May 1, 2014

The Harder They Come

I have never been a big fan of the Blaxploitation films and I can honestly say that the only film from the played-out subgenre that I appreciate in any way is Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), which ultimately unwittingly gave birth to a neo-minstrel movie trend that has provided cultural cuckold Quentin Tarantino with a pseudo-religion of sorts. Of course, what makes Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song different from the rest of these films, aside from the fact that it was actually directed by a black man, is that it is a serious film made for serious reasons and was not meant as mere monetary-motivated exploitation of proletarian negro kultur, but as an action-packed agitprop work with a blatant black power message, hence why the film was promoted by the Black Panther Party, who made it mandatory viewing among its members. Like Van Peebles’ film, The Harder They Come (1972), which was the very first feature film produced in Jamaica, also takes a no bullshit approach in depicting a rebellious black antihero who is determined to rise above his sub-meager circumstances, even if it kills him. Directed by a white Jamaican of French Huguenot and English descent named Perry Henzell who attended boarding school in the United Kingdom during his teens and later attended McGill University in Montreal in 1953 and 1954 before dropping out and wandering around Europa, The Harder They Come is a rare piece of Europid-directed black cinema that is neither patronizing nor phony in its essence, but instead gives an authentic voice to the voiceless with a vengeance that is hard to ignore. Indeed, the film was such a groundbreaking moment in Jamaican cultural history that apparently when the film first premiered in Jamaica, some 40,000 people showed up at the theater, which only had a capacity for 1,500 audience members. Described by some as the ‘the first English language movie in history to require subtitles in the United States’ due to the fact that the actors speak a sub-literate form of Creole dialect, The Harder They Come was barely noticed when it was released in February 1973 in New York City by Roger Corman's New World Pictures, but instantly developed a cult following when it was screened as a midnight movie a couple months later, ultimately playing for 6 years straight. Arguably most notable due to its soundtrack by the film’s star Jimmy Cliff, the film also brought reggae out of the third world and introduced it to Americans. Shot in a somewhat cinéma vérité-like style with oftentimes shaky handheld camera shots on 16mm film stock and loosely based on the life of real-life Jamaican negro outlaw/folk hero/”original rude boy” Vincent "Ivanhoe" Martin aka ‘Rhyging’—a figure who gained fame in 1948 after escaping from prison, committing a series of robberies, and killing a couple of crackers before being gunned down by the cops—The Harder They Come is like the Bonnie and Clyde of the Caribbean, albeit much more gritty and organic in persuasion, as if the viewer becomes a passive accessory to the crimes. Indeed, The Harder They Come is, if nothing else, an action-packed celluloid salute to the politically and socially impotent, perennially poor and disenfranchised, and hopelessly and stupidly romantic. A film that more or less features virtually every single negative stereotype associated with the black community, including unrealistic get-rich-quick schemes, charlatan preachers who wield power over the masses of the ignorant and poor for their own economic gain, young men who'd rather deal dope than do an honest day’s work, and backstabbing women that cannot help but put their men in deadly situations, The Harder They Come is true social realism and not the phony plastic sort that bolshevik filmmakers tried in vain to peddle. 

 After his miserly grandmother dies and leaves him nothing aside from a couple of bucks (she sold her house before her death and wasted virtually all of the money on a big funeral), young soul brother Ivanhoe "Ivan" Martin (Jimmy Cliff) moves from an isolated rural area of Jamaica to urban Kingston in the hope that he will fulfill his dream of making a hit reggae album and becoming rich and famous overnight. Luckily for him, Ivan is far too ignorant to realize how little of a chance he has of actually making it big, thus he does not hesitate in trying everything to become a big star. When Ivan arrives in the superlatively shitty city, he discovers a plague of poverty, unemployment, crime, and political corruption. Although Ivan’s mother (Lucia White) denies him a place to stay and takes the last bit of money he has, she gives him the name of a person that will ostensibly “try to help him”; a powerful charlatan known as the ‘Preacher’ (played by professional dentist Basil Keane, who was apparently the first black man that was an officer in the U.S. Navy, as well as a good friend of Martin Luther King, Jr.). That same night, Ivan meets a dubious dude named Jose (played by Carl Bradshaw, who has been described as, “Jamaica's most renowned actor”) and the two go to a Rialto theater to watch the classic Spaghetti Western (according to director Henzell, wop westerns were the “staple of slum cinema” in Jamaica at the time) flick Django (1966) starring Franco Nero. In an important foreshadowing scene, an audience member in the theater remarks, “The hero can’t die until the last reel.” Indeed, The Harder They Come is certainly the closest thing to a black Jamaican western, with Cliff acting as Nero's character in Django. The next day, Ivan hears about a music producer on the radio named Hilton (played by Bob Charlton who, according to Henzell, is “one of the greatest insurance salesmen in the world”) and becomes determined to chase him down to promote his music. Ultimately, Ivan takes residence in a broken down car on the Preacher’s property and fixes up an old bike owned by the religious leader. Meanwhile, Ivan attempts to find work but fails everywhere he goes, which ultimately forces him to resort to begging. When Ivan asks a rich black bourgeois housewife (played by Beverly Anderson, who would later become the first lady of Jamaica as the wife of Prime Minister Michael Manley) for money, he is met with the nasty response, “What’s the matter with you young, healthy boys? All you know to do is beg, beg, beg. That’s all you can do, just beg?,” thus demonstrating the class division in a nation with the rather ironic motto: “Out of Many, One People.” Ultimately, Ivan starts a rather tame romance with a chick named Elsa (Janet Bartley), who is unfortunately one of the Preacher’s many slavish young concubines. Naturally, the Preacher is repulsed by Ivan’s love of pornography and reggae, so when he discovers that the young heretic is messing around with Elsa, he becomes enraged and kicks him out. When one of the Preacher’s goons, Longa (played by real-life convicted rapist Elijah Chambers), attempts to takeaway Ivan’s bike, the two get in a bloody knife fight and the struggling reggae artist is ultimately punished with “eight strokes of the tamarind switch” for his act of attempted murder in what is a rather homoerotic scene. Indeed, Ivan is bent over, has his pants pulled, and is whipped on the ass, which literally causes the antihero to piss himself.  Although totally dehumanized by the experience of being bent over in public, Ivan luckily does not have to serve any jail time.

 After his small brush with the law, Ivan finally gets the opportunity to record his song “The Harder They Come,” but producer Hilton—an arrogant mulatto who has a complete monopoly over the entire Jamaican music industry—only offers him an insulting $20 for the song, so he decides to take his business elsewhere. While Ivan attempts to sell his song to other music producers, no one will buy it as they all take orders from Hilton. Of course, Ivan eventually gives in and sells the record to Hilton for $20, but the music producer tells an East Asian DJ to not play the song too much because, although he thinks that it is a great piece of music, he remarks regarding its composer, “he’s a troublemaker. I don’t want anything to do with him. I don’t want to build him up.” Still determined to make it big, Ivan tells his girlfriend Elsa that he refuses to live a straight life as a virtual slave, complaining to her, “You want me to go and beg for work for $10 a week for the rest of my life? I tried that. I’d rather die. And I don’t have to because I’m gonna make it,” so he begins dealing dope after his friend Jose offers him a position trafficking ganja from the country to the city on a motorbike. When Ivan gets in an argument with Jose over the meager pay, the dealer conspires to get his underling busted and locked up so as to ‘teach him a lesson’ by informing on the reggae artist to the cops. When a white motorcycle cop goes to bust Ivan, he freaks out and kills the cop. Later that night, Ivan is setup by a random whore he is sleeping with and finds himself surrounded by a brigade of cops, but he manages to get away after wasting three black pigs. Naturally, Ivan decides to get his revenge against his treacherous friends, so he kills the whore and subsequently tries to kill Jose, but he gets away. Now the #1 fugitive in Jamaica, Ivan finds that he is wanted by both the cops and the ganja dealers, with a high yellow detective named Ray Jones (Winston Stona) more or less controlling both sides. Meanwhile, Hilton decides to re-release the song “The Harder They Come” due to Ivan’s growing fame as a folk hero among Jamaicans and the song naturally becomes a big hit, though the cops soon have it banned. With his newfound star fugitive status, Ivan becomes rather arrogant and shamelessly narcissistic, even forcing his fat friend Fitz (Bobby Loban) to take special photographs of himself posing with guns which he has sent to various media sources. Ivan also takes advantage of his fugitive status by stealing a convertible and driving around aimlessly in a field, as if he has finally achieved the ‘Jamaican dream.’ Of course, Ivan knows his days are numbered and wants to have his fun before getting gunned down like an animal.  On the advice of a drug dealer friend named Pedro (Ras Daniel Hartman)—a Rastafarian who is the only person that does not betray his friend in the end—Ivan decides to flee to Cuba, but he ultimately finds himself cornered on a beach by a bunch of cops when he attempts to escape. Imagining himself to be Franco Nero in Django, Ivan decides to confront the cops even though he is out of bullets and is shot down, ultimately dying in a literal blaze of glory. 

 In the documentary Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream (2005), director Perry Henzell states regarding his first feature: “The whole theme of THE HARDER THEY COME is: ‘can the little man get through?’ The promise of a city for somebody like that is an illusion…and their illusion is so strong that they'd rather die than give up the dream.” Indeed, talk to any American black male teenager and over 99 out of 100 of them will probably tell you that they are going to be either a professional football player, basketball player, famous rapper, and/or pimp/gangster when they grow up, with the majority of which opting for the latter dream as it is the most practical. Hell, even millionaire football players in the NFL cannot help but assault cops, rape women, carry illegal weapons in public, and murder and/or put hits on people as demonstrated by the fact that various NFL players have been arrested/cited on 685 different occasions since 2000 (of course, the real figures are probably much higher, as the NFL has probably done their best to hide arrests, not to mention all the undetected crimes these guys have undoubtedly gotten away with). Despite being a revolutionary work with agitprop elements, auteur Henzell, who is a Nordic blond that grew up on a 22,000-acre plantation, is apparently no leftist, as J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum revealed in their authoritative work Midnight Movies (1983), “…Henzell denies any Marxist intentions and, according to journalist Claudia Dreifus, has views on economics that are only ‘slightly to the left of Ayn Rand’.” Furthermore, in the audio commentary Henzell gave for the Criterion Collection dvd release of The Harder They Come, the director mocks wealthy Americans for their stupid rules of conduct and dress, proclaiming that his family used their wealth as a root to freedom and not as a source of social imprisonment. That being said, I think that Henzell was able to relate to the poor blacks of Jamaica due to their uncompromising thirst for freedom as men that rather die young as ganja-peddling outlaws than die old as neo-slaves who work at dead-end jobs their entire lives and have nothing to show for it in the end. Indeed, as far as I can think of, The Harder They Come is the only film I have ever seen directed by a white man about a black subculture that does not seem like an impotent piece of P.C. propaganda, cultural cuckoldry, ball-less bleeding heart swill, and/or a total mockery of true negro kultur. Although Henzell started working on a second film, No Place Like Home, after the success he received from The Harder They Come, some movers lost the footage he shot and he scrapped the project for a couple decades, though he would eventually find the missing footage and finish the film in 2006 to some critical acclaim. Apparently, Henzell’s daughter Justine, screenwriter Chris Salewicz, Xingu Films and Conquering Lion Pictures were set to start shooting a remake of The Harder They Come in 2013, though it is dubious at best whether or not such a work could capture the gritty essence of the original film, which is a work that puts most of the oeuvre of Senegalese auteur Ousmane Sembène—the ‘father of African film’—to shame. 

-Ty E

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