I am not sure when I first saw this week’s film Perry Henzell’s 1972 “The Harder They Come”—but I knew immediately how electrifying it was! This realistic tale of a rural country guy, Ivan Martin, who’s an aspiring reggae singer, who has big dreams of becoming a singing star, was one of the first feature films from Jamaica.
But eventually, Ivan gets so wrapped into the Jamaican drug trade, the corrupt music business and his conflicting religious ideas that he decides he has to get what he can for himself and gets involved in a short life of deadly crimes. Ivan becomes a folk anti-hero.
Henzell and Trevor Rhone wrote the screenplay, which at many times is spoken in patois Jamaican dialect with English subtitles. Henzell begins the film very realistically showing Ivan (Jimmy Cliff) on a crowded bus to Kingston. Once in town, he visits his mother (Lucia White), who quickly tells him he should go back to the countryside. Since Ivan refuses, she advises he see the local preacher for advice. Within days Ivan befriends Jose (Carl Bradshaw), a local guy who hangs out on the street.
After looking for work in various areas, such as construction and landscaping, Ivan finally makes his way to a local church. Here he begins working odd jobs for the preacher and meets the beautiful Elsa (Janet Bartley). She becomes his new girlfriend—but he must be careful; the preacher is her strict guardian.
Ivan soon approaches the powerful record producer, Mr. Hilton (Bob Charlton) and gets to record a demo song in his studio. When Hilton offers him a meager $20 for the rights to the recording, Ivan refuses; thinking he should get much more for his tune. When takes his record to others, he quickly learns no one else will play or distribute his recording without the Hilton approval. So Ivan returns to Hilton and sheepishly signs the contract. Hilton exclaims, “I make the hits, not the public!” Hilton makes it a hit and soon Ivan is dressing in finer clothes and mixing with guys who are selling ganja.
Quickly you see the film is not just a Third World melodrama loaded with good reggae music; Henzell’s turns his story into a political indictment of a system of injustices that ignores an underclass, where many societal sources are at fault.
The film is loaded with musical numbers and songs whose lyrics thematically relate to Ivan’s situations, directly adding deeper meaning to the film’s impact. Songs like “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” “The Harder They Come,” “Pressure Drop,” “Sitting in Limbo,” “Rivers of Babylon”, “Johnny Too Bad” each reflect his conflicts of justice, honesty, faith and fairness he sees in society.
One of the film’s most joyous songs is Ivan’s studio rendition of “The Harder They Come”, where he’s dressed in a simple black t-shirt with a yellow star emboldened at its center, with beads of sweat on his forehead as he sings, “The oppressors are trying to keep me down, /Trying to drive me underground/ And they think that they have got the battle won/I say, forgive them, Lord, They know not what they’ve done.”
According to a 1995 interview with Rex Weiner in Variety, Henzell recalls that he spent five years distributing the film personally overseas, going to 30 countries in Asia and Africa with prints of the film; “Nobody would take it,” in those pre-Bob Marley days, “They never heard of reggae music and nobody was interested in black people in Jamaica.” Then they didn’t understand his style. “Nobody understood a damn thing I was trying to say about realism.” But over the years after its initial release, the film developed cult status.
According to The Rough Guide to Cult Movies, edited by Paul Simpson, “The Harder They Come” fits their definition of the cult film’s first two essential qualities. A cult film must “inspire people to go around quoting it to each other or inspire an unquestionable amount of devotion long after the fickle masses have forgotten the movie’s existence”. And “be good—but underappreciated.”
Yet The Rough Guide notes: “The Harder They Come” was “marketed as a Blaxploitation film; the film was too original to score with those that wanted another “Shaft”. Even without the reggae score, it would be a good film. With songs by Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker and the Melodians, this becomes a classic.” Filmgoers today should rediscover this powerful film.