Released in 1972 (just a year before Bob Marley and the Wailers’ breakthrough international album “Catch a fire”), shot on location in the streets of Kingston with non-professional actors speaking in the local patois, the film created an unprecedented realistic portrayal of Jamaican culture, far from the exotic paradise advertised in Western travel agencies. The film is in fact a rough depiction of home-grown corruption, gun crime, class war and poverty coupled with an outstanding soundtrack featuring singers such as Jimmy Cliff (also main actor and protagonist), Toots and the Maytals and Desmond Decker.
The director/writer Perry Henzell, born and raised on the island, wanted to shoot a film that was truly representative of Jamaican people and society, a flagship film that, a decade after independence, would help foster a sense of national identity. When The Harder They Come premiered at a 1,500-seat theatre in Kingston, a crowd of roughly 40,000 showed up. Jamaicans seeing themselves represented on the screen for the first time created an unbelievable elation and reaction among the audience.
Outside of Jamaica though, things were a little more complicated especially distribution-wise, since there were no established channels to market that kind of film. Eventually, thanks to critical support at the Venice Film Festival, the film found a distributor and started hitting theatres in the US. But the marketing as a mainstream blaxploitation film failed miserably, so Henzell took the distribution back himself and re-released it as a midnight film. The result was an incredible success that led to six straight years of midnight shows around the country, making it one of the longest continuous run in American cinema history.
40 years on THTC is now widely acknowledged as a cult classic and it’s soundtrack became one of the most iconic albums of all time and a touchstone not just for reggae but for most popular music.
The movie opens with Ivan (Jimmy Cliff) a naïve country boy who comes to Kingston with the big dream of becoming a music star, the song “You can get it if you really want” expediently playing in the background. Ivan’s hopes for a better future soon clash with the harsh reality of the city and the ruthless Jamaican music industry. Disillusioned, with no job and no one to turn to, he ends up befriending Jose, the local gangster who is the neighbourhood’s ganja dealer. Suddenly, he makes a lot of money as a ‘soldier’ in the marijuana trade, much more than he ever would cutting records at $20 (Jamaican) a song. He officially turns to a life of crime but soon realises it is subject to the same patterns of exploitation as the music industry. His pride and ambition drive him to declare war on his rival dealers and on the corrupt cops who demand “protection” money from him.
While his notoriety as a cop-killing folk hero quickly rises, his song reaches the top of the Jamaican charts finally fulfilling Ivan’s dream of stardom.
What started as a simple rural-boy-makes-good-in-the-city fairytale, turns into a darker story of ego, crime, poverty, class warfare, and a lust for fame that hurdles towards its inevitably tragic outcome.
The inspiration for Ivan was based on the life of notorious Jamaican outlaw known as “Rhyging“, a man who moved to Kingston in the 1940s and became a hero to the masses through his shootouts with the police. Just like Rhyging, Ivan is the incarnation of the Jamaican archetype of the “rude-boy”, the charismatic anti-hero who stands up for himself and rebels against the injustices of a capitalist dominated, colonial and post-colonial society.
The essence of Ivan’s character is perfectly summed up in the film’s title track:
“I’d rather be a free man in my grave / than living as a puppet or a slave / so as sure as the sun will shine / I’m gonna get my share of what’s mine”.
Ivan was forced to become a criminal to get what he considered to be his rightful share, to realize his “dream.” It is only through violence that he succeeds in achieving fame and in this, the film delivers a highly poignant critique of the injustices of Jamaican society.
Unfortunately, the movie foreshadowed the grim future of the island, where young disenfranchised men, would turn to violence, fuelling political killings in the ’70s and widespread gang wars in the ’80s and beyond.
Ivan’s violent response to misery, squalor and exploitation and his highly individualistic version of “making it” eventually isolates him even from his own people. He is made into a target and no matter how hard he really wants, as the soundtrack keeps reminding us, he can “get it” and enjoy it only for a brief moment before the authorities get him.
As Ivan’s story demonstrates, there is no possibility of rebellion: to revolt against the corrupt system means death.
In the final scene, the director intercuts shots of Ivan’s showdown against the police with the earlier shots of a cinema audience laughing and cheering at the popular spaghetti western Django. Strong of the fact that “Star boy can’t die till de last reel” Ivan comes out of his hiding place to meet his sure death.
This tragic rite of passage reveals much about the dynamics of Jamaican society in the late 60’s, torn by poverty, corruption and inequality – from the shanty towns to the oppressiveness of religion, to the recording studios to the politics of the “ganja” trade. But the film is also a critique of the exploitative music business and generally of the deceptive nature of media and fame.
The film was made on a very low budget, however, despite some evident technical limitations, it is skilfully executed, achieving an undeniable cinematic quality, the rough and gritty style only making it more honest and fascinating.
Music is undoubtedly the driving force of the movie, a constant presence that provides a crucial backdrop to the story,commenting on the scenes and catalyzing the emotions, just as it is when one visits the island.
The greatest example is the use of Toots & The Maytals’ “Pressure Drop” in conjunction with the action scene of the chase. While Ivan is running after Jose, guns firing, the music suddenly reaches climactic intensity: “Know that you doing wrong,” the song warns, and as a consequence, “I say pressure drop/ Oh pressure oh yeh pressure gonna drop on you.”
THTC is an authentic, realistic snapshot of urban Jamaica of the time that avoids easy exoticism and folklorizing. The film can also be interpreted as a subtle critique of the blind, almost automatic, assimilation of western cultural models, especially through the importation of Hollywood movies, and in a way it is a homegrown Jamaican riposte.
The late Perry Henzell said:
“I had a choice when I set out: to make a film for Jamaicans or…for the rest of the world. I chose to make a film for Jamaica.”
Clearly the film’s impact was felt far beyond the Caribbean, introducing both Jamaica and reggae to the world and setting the trend for future Jamaican cinema (Rockers, Countryman etc..).
The harder they come is a must see not only for those interested in the early roots of reggae, but also for anyone who is in for a truly unique cinematic experience.