Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Class: The Harder They Come

Hot Pepper Shrimp
Jerk Chicken
Baked Yams with Sweet Onions & Ginger
Caribbean Cole Slaw
Gizzada (Spiced Sweet Coconut Tart)

When I was a teenager, there was this weird little theater in the quiet suburb of Uniondale, New York called the Uniondale Mini-Cinema. Before the "midnight movie" craze hit the mainstream, this was one of those first experiments in letting young people, especially young people who were influenced by what was then known as "the counter-culture," and certainly those who had a love and reverence for movies, be allowed to program an actual movie theater.

Now remember this was before there were videotapes, or even cable TV. This was the only place where you could stay up all night and watch Marx Brothers movies, the new "concert" films like Woodstock or Jimi Plays Berkeley, and was a home for "outsider" filmmakers such as Robert Downey Sr. and John Waters. Later, after I had gone to seek my fortunes on the West Coast, it was one of the first theaters to do the whole Rocky Horror Picture Show thing. But it was also one of the first theaters to run The Harder They Come.

For me and my buddies, spending our Friday or Saturday or both nights at the Mini-Cinema was quite typical, so going to repeated showings at midnight of The Harder They Come was a regular event. To give you some idea of what this was like, here's a poster they gave out at an anniversary party featuring pictures of all the regulars at the theater. Now this is slightly embarrassing... I'm the only person who is featured in the poster twice. Yes, I spent way too much of my time there. I often helped take tickets in exchange for free admission. You could say that was my first job in show business.

But, yeah. So this movie is one of those rare cinematic creations that stretches far beyond simply being a movie experience and has left its mark so deeply on our world and consciousness. It may well be the only movie - I can't think of another off the top of my head - that has had such an impact. Sure you can argue the importance of that impact, but you cannot deny its impact. For one thing, as the film's publicist Barbara Blake Hannah remarked, "It showed the first world what life in a third world country was like, like no other film had done before." Sure there had been films that depicted the third world - and not in a Hollywood glamorized fantasy kind of way before - but not like this. The way the 3rd World looked in the 1970's - after the civil rights of the 1960's, post-colonial, post rock 'n' roll. "There are certain films that capture the essence of the time and that is one of those movies," said star Jimmy Cliff. The film's popularity awakened a generation in the West to the realities of that 3rd World and how their 1st World affected it. Western young people then began exploring those countries first hand which brought a lot of change for both worlds.

But for people in Jamaica, and other Third World countries, it was also one of the first modern movies to exhibit their new sense of identity. As Island Records founder, the film's co-producer, and the film's soundtrack producer, Chris Blackwell once said, "Around 1972, [Jamaica] started to really become a Jamaican country," as opposed to an English colony, which it had been until a decade earlier. "Their own music contributed a tremendous amount to that," he continued, "and this film contributed a tremendous amount to that. Here was their film up on the screen. There they were real, not like movies which were shot in Jamaica where they play a maid or a cab driver or something. There they were; their stories, their language. And I think that contributed a lot to Jamaica really achieving its own national identity." Filmmaker Perry Henzell concurred, "There is no thrill in moviedom like people seeing themselves on the screen for the first time."

And certainly, its greatest contribution was that it introduced the world to Reggae music. A year after The Harder They Come and its soundtrack were released, the world discovered a new icon - Bob Marley. If the movie and soundtrack hadn't opened that door, Marley wouldn't have been able to step through it. "[W]ithin a year [of the soundtrack being released, you have] Bob Marley first sort of emerging with his album ‘Catch a Fire.’ These two things were like a one-two punch, which really broke Reggae music. There’s no question about it," said Blackwell.

The film was the springboard for Reggae internationally,” said Cliff. “It was the visual to go with the audio, to say here’s a new culture that you’re not used to. People had heard a few songs, but they were novelties. Having seen the film, they could think, 'That’s what it’s all about?'” Yes, the world had heard Jamaican music previously, but it mostly didn't know it. But more on that below in the Background & Context section.

Should we even consider that maybe more people smoked their first joint to a Reggae beat than even Dark Side of the Moon? And let's not forget to mention that former First Lady Laura Bush is a fan of Reggae music. (Go ahead, click the link, I do not make this stuff up.)

Anyways, let's get on to the movie. The Harder They Come is available in several editions at Amazon. There is a Criterion Collection edition which is out of print, and a 2010 edition from Xenon that comes with a CD of the soundtrack as well. Both feature different commentary tracks, and different extras. Both are worth having, I dare say. The film is also rentable from NetFlix.


"Shut your mouth! Hero can't die till last reel!"

Perry Henzell was born and, pretty much, raised in Jamaica. After dropping out of college in Montreal, Canada, he went to London and got a job with the BBC. In 1959, he returned to Jamaica where, in over a decade, he produced and directed over 200 television commercials. Then, in 1969, he decided it was time to make a feature film.

The inspiration for this feature film first came to him while sitting in the Miami Airport waiting for a flight and seeing some Jamaican youth striding through the concourse. Henzell thought to himself, “'These kids have a life. They weren’t bowing to anybody. They were carrying their own vibe through this place.' I thought that Jamaica probably has something at the moment that the world would react to. And I wanted to capture that."

Even though he'd made his living doing commercials, Henzell saw himself as a realist filmmaker, along the lines of Gillo Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers or the works of John Cassavetes and Ken Loach.

I am a fanatic for realism. I really believe that the spontaneous moment on the screen is what makes film, as opposed to theater or anything else.,” he stated (PDF).

"But I felt most realism was boring, very serious," Henzell said elsewhere. "I wanted to make realism lighter. I also realized I couldn't possibly write dialogue that was as good as what I heard people saying all around me. I was interested in capturing that poetry. That's sort of a cinéma vérité technique."

I had to make a basic decision which was," he recalled (PDF), "would I water down the Jamaican realism in the film to try and reach a wider audience. For better or worse, I decided no, I wouldn't, because I feel that the rhythms of speech in the film, and so on in those days, and still [today] to a large degree, I think there's poetry on the street in Jamaican speech.... So I decided to make it as Jamaican as possible.”

Henzell's original dream was to make three films, a trilogy of modern day Jamaica. "One was about the city. One was about the countryside. And the other was about the struggle between the spirit of city and the spirit of the countryside for control of country," Henzell said. "So The Harder They Come was the ‘spirit of the city’ seen through the eyes of a country boy."

"In the late 60's and early 70's," recalled Henzell, "this was a time when the transistor radio was really being spread around the world for the first time. So the people in the countryside - the small farmers, youngsters - were getting music and news from the city on transistor radios. And all over the world, they were being drawn into the cities by the dream of riches and the promises of success. And mostly, it was an illusion."

With his theme worked out, Henzell turned to one of the most famous outlaw stories in Jamaican history, the legend of Ivanhoe 'Rhyging' Martin, as the inspiration for his film's plot.

"I remembered as a child in Jamaica, [he was] a very famous kind of gangster character. When people would mention his name, everybody would be scared. It was one of those things where you’d say, ‘Rhygin’s comin’ to getcha.’ and everyone would run," recalled Blackwell.

"I actually remember the stories of Rhyging," said Barbara Anderson, who played "the housewife" in the film whom Ivan tries to get work from. "Rhyging had only just disappeared when I growing up as a child. He was almost like a mythic figure that the police could never quite catch. And it’s the only figure in my growing up years, a criminal figure, that could almost be seen as a hero."

Vincent Martin came to Kingston from the country as a young boy. In 1938, aged 14, he was arrested for a "vicious attack" on someone, and sentenced to a lashing with a tamarind switch. The corporal punishment apparently had no effect as two years later, he was jailed for 30 days, and three years later, in 1943, he was back in jail for six months, this time for "shop-breaking." When he was released, he started to form a gang, and began picking up monikers such as "Captain Midnight," "Alan Ladd," "Ivanhoe," and "Rhyging." "Rhyging in their jargon means a man who is always on top. To them this snarling, boastful little gunman was top-notcher of the crime-filled west end," wrote one newspaper at the time. Three years later, he was back in jail, and after two years, broke out, and fame and misfortune followed. The newspapers dubbed him "the Two-Gun Killer," and he alluded the police for two years. "Even police officers were afraid of the very mention of his name," one former policeman said. He racked up several murder counts, wrote letters which were published in the newspapers, as well as some photographs of him brandishing his two guns. Eventually, in 1948, he was ambushed, shot and killed. Thousands of people came out to the morgue to try and see his dead body.

Henzell researched Martin's history, even talking to those still around who knew him. He began to write the screenplay, but his first draft was unfocused and lacked a strong dramatic structure. So he turned to acclaimed local playwright Trevor Rhone to help put the script into shape.

Now, with a more structured outline in hand (that had some dialogue, but left a lot of room for improvisation), Henzell managed to raise the money from friends and local sources (including Chris Blackwell) to move forward.

"I either suggested, or was very keen on it, I can’t remember which because it was very long ago, for Jimmy Cliff to play the lead in it," recalled Blackwell. "I was working with a few different artists directly, that I sort of managed as well, but Jimmy Cliff was really the one who projected the most. He was definitely someone who was going to make it, if you know what I mean. He had a very strong drive to make it. I think I felt then, as I still do know, that rather than find a sort of professional actor in a very small country basically, so your professional actors are not people in general who are coming from the street, and so you wanted to get a character who really had a sort of street sensibility to him. You know, once you start to draw from the sort of middle class or the more educated, you start to lose what is really sort of the essence of the Jamaican... trip." The fact that Cliff was under contract to Blackwell also made good business sense for him.

"I spoke to several people and Jimmy seemed to be the most responsive," said Henzell. "I remember looking at an album cover that he had out at the time where he was on the front, facing the camera and he was young and good-looking, and, you know, adventurous. Then on the back cover, there was a profile shot, and he looked like a sufferer. And I thought, if there’s that much change in just an angle with that much range of expression... then that’s a good start. I’ve always cast on the assumption that I was trying to cast people who know more about their role than I do. For example, Jimmy knew about coming into town and trying to record from the farm because he had been through that very thing himself."

"The Harder They Come reflects my life story," said Cliff. "I came from the country to Kingston with the intention of pursuing a career in the music business. I won a few of the talent parades and got my songs recorded.... The only part of the story that doesn’t fit with my own is the outlaw part, the gunman part.”

Henzell cast the rest of the parts with a mix of "real people" and actors. Carl Bradshaw (Jose), Janet Bartley (Elsa), and Winston Stona (the Detective) were actors. But, for example, Bobby Charlton (Hilton, the record producer) was an insurance salesman, and Basil Keane (the Preacher) was a local dentist.

"Sometimes, [Janet] would use some of [her acting] experience, and Perry didn't like that because he'd say 'It wasn't real enough,' he wanted 'the real thing,'" recalled Cliff. "Many times I would do a scene, and instead of [Perry] saying 'I want the scene done this way,' he would say, 'How would you do that?' and I thought that was quite intelligent."

"I'm terrified of actors and actresses," Henzell stated. "To me a film really has to take you into another world, you know. And I want to see that world populated by real people, not by actors playing real people. And somehow you can always tell the difference."

Only a few of the locations were built sets, like Ivan's mother's home. The rest were real locations. "We shot a lot of it down in West Kingston," remembered 1st Assistant Director Robert Russell. "In the ganja yards, that was a real ganja yard with real ganja. As a matter of fact, we had to have a letter from the Commissioner of Police that we all had in our pockets... that if there was a raid... that we were to be released immediately because we were making this film. It was quite funny because we were in close proximity to one of the large police stations there."

But because of time and money factors, as well as Henzell's way of shooting which was to capture the main thrust of a scene, then later when starting to edit, he'd go and shoot any pick-up or insert shots he felt he wanted or needed, as Henzell's daughter Justine noted, “It took three years, four different shoots with three different cinematographers, countless script rewrites, and numerous edits and editors before The Harder They Come premiered.”

For trivia buffs, often when Henzell needed to shoot some inserts of Ivan and Cliff was unavailable, another great Jamaican singer (and Island Records artist), Alton "The Godfather of Rocksteady" Ellis, was his body double.

And it should be noted that the Jamaican record industry as depicted in the movie, "was very accurate to how it existed and how it still exists in most third-world countries," Blackwell noted. "Because, when you know there are a lot of distributors and a lot of options, then things change for the artist. But when there is only one sort of place you can go to, or a just couple of places, the supply and demand doesn’t work on behalf of the artist."

But in the motion picture business, even having many distributors is often not always helpful for an artist, which Henzell found once the film was finally completed. Though first, Henzell had to get past the official Jamaican film censor which at first banned the film. Now remember, Barbara Anderson, who played "the Housewife" in the film? Well, she was Henzell's secretary and assistant, as well as being an actress. And by 1972, when the film was completed, she was on her way to becoming the 4th wife of Michael Manley, the Prime Minister of Jamaica. So, Henzell arranged a private screening for the PM, and the censor's ban was lifted. The film was an instantaneous hit on the island. The film was also well-received initially in Europe, winning awards at both the Cork and Venice Film Festivals, at the latter it took the Best New Cinema Award.

However, when Henzell brought the film to Los Angeles' FILMEX Festival, all the studios and distributors wanted to see it, but none wanted to buy it. "Nobody would take it," Henzell recalled. "They'd never heard of Reggae music, and nobody was interested in black people in Jamaica."

Finally, Roger Corman stepped in and offered Henzell a US distribution deal with his New World Pictures. But Corman released the picture, first in New York, as a blaxploitation film (see poster). (And you can't blame the guy, after all exploitation defines Corman.) Henzell was outraged by this and stepped in. He recalled, "We wrote all the advertising [for its Boston engagement] and it opened and ran for seven years there. If I had not been personally in control of it, it would have died before it ever came alive" (see other poster).

For the next six years, Henzell personally, like a crusade, carried the film country to country - 43 countries in all - negotiating to get distribution deals, and was finally able to pay back his investors and break even. “Time and time again, everywhere, the film would just have died without a lot of hard work," he said. For example, in Italy, Henzell was told that "nobody here is interested in reggae." Eventually, he got an Italian distributor in 1979. "Bob [Marley] came in a year later and played to 100,000 people. [This] happened over and over again."

Now here comes the sad coda to this story. In the late 70's, Henzell began work on the second part of his Jamaican trilogy which would be entitled No Place Like Home. It was a story about an American film crew who come to Jamaica to film a commercial. Because of his realist filmmaking style, he found it nearly impossible to find backers. "Every time I tried to explain my working method to financiers, the first question was always, 'Where is the script?' When they discovered there was no script, eyes glazed over and checkbooks closed, in spite of the fact that I thought the footage I was showing them was the best work I had ever done," recalled Henzell. The film starred Carl Bradshaw (whom you remember played Jose in The Harder They Come) and PJ Soles. It also co-starred a young Grace Jones.

It took him 10 years, but Henzell did finish No Place Like Home. However in 1987, somehow, the negative was lost before it could ever be seen. Henzell claimed the storage facility in New York misplaced it. This I find highly suspect, but I don't think we'll ever know what really happened. (There is another tall tale told that Henzell was so stoned that he left the negative in a cab in New York.) "Eventually I went completely broke, into debt, to the point where I had to abandon the film business in favor of writing novels in the hills of Jamaica."," Henzell said. He indeed spent the next few years writing a critically-acclaimed novel, The Power Game.

Then, 30 years later, in 2006, a print of the film was found in a lab in New York. But by this time, Henzell had been diagnosed with cancer. He was in the middle of overseeing a theatrical production of The Harder They Come, but continued working as his physical health deteriorated on the restoration of No Place Like Home, and the night before it would have its premiere in Kingston, Henzell passed away.

A final note that, it has been recently announced that Henzell's daughter is co-producing a remake of The Harder They Come, to shoot sometime in 2012.


[Note: Read the following in a Casey Kasem voice.]

The first Reggae song to hit the pop charts in the US was (I bet you didn't guess this!) a cover of the 1950's Doo-Wop single My Boy Lollipop, by Jamaican singer Millie Small in 1964 (which was produced by Chris Blackwell). Desmond Dekker also gave us a taste of Jamaica with his 1968 chart-topper, The Israelites. Even the Beatles had scored with their Reggae-infused recording Obla-Di Obla-Da in 1969 (in which they name singer Desmond Dekker in the lyrics in tribute).

Now let's turn to Houston, Texas and singer/songwriter Johnny Nash, who had gone to Jamaica in 1968 and fell for their music. That year, 1968, recorded in Kingston, and backed by Byron Lee (one of the founding fathers of Ska), Nash had an American hit on his hands with Hold Me Tight. Nash was also the first to sign Peter Tosh & Bob Marley to a recording contract, but none of the songs he produced for them found an audience in 1972 - which was just when The Harder They Come was first being released. But at that same session with Tosh & Marley, Nash recorded the song he's best known for - I Can See Clearly Now, which - and now here's where it all comes back around - none other than Jimmy Cliff took back to the charts in 1993).

But it took The Harder They Come to make us take notice of what was being grown there in Jamaica, musically speaking. And here we are today, over a quarter century later, and Reggae, Ska, and Rocksteady beats can be heard interpreted by musicians on every corner of, and in every culture around the globe.

[Note: stop using Casey Kasem voice now.]

[*] It should also be noted that Johnny Nash had a brief turn as an actor and co-starred with Dennis Hopper in director Phil Karlson's 1960 juvenile delinquent crime film, Key Witness.


When I first came up with the idea of doing Chef du Cinema, The Harder They Come was one of the first films I thought about doing. So I'm really glad I'm finally able to get around to do it, especially as a class.

I've never been to Jamaica, though about 20 years ago I was planning to, then a friend-of-a-friend was murdered there and I opted to go to Trinidad instead. But just last week, a good friend telephoned who had coincidentally (a) just came back from Jamaica with his wife and is considered buying a little place there, and (b) spent an entire day speaking with Sally Henzel, Perry's widow. So who knows I may make it down there soon enough.

Now let us be clear - the Habanero and the Scotch Bonnet chiles are two different peppers. They are not the same. Both chiles' heat comes at between 100K-350K on the Scoville scale. So, in essence, they are interchangeable. But the Habanero is indigenous to Mexico and Central America, whereas the Scotch Bonnet (named because it looked like the Tam O'Shanter hat to the over-imaginative early British inhabitants) is indigenous to the Caribbean islands (though today it is also found in West Africa and its cuisine). But just don't ever say they are the same thing or the chile gods will rain some kind of awful punishment upon you.

Now allspice (also called Jamaica pepper, kurundu, myrtle pepper, pimenta, or newspice) is native to the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America. The name "allspice" was given to it by the English colonialists who thought it combined the flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves.

The history of food in Jamaica follows the history of those who came to the island. The first Pre-Columbians (known as Tainos) brought a variety of foods including, peppers, guavas, cassava, sweet potatoes, corn, beans, and pineapple (the Spanish took the pineapple to Hawaii in the 1800's). The Spaniards brought bananas, bees to make honey, and citrus trees. Both Barbados and Jamaica lay claim to where the first grapefruit was born. Spanish Jews brought dishes which have come to be considered local, including escovitch fish (escabeche) and the gizzada (also known as pinch me rounds). The Portuguese brought saltcod, known as saltfish locally. Saltfish is typically served together with Ackee, which was probably brought by slave ships from Africa, which also brought African cooking techniques and spices - and is known as the "national dish of Jamaica." The Jamaican Patty, another local dish, was a reinvention of the turnover, introduced by the English. The Spaniards also brought with them cattle, pigs, goats, sheep, horses and poultry. Jamaica Red cattle is a breed developed on the island. The Chinese brought bok choi and soy sauce into the cuisine, and the Indians contributed curries and rotis.

So, put on some Reggae tunes, boil yourself up a pot of hot pepper shrimp, then settle back with The Harder They Come. As always, it's cook, watch, eat and enjoy! Jah, mon!

Jamaican Hot Pepper Shrimp
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

Serves 6 as appetizer

1 pound medium-sized shrimp, deveined & shell-on
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
2 tablespoons garlic, minced
3 scallions, cut into thin rings (green & white parts)
2 Scotch Bonnet or Habanero peppers, seeded & deveined (optional), minced
2 teaspoons ground allspice
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 teaspoon thyme leaf
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 cup water
1 tablespoon butter, unsalted
3 teaspoons cider vinegar

Wash shrimp and put in nonreactive bowl. Add lemon juice and turmeric powder, toss. Let sit, meanwhile chop scallions, habaneros, and garlic. Add to shrimp along with salt, thyme, cayenne, black pepper. Let sit for 15 minutes.

Heat pot and add in shrimp and all marinade. When it starts to sizzle, stir a few times, then add water. Bring water to boil, lower temperature, and cover for about 5 minutes.

When shrimp is cooked, add butter and cider vinegar, stir to melt butter. You can either serve right away, or let cool to near room temperature and serve. (If using as main course, serve over rice.)

NOTE: Typically, on the streets of Jamaica, you can buy this dish and it comes in a plastic bag. So, if you want to be authentic, divvy up the shrimp in plastic bags and serve them thusly.

Official The Harder They Come Xenon DVD Release website
The Harder They Come, by Michael Dare @ Criterion
Speak Jamaican Glossary of Words, Expressions, and Slang
The Harder They Come Dialogue Transcript
The Harder They Come DVD Review, by Michael Sragow @ Salon
The Story of Rhygin': The Two Gun Killer @ The Jamaican Observer
A Reign of Terror, by C Roy Reynolds @ The Jamaica Gleaner
A History of Jamaican Food @ Ethnic Spicy Food
The Harder They Come, The Musical website

The Harder They Come DVD (includes Soundtrack CD), Xenon Edition
The Harder They Come DVD, The Criterion Collection
The Harder They Come Soundtrack
Power Game (Macmillan Caribbean Writers), by Perry Henzell
The Real Taste of Jamaica, by Enid Donaldson

1 comment:

  1. Oh I miss midnight cinemas. I used to live 2 doors down from one such theatre. I moved. Sucks now.