Some artistic accomplishments maintain their social relevance long after their moment of recognition fades into the brown mist. Placing a young man from a simple world in the midst of the corrupt urban civilization with which he aspires to achieve parity signals that a filmmaker knows how to apply history to social awareness. Such is the case with the film The Harder They Come.
Here is an excerpt from the Jamaican Observer, October 21, 2007:
"During the 1940s, when black Jamaicans were, for the most part, living in abject poverty and squalid conditions, and the colonial master ruled with an iron fist, gunmen were a rarity. But out of those social conditions rose the first and perhaps the most infamous of the long list of fugitives who have wreaked havoc on the country. His name was Vincent 'Ivanhoe' Martin, popularly known as 'Rhygin', dubbed by the press as 'The Two-Gun Killer'."
The character played and sung by Jimmy Cliff is the 1972 contemporary Ivan Martin, a violent rudeboy who sure can sing and write some great reggae. That term? Nice, isn't it? A rudeboy was a guy or gal in Jamaica, inspired by the furtive thrill of delinquency, influenced by the stylistic accouterments of juke joints, soul music and gangster movies, and seriously hooked on primarily ska or even rock steady, or if it makes it easier for you to grok, reggae music, which evolved from the one and gave birth to the other.
In any event!
So Ivan is now in what we presume to be Kingston, a town where he just can't catch a break. All his possessions are swiped minutes after he gets off the bus, he tries to connect with the preacher's concubine only to have a run-in with the man of God and one of his stooges, and to make matters worse, the Leslie Kong-style record company owner dude records his title-track song and tells him he'll give him twenty dollars for the rights, suggesting that the DJs only play what he tells them to play and without his good word the record will go nowhere, baby. (Actually, this statement is unfair to Kong, who may not have exactly been a sweetheart of a guy but who to this day remains the most recognizable name in the 1970s reggae business and for good reason. The association this film has with Kong, a Chinese Jamaican, is one linked to Jimmy Cliff having been recorded by Kong in the early 1960s and to the fact that the producer in the film is also Chinese Jamaican, although in the film the producer is not Kong but most likely one of his sound men.) After he chops up the stooge and settles with the music man, Ivan turns to dealing grass to get what's his, choosing not to wait for that pie up in the sky.
One of the tragic aspects of The Harder They Come is that Jimmy Cliff as Ivan sings the hell out of the title song, ironic components intact, as well as "Many Rivers to Cross" and "You Can Get It If You Really Want," a fact not lost upon we viewers as we sympathize with his awareness that he is entitled to the fame and fortune he so furiously desires. (The rest of the film soundtrack is also excellent, especially the songs by Toots and the Maytals. They do "Pressure Drop" off and on throughout the film.) But we know he is doomed, as does he, until he turns to violent crime. Frustrated by getting ratted out by his drug buddy Jose, he offs the dude's woman and some cops, starts stealing cars for his getaways, and generally throws around his weight, even taking the step of having some excellent gangster photographs snapped and sent to the editor of a newspaper. Everyone he meets, except his girlfriend and his grandmother, are completely corrupt: the preacher, the newspaper editor, the photographer, the policemen, the entertainment people. In such a world, only an honest man can be an outlaw.
The real Ivanhoe Martin of the 1930s and 40s came to a bloody end, but before he did, he wrote a letter to the Jamaican Times newspaper: "I have an arsenal of 29 shots and I am satisfied that I have made history for the criminal element in Jamaica. Don't think that I am going to kill myself because this will only serve to spoil my great record. But I hope that Detective Scott will train his men some more. I am going to show the police force what is lacking and what I can do."
So many things could have derailed the artistic achievement of this film, but the primary potential for disaster would have been for writer-director Perry Henzell to attempt commentary. On the morality of Ivan's behavior Henzell is thankfully silent. There is an almost documentary quality to the film, although the scenes of Cliff riding his bicycle against the backdrop of the water are too poignant for that style of photography. The only scene where Henzell slips into glorification is one where that tone is inevitable, and that is where Ivan decides to have the photos made of himself posing like John Dillinger, something the original Ivanhoe did and far too tempting an idea for a fine filmmaker to resist. But, yes, otherwise Henzell lets the camera and mics do the talking and we find ourselves horrified at some of Ivan's cruelty, despite sympathizing with his hardships and desires. This type of emotional involvement is exactly what great 1970s film-making was about, or at least it was a big part of what it was about, as people the world over raised their voices to demand answers to the serious questions about the value of morality in a world where legitimate governments murdered their own people, where police forces stood behind broken badges, where mothers and fathers celebrated the destruction of their own children. "When policemen break the law," Billy Jack said, "Then there isn't any law." Tom Laughlin's character was no rudie and he certainly would not have condoned Ivan's behavior. But he would have understood it. By the ending credits of The Harder They Come, we do as well.