamaica and a modest hit outside. For audiences today, in Guyana especially, the film might be a memory except for its title song and soundtrack, which brought reggae to the larger world in a big way.
The film tells the story of Ivan, a poor jobless hopeful musician who eventually becomes a criminal. Its place in the Caribbean cinematic oeuvre and its easy deftness in delivering its theme make it more than just another good guy turns bad film, though. Its popularity and reach does make its ruminations on masculinity and Caribbean identity intriguing. In re-watching it this past week, it was striking to observe how the thematic strands keeping “The Harder They Come” together remain as striking and relevant decades after its release. The question it asks are old, but not tired. What makes success? Is there a place for making a life out of music? What makes a man? That last question, in particular, reverberates throughout the film. And not just what makes a man, but how can one become a man when one is black and poor and in the Caribbean?
Ivan’s honourable attempts to make an honest life off of his music are thwarted. The music business is unscrupulous. Promoters are looking for profit, not for talent. The old guard and Jamaican elite are hostile, or at best indifferent, to his reggae sounds. Ivan, is a poor Jamaican man with an attraction to the Preacher’s ward, Elsa. The attraction is presented as romantic but not aggressively, or sexually, so. When the Preacher finds out that Elsa has given Ivan her key to use the church as a rehearsal space, he storms into her room and accuses her of fornicating with Ivan.
For both Preacher and “respectable” Jamaicans, reggae represents something deviant, something with corruptive influences. The parallels between reggae then and dancehall now are not hard to draw.
In an early scene, while Ivan has a confrontation with an irate Preacher, two of the church women observe, “Preacher is a man of the lord, but he is a man all the same,” implicitly suggesting that the Preacher has noticed Elsa’s development as a sexual being and the existence of Ivan as a potential foil for him in his quest for her Elsa’s affection. When the two ladies observe that Preacher is “a man all the same,” they have unreservedly pointed out one of the (presumed, at least) main aspects of construction of the fact of masculinity within the Jamaican society–sexual awareness with a significant attention to a great sexual libido. It is not incidental that the rejoinder to the observation that “Preacher is a man all the same” is “And the lord said, ‘Go ye forth and multiply.’” This essentially hits the nail on the head: a (Jamaican) man’s masculinity being marked in his proclivity, desire and perhaps ability to multiply, i.e. procreate specifically through sexual contact.
It will be no spoiler to reveal that after failure at an honest life, Ivan descends into a life of crime – something which, unfortunately, remains almost de rigueur for young men placed in his position. What’s more compelling about “The Harder They Come” is how sympathetically Henzell and co-writer Trevor Rhone (famously of “Smile Orange” and “Old Story Time”) approach Ivan’s descent into a life of crime with more sympathy than the approach the members of the old guard like Preacher. Religion in “The Harder They Come” represents a constricting remnant of colonial rule. It is the Caribbean music reggae which represents transcendence. This music is life. The postcolonial significance of the dichotomy, and the film are pronounced. Even if one is unwilling to attach the moniker of villain or at least quasi-villain to the Preacher, and thus the church, in the film it is significant to consider the binary as a scene contrasts a church choir with a reggae scene: One is a holdover from things brought during colonial days while the other was developed autonomously by the persons of the postcolonial era (Jamaica gained independence in 1962, 11 years before the film was released). It’s a complex and thorny issue that Henzell and Rhone show great depth in attempting to confront.
The film’s postcolonial stance becomes muddled as Ivan’s criminal escapades become more dangerous, and he comes to take on the stance (and the swagger) of Nero’s Django. Henzell and Rhone eschew the usual burdens of representation that Caribbean artists face and have no qualms about defending, or at least sympathising, with Ivan’s descent into depravity.
But as “The Harder They Come” reaches its climax, it does become mired with the politics of representation – like the way Ivan’s “rude-boy” persona becomes a hypersexualised one, or the way the female characters in the film fall into the archaic traps of “good girl” (Ivan’s main love-interest) and “bad girl” (a random woman whom he beds later in the film).
“The Harder They Come,” for all its populist appeal, though, forces the audience to confront our idea of respectability politics and the value of art in a Caribbean society. Its final shot is an excellent freeze-frame and worthy of much filmic analysis. And that title song is unimpeachable. It is foolish to presume that the film’s representation of Ivan the criminal is an endorsement. Instead, “The Harder They Come” and its ambiguous rumination on its would-be-heroic-protagonist is a provocative entry in Caribbean art, and is one worthy of celebration.
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