JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

“The harder they come”: Ivan performs his “boss tune” during the recording session at Hilton’s.

One of numerous signs Ivan leaves around Kingston to build his infamy and taunt the police who are chasing him.

From the film’s only scene featuring the interior of one of Jamaica’s many resorts.

Fourth white convertible: Ivan, who does not know how to drive, steals this car from outside the resort and takes it on a joyride.

Bosses collude: Hilton and Detective Ray Jones (Winston Stona) confer over the music business and the ganja trade, which they control, respectively.

“The harder they fall”: Ivan notes his depleted ammunition on the beach where he meets his demise.

 

 

Although The Harder They Come has historically garnered almost unanimous praise, shades of my concern began appearing in newspapers, magazines, and journals soon after the film’s international debut. The July 14th, 1974 edition of The New York Times includes Vincent Canby’s “Those Films Which Refuse to Fade Away,” a survey of a few films whose cult followings had led to prolonged or second or third runs at theaters, despite those films sometimes flopping badly during an initial run. This appears near the end of Canby’s positive recapitulation of Henzell’s feature:

"Although The Harder They Come takes place almost entirely in the Jamaican’s Jamaica (there is only one short scene involving a resort hotel), and although it is very careful not to portray whites as the oppressors (we see only blacks ripping off blacks), it is a more revolutionary black film than any number of U.S. efforts, including Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song." (Canby 235)

“The harder they fall”: Ivan realizes, and gives in to, Hilton’s vertical command of the music scene in Jamaica. Hilton orders his assistant to release Ivan’s tune but not to “push it,” given Ivan’s short-lived resistance to Hilton’s total control.
An airplane, apparently bound for the States, lands just long enough for the pilot to take on his load of ganja. Government forces destroy the ganja whose trade they both sanction and regulate.
Ever more black-on-black violence: Ivan shoots it out in his first escape from police capture. More “artifacts from the Metropol”: ironic signage, since at the moment this shot appears, Ivan is fleeing into the island (and not abroad) in his attempt to elude the police.

Published in a 1975 edition of Jump Cut, Julianne Burton’s “The Harder They Come: Cultural Colonialism and the American Dream” provides a largely positive overview of the film, avowing that its criticism of postcolonial Jamaica lies in its depiction of “Ivan’s separation from traditional life” and his community, as well as the role of U.S. and European artifacts in his progression toward violence and materialism (5). Yet Burton is also extremely careful to point out that her reading of the film is predicated upon Henzell’s ability, as a white filmmaker, to speak or stand in for his subject matter:

"The history of the filming, the intentions and background of the filmmakers, the sources of financial backing, the social contexts within which the film has been viewed and the audience response to it are all questions directly related to my interpretation of the film. Such information is, however, extremely difficult to find and may, in the short run, tend to substantiate a much more pessimistic and negative view of the film’s content. Perry Henzell is after all a son of Jamaica’s white ruling class, though he perceives himself as much more closely tied to the marginal milieu portrayed in the film." (7)

Published two years earlier, Ernest Callenbach’s brief review of the film in the “Short Notice” section of Film Quarterly begins with an examination of how the motion picture brings to the forefront “the black Caribbean, which has previously only figured as a passive backdrop in James Bond pictures.” Callenbach then matches attendant aspects of The Harder They Come to a summary of the “post”-colonial state of the region, a summary organized around the (problematic) claim that Jamaica, “being a large island and more directly in touch with American black culture,” can serve as a model for the effects upon the region of both the replacement of one monoculture (sugar) with another (tourism) as well as the electronic importation (radio, television, etc.) of U.S. culture — especially the elements of U.S. culture most closely representative of the tenets of capitalism. This passage appears near the end of the review:

“Because [The Harder They Come’s] style is ordinary opaque naturalism [...] the film can hide behind its surface realness: the shanty towns, the lovely West Indian dialect [....] But it thus conceals the deeper realities of Jamaican life: economic control by foreign white corporations and managers, a classically neo-colonial pattern of extractive industries. Perhaps as a consequence, it speaks dramatically in terms that are fatalistic, romantic, and defeatist.” (Callenbach 60)

One very valid critique of Callenbach’s assessment is that it offers no specific support for this assertion. But this may be due to that support being not terribly difficult for the viewer to find. The Harder They Come features not a single white major or minor character; the only whites in its diegesis proper are a handful of tourists, who together populate conspicuously few frames. The whites who last longest onscreen are notably (or ironically) filtered through the medium of film itself — namely, the actors in Django, the “Spaghetti Western” playing in the theater Ivan visits shortly after arriving in Kingston. Even more striking: Despite the then-recent independence of Jamaica and the effects of a renewed emphasis on tourism, “which brings in its train the identical social dislocations of the old plantation system”(Callenbach, 59), not one conversation in this film — and for all its action, this is a dialogue-rich film — is specifically of or directly concerns whites. One way to process this is to think of it as an interesting twist on James Snead’s influential concept of exclusionary emulation, which cites “omission” as one method through which racial and ethnic assumptions function in film. But where Snead’s deconstruction of the star text of Shirley Temple points to the omission of blacks in her films as partial evidence of racial and ethnic politics (“Shirley Temple”), the analysis in this essay suggests that the deliberate omission of whites from The Harder They Come serves an analogous function.

Visually, aurally, and ideologically: Whites but not white artifacts, whiteness but not its signs and symbols, are left out of the “uniquely Jamaican” diegesis of The Harder They Come. This despite the region’s rich history of colonial occupation, economic domination, and cultural imperialism, each of which are a function of colonial domination, each of which are fundamental to the history of Jamaica, and each of which, from the “colonial blitz” of the 18th and 19th centuries on through the long-lasting hegemony of Hollywood, have been or continue to be attenuated by the politics of race. In fact, the most significant references in The Harder They Come to race or colorist attitudes come through two characters: the light-skinned woman who shoos Ivan from her upscale house while he is wandering Kingston, penniless and hungry; and Hilton, the record producer of light complexion who in the end profits the most from Ivan’s crime spree. But both are, again, effects and not causes; both suggest that skin color is a factor in Ivan’s social mobility, but neither indicates how skin color came to be such a determining factor. According to The Harder They Come, whiteness has not and does not attenuate power and capital in Jamaican society, which is to say that it cannot in any way be held culpable for the violence and penury represented onscreen. Such is the supportive material the film freely provides for the reviewer’s argument, as well as for my own.

Perhaps the twentieth time I screened The Harder They Come, I did so with my mother, who was twenty and teaching grammar school in Dominica when the film was first released in the Caribbean. I watched her watch the film and sing it from memory, and I thought of how it must have felt back then, seeing this movie from “home” at “home,” in a dark and crowded theater. What Henzell did was extraordinary, and The Harder They Come is still the defining film of the Caribbean because of him. But the years since 1972 have produced more ways of understanding that what counts as “romantic” in the film’s content sometimes translates to “voyeuristic” and “objectifying” in its formal aspects. Today, The Harder They Come remains instructive because it provides a glimpse of the Caribbean beyond the boundaries of its resorts. But it is a glimpse whose incompleteness is just as instructive, because it illustrates the difficulties filmmakers face when their subject matter is another race. And for those two lessons, we should continue to thank Perry Henzell, now posthumously, for his crowning achievement.

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