He couldn't have known the effect that the film had on me. He couldn't have known that when I was writing my novel Benjamin, my son, I wanted to translate to the page the gritty realism I saw in The Harder They Come. The film captured the mood of the country and the dread times we were living through, and many of the writers who grew up during the seventies in Jamaica owe an incredible debt to Henzell because he made us see a Jamaica that many of us, growing up in places like Mona Heights and Hope Pastures, never knew existed. Henzell's characters humanized the ghetto for us, and the reality that many of our classmates at Jamaica College who lived in places like Stand Pipe, Trench Town, and around Olympic Way, became real. The characters also looked, walked, danced, skanked, and cursed like us. In some ways, it was us "up there in the flim" (no, it's not a typo). Which was why I marveled at the sheer brilliance of the movie when Henzell broke through the "fourth wall" and showed us ourselves in the theater watching the movie and watching ourselves. I don't think I will ever experience a moment like that in film again.
Of course, I hadn’t seen The Harder They Come when it was released in Jamaica. I was too young, it was rated R, and my church-going mother would never have allowed me to see it. But I remember a week later a friend of mine, Keith, who was older and got to see all those movies came back, and acted the entire film--some scenes word for word. Through Keith’s eyes and acting, I experienced movies such as For A Few Dollars More, Dirty Harry and Smile Orange. There were even a few times that Keith’s interpretation was better than the original.
When I moved to Miami, I eventually saw The Harder They Come, and for once Keith had been undone. Jimmy Cliff as Ivan had that star quality that made me want to watch every scene that he was in and I waited in anticipation for him to enter. Jimmy Cliff exuded that bravura that we all wanted to have even when facing a sure death, "Star cyaan dead till the last reel."
It was Perry Henzell’s vision and pioneering spirit that brought to life the ordeals that many Jamaican singers/artists and by extension Caribbean artists must confront: the neglect by recording/publishing companies who prefer to exploit ruthlessly the talents of the artists rather than nurturing their talents. The Harder They Come became the metaphor for the plight of many Caribbean artists, and it took the courage of Perry Henzell to believe that it could be done and to make his vision, despite the obstacles, a reality.
Give thanks, Perry Henzell!