Perry Henzell's terrifically vibrant film is a crucial link to an extraordinary period of cultural cross-fertilization in the 1970s, stretching from music to filmmaking to the political realm. Although the plot of the film largely takes place within the world of reggae music, where exploitation of often impoverished performers is rife, The Harder They Come is also very much about the power of cinema. After all, when the central character, Ivan (played by musician Jimmy Cliff), arrives in Kingston from his country home, his first destination is the Roxy, a movie theatre he's heard about out in the sticks.
Jimmy Cliff in The Harder They Come
Ivan conceives of his subsequent odyssey very much in terms of cinematic (anti-) heroes, with the conclusion of the film referring back to Ivan's early viewing of the movie Django: the soundtrack of that film plays over images of Ivan as The Harder They Come reaches its climax. Cowboy films were massively popular in Jamaica, at the time, no less so than in other parts of the world - Ousmane Sembène's novel Les Bouts de bois de Dieu makes much of how West African youth were captivated by cowboy heroes, a fascination that Dani Kouyaté also captures in the more recent Ouaga Saga.
Image from Touki-Bouki (1973, Djibril Diop Mambéty)
It's impossible to know exactly who saw what when, but it's not hard to find commonalities between Henzell's work and Djibril Diop Mambéty's Touki-Bouki, with its equally self-conscious anti-heroes and its striking blend of symbolic and literal imagery (and its references to European art cinema traditions). Like much African cinema of the 1970s, and indeed like at least some blaxploitation films, there's an ethnographic aspect to Henzell's film, a desire to provide a filmed account of lives and locations that hadn't normally featured onscreen, and that vitality still sets the screen alight almost forty years on. Henzell has a sympathetic, non-judgmental gaze, finding energy and drive in his characters while never concealing their blemishes; there's a warmth and a spontaneity to his film that reminded me of Malick Sidibé's photos of young Malians, in the studio and on the dancefloor, in the 1960s and 1970s.
Photo by Malick Sidibé (image from Gallery 51)