November 30, 2006

Give Thanks, Perry Henzell

Perry HenzellPerry Henzell, the director of The Harder They Come, made his transition today. I met him only once at a Calabash reading at Red Bones and he was still fiery, opinionated, and irascible. I loved it. I shook his hand, thanked him for the film (he must have heard this a million times), and moved on. To him, I was just another fan.

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!



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Stephen A. Bess said...

Besides Bob Marley I think that Jimmy Cliff was the second Jamaican I was introduced to. I don't know how, but I heard his name in the wind somewhere?? That's back when I thought that anyone with a Caribbean accent was from Jamaica. lol! :)
I've never heard of the director or this movie, but I'm sure that he made many Jamaicans proud. There's nothing like seeing your true everday life portrayed on the big screen. One might recognize a street or a corner and become excited! It's great! Peace to that brother!

Anonymous said...

Hi Geoffrey, I was a sixth form student at JC, from 74 to 76, same time as you. I read your post about "The Harder They Come" and thought that I would share a little irony with you: I too did English Literature at A-level and love the written word, but also have a scientific leaning. After JC, I went on to UWI, doing a BSc., concentrating on marine biology. After graduating, I worked at the Discovery Bay Marine Lab and became involved in a manned submersible project that later turned into a business, taking tourists on deep excursions, first in Jamaica, then in the Cayman Islands. To cut a very long story short, in 1985, I discovered the wreck of the Kirk Pride, a small freighter, lying at 800ft off George Town, Grand Cayman. This ship sank in 1976, and I have been told that it is the vessel that Jimmy Cliff swam out to at the end of the movie. The discovery and subsequent publicity was a huge factor in the success of our company, so even though our paths have greatly diverged, there is a common thread!

Geoffrey Philp said...

The Internet and the way it creates community never cease to amaze me.


Anonymous said...

I'm sorry (for myself) I haven't yet seen the film. But I'll fix this pronto, and let you know in what way I enjoyed it.

Geoffrey Philp said...

The Harder They Come was also shown in subtitles in some places. It's agreat introduction to one side of Jamaica and it's a great story.

But it's only one side. This is why I sometimes get frustrated because there are so many stories to be told about Jamaica, so many Jamaicas that exist, and publishers only want the one Jamaica that they have created in their minds or the one they want to portray for the Tourist Board.

But, we press on!


Anonymous said...

Yes, Geoffrey. your story of a friend acting out the movies you couldn't see is wonderful. i've seen the harder.. abt 7 times myself. and showed the video to classes over and over, translating for the unwilling, never fast forwarding. interestingly, Earl Lovelace's soon to be published novel it's just a movie features a character who refuses to die the simple way the director tells him to. Peace to Perry.


Anonymous said...

Here is a transcript of an editorial that Winston Barnes delivered on WAVS Radio on December 1, 2006.

Yesterday morning at four o’clock, a Jamaican icon passed from this life, but he left a single body of work that will continue his legacy for all time.

Seventy-year-old Perry Henzell, a white Jamaican, thirty-four years ago gave not only Jamaica, but also the world, one of the finest movies ever made. This was not just a movie that took its base from the story of a Jamaican bad man called “Rhygin”. It was also a movie that chronicled Jamaica’s evolving popular music form that in turn brought the music itself to the entire universe.

In the first year after its release, I viewed the movie seven times. A cinema in Boston showed it continuously for close to three years, stopped for a while, only to exhibit it again, indefinitely. I was thrilled in the late 1980s to chat with Perry Henzell at a house party in Plantation.

The fact this movie showed scenes like the Kingston “Dungle” made some people uncomfortable, but this was a structurally sound movie that was also a social document. It was the best attempt, then, to delineate the connection between the lives of poor Jamaicans and the relief from that poverty offered by music! Something we now understand much better

The only entity that did more for Reggae’s internationalization was Robert Marley, himself. For that reason, alone we give thanks for Perry Henzell and his classic The Harder They Come. But we also give thanks because Perry Henzell confirms Jamaica’s motto, “Out of Many, One People”.

Winston F. Barnes, a veteran radio and television broadcaster, has worked in various markets (Jamaica, New Jersey, and South Florida) for the past thirty-eight years. He is currently the News Director/talk show host for WAVS Radio, and a freelance writer on Jamaica popular entertainment. Winston is preparing his first book, My Music, a history of Reggae's evolution through the eyes of someone who helped it on the way.

Anonymous said...

Geoffrey, thanks for broadcasting this news. I heard it first from you. If it weren't for Perry Henzell, Harder, and Island records, the world would be at a loss for reggae vibes and the true grit of what it means to be Jamaican. Thanks, Jeff at

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Jeff,
It's good to hear from you!
I found out at about 1pm and only because I'm on mailing list with his publicist. I'd decided that I wasn't going to say anything,and went with my son to his orthodontist. But then the queries started to come in and finally I gave in and wrote the piece at about 8pm.

Yeah, Perry Henzell was a great Jamaican and an even greater artist/writer.

Take care, my friend

Anonymous said...

yeh mon - luv ure blog. found yuh as I search for Perry Henzell. HTC was a GREAT Jamaican film indeed. but, also see Country Man! bout a fisherman cum super hero! a few classic Jamaican actors bow in. light and fun film. (suppressing mi grammar a bit, killin my articles, iydm!)

I'm also a new fan of Craig Brewer who reminds me of Henzell a lot in that (they) are white men who certainly respect their Negro bretheren. inshallah.

-God Hafiz!

Geoffrey Philp said...

creativemf, I will check out Country Man and Craig Brewer.

& Welcome!