April 23, 2012

Kevin MacDonald's Marley: Rejection and Redemption

I fell asleep crying. On Friday night, I watched Kevin MacDonald's Marley from the comfort of my bed as rain from a sudden thunderstorm lashed the Orange Geiger I'd received from Miami's Adopt-a-Tree program--my small contribution to the reduction of greenhouse gases.

As I fell under the spell of the Marley story, which I thought I knew from Bob's birth in Nine Mile to his death in Miami, I soon learned I was in for a few surprises. For when I saw the image of Bob at the clinic in Bavaria and learned for the first time that he had suffered a stroke and couldn't hold a pick to play his guitar, I bawled uncontrollably. I still haven't figured out why. Could it have been the appearance of rain lilies on my front lawn, an omen of thunderstorms that reminded me of my father? Or my identification with Bob's experience of growing up in Jamaica as a so-called "brown man" as Seeco used to call me?

Either way, what emerges from Marley is a story of an artist who relentlessly synthesized the contradictions of received wisdom with his experiences into potent lyrics that combined the utopian vision of Rastafari with the quotidian realities of the sufferahs. What also surfaces from the interviews are the recurrent themes of rejection and abandonment.

From the opening scene in Ghana at the "Door of No Return" from which sixty million Africans were forcibly exiled to the final scene of Bob's burial at Nine Mile, Kevin MacDonald weaves the ideas of rejection and abandonment throughout the film.

Bob's life was emblematic of the kinds of rejection that biracials or "half-castes," as Bob was called by his tormentors, faced. "He wasn't teased, he was rejected!" Bunny Wailer emphatically affirmed. Yet from this seeming disadvantage, Bob gained the strength as Allan "Skill" Cole described it, to write the biblically inspired "Cornerstone.":

The stone that the builders refused
Will always be the head cornerstone

Bob's rejections came early. His father, Norval Marley, himself a misfit of sorts, abandoned Bob's mother, Cedella Booker, when he learned about her pregnancy. Although it is not mentioned in the film, Cedella, too, would also abandon Bob. As Don Taylor, Bob's former manager, in Marley and Me stated: "Abandoned by his mother had an early age when she moved to Spanish town to live with a Chinese man, Bob attended Stepney School in St. Ann" (33). Other rejections would follow. When Bob was seventeen, he was dating a girl named Esther. Stephen Davis in Bob Marley reported that Esther's older brother put an end to the relationship by confronting Bob: "We don't want no white man in our breed" (36).

The film also documents interviews with Bob's half-sister, Constance, and her cousin, Peter Marley. Prior to the interview, both were ignorant of the inspiration behind "Cornerstone." Although the film describes the encounter, Marley and Me gives a fuller account of the incident between Cecil Marley, Peter's father, and Bob: "The only contact Bob ever had with the Marley family he told me was when he visited his uncle, a lawyer on Duke Street, and tried to borrow £300 pounds to produce a record. The uncle, one Cecil Marley, not only unceremoniously threw Bob out of his office, he also called the police" (33).

This constant rejection instead of the demoralizing Bob, forced him to rely on his intuitive talents and to become the best version of himself. Curiously, it also led Bob to seek the protection of mentors such as Clement "Coxsone" Dodd, Joe Higgs, Lee "Scratch" Perry, and Mortimer Planno, the charismatic Rastafari elder. It may also explain Bob's conversion to Rastafari as Neville Garrick explains: "In the belief or knowledge of Haile Selassie, Bob found his real father which he never really knew."

One of the ironies of the film is that it relies heavily on the narratives of those, who for one reason or another, had a falling out with Bob or whose integrity had been impugned, at least for ardent fans, by others. For example, Bunny Wailer left the Wailers as he explained in Maureen Sheridan's Soul Rebel, "for spiritual reasons"(33). Cedella Booker prior to her abandoning Bob when he was seventeen had told him, according to Soul Rebel, "God is the father of the fatherless" (28). Neville Garrick's reliability was also questioned by Don Taylor in Marley and Me: "Neville Garrick was never on Bob's account nor involved in any of Bob's business… Some people will no doubt think me wrong to say that Neville Garrick was not an insider. But I know for a fact that Garrick had no personal relationship with Bob Marley" (221).

Besides the obvious fact that Taylor's book attempts to settle old scores, Kevin Macdonald's film is not about Bob's business dealings. It is a film based on interviews with people who knew Bob at his best and worst: Rita Marley, Cindy Breakspeare, Alan "Skill" Cole, Desi Smith, Lloyd "Bread" McDonald, and of course, Neville Garrick, whose connection with Bob has been verified by every known biographer of Bob, including Cedella Booker in Bob Marley, My Son. Bob's interview with Dermot Hussey on Talkin' Blues also attests to their long-term relationship: "See all Garrick there, him is the man who run the light. Make him tell you how hard me work."

Neville Garrick was there from the start of Bob's career building sets and running lights, mixing the sound for the concert in Zimbabwe, to witnessing Bob's internment at Nine Mile.

Another irony is that Bob rejected the advice of Cindy Breakspeare, who told him, "Come home to St Ann...and if you end up in the same place at the end of it, at least you will have had some comfort in your few last months on earth."

I can understand why Bob didn't follow her advice. To have done so would have been to admit defeat, and Bob was a fighter to the very end. As he told Neville Garrick, “I’m going to beat this thing.” 

As the final credits of the film rolled, I turned down the volume, then turned off the television, and fell asleep. The image of Bob, shorn of his locks and looking pale and weak, burned into my dreams.

On Saturday morning, I was awakened to the sound of a mockingbird trilling outside my window, and quite by chance, my daughter singing "No More Trouble" as she watched the news on CNN.

I looked out the window. The rain lilies were still there. The orange geiger was still standing after the onslaught of wind and rain. It had survived.


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