Released in 1972, Perry Henzell’s thrilling drama The Harder They Come, starring real-life reggae icon Jimmy Cliff as singer-turned-outlaw Ivanhoe Martin, was among the first films to prominently feature reggae music both as subject matter and on its soundtrack. The movie was a smash, while the album created an international sensation, highlighting recent hits from a genre that had only begun to emerge a few years before. A perfect storm of rhythm, bass, melody, and political, spiritual messaging, reggae was born in and exploded out of Jamaica in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and has since become one of the most influential and popular forms of music around the globe. In the 1977 documentary Roots Rock Reggae, Cliff describes it as “the cry of the people,” a pithy encapsulation of its direct, documentary-like lyrical content and empathetic appeal.
Fifty years have now passed since the premiere of The Harder They Come, and the film retains an iconic cultural presence, in large part thanks to its director’s daughter Justine, who is chiefly responsible for maintaining its legacy. (Justine is also a filmmaker in her own right and cofounded, in 2001, the biennial Calabash International Literary Festival in Jamaica’s Treasure Beach.) She is currently organizing a major anniversary celebration in Kingston this June. Set to take place at 10A West, King’s House Road—the location of Perry Henzell’s production company, and effectively the birthplace of the film—this celebration will feature over thirty Jamaican artists working on the island and overseas who have been inspired by the film.
I recently caught up with Justine Henzell to discuss the making of The Harder They Come, the continuing importance of the film and its soundtrack, and the story behind her father’s long-lost follow-up, No Place Like Home. Both films are part of the series Roots & Revolution: Reggae on Film, playing now on the Criterion Channel.
How do you feel about the legacy of the film? It’s still so culturally prominent.
It’s incredible. The good will that the film has, universally, is fantastic. I have bittersweet emotions about Jamaica’s film industry at this point because fifty years later we should have had many more The Harder They Comes, not in terms of style or genre but reach and success. We haven’t yet had that, and that is a little disappointing, but I feel that we are poised for an explosion of Jamaican film and TV content, which has been delayed two years by COVID. My hope is that the attention that the forthcoming fiftieth anniversary will receive will be useful for the young creatives, filmmakers, and poets who are working now—that the attention for The Harder They Come will actually spill over onto their work. There can never be another The Harder They Come, because the first is always the first, but it has informed and inspired new and different work.
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