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The 1972 film, The Harder They Come by Perry Henzell, did more than deliver Jamaican music to the world.  It played a pivotal role in the synthesis of black music and film, creating a spaghetti western/blaxpoitation style while at the same time providing a detailed social commentary of a world unknown to those outside its enclosure. These were the experiences of Caribbean people in a time of enhanced social mobility and political displacement. The tale of a poor disenfranchised youth from the Jamaican countryside coming to Kingston to make a life was a story with which many black people throughout the Diaspora could identify.

The main character Ivan O'Martin (based on a real-life Jamaican anti-hero, Rhygin, who shot and killed a number of policeman in the 1950s) arrives in 'town' (Kingston) from rural Jamaica, equipped only with his suitcase, radio, and lyrics to make a hit song.  He has big dreams, big hopes and big aspirations.  Boy, can Ivan sing!  His song is destined to become a hit and has the whole island dancing.  However, Ivan feels he does not receive the financial rewards due to him for his artistry, nor the social recognition from his peers which he thought stardom would bring. Quickly, he sees his dreams diminishing before him. He becomes disenchanted and disillusioned with the music scene and the cut-throat nature of the industry, and, as a result, Ivan 'gets rotten 'and decides to rebel against those whom he sees as exploiting him: namely the whole of society.

He becomes an outlaw. Drug trafficking becomes his modus operandi and he turns into a cop killer. Ironically, this allows him to become the star he had always set out to be. The airwaves and dancehalls, both uptown and down town, are playing his song.  Record promoters and producers want to book him, men suddenly respect him and request his company, and women adore him. The milk and honey which Ivan longed for is now firmly in his grasp. To cite classical sociology, Ivan uses illegitimate actions in order to achieve legitimate goals.

The rude boy symbolized by the character of Ivan was real, typified by the disenfranchised youth of Jamaica at the time of post independence. The rude boy was tough and rough and had a dislike for authority or law and order which they believed were responsible for their marginalization. As a consequence their aim was to take whatever they wanted, regardless of the cost. Songs such as 'Cry Tough' by Alton Ellis, 'Tougher than Tough' by Derrick Morgan, and '007' by Desmond Dekker and the Aces, chronicled the rise of the rude boy.

The Harder They Come played a pivotal role in my growing up as a black youth of Caribbean descent in Thatcher's Britain. The early eighties was the first time I remember seeing the movie screened on the recently introduced Channel 4.  Channel 4, at the time, was considered rather avant garde, as they often commissioned screenings of 'alternative' feature films which appealed to the black British community (regardless of being shown a 3am!)  Along with Henzell's work, I recall Rockers, Black Joy, and the classic Babylon. The Harder They Come was great, because, at last, it was something which we as Caribbean people could relate to. Sub-titles were thrown in for good measure. 

Fast forward a couple of decades and the entertainment factor of the film is no longer of primary importance to me. I am aware that this is not a movie simply to watch with family and friends in order to 'catch two joke.'  The message which the film carries should be taken seriously, especially given the problems which face black men globally. The story of Ivan 'O' Martin which is so candidly played by Jimmy Cliff is transferable to the point that it could be the life story of many black men in 2006.

The windows of opportunity which are open to black men in order to effectively express themselves are increasingly becoming restricted. This can be attributed to a cocktail of factors such as poverty, discrimination and class bias, all of which have a diminishing effect on self perception, self esteem and self respect. Although the economy of Great Britain has improved over the last ten years, the polarisation of the haves and have-nots in Blair's Britain has undoubtedly increased. As a consequence, we see the emergence of a new voiceless class within society which has seemingly been excluded from the 'mainstream.'  A significant number of this voiceless class are black and working class men. 

Much quantitative research highlights the fact that black men in particular still face huge difficulties in institutions of education, work, and criminal justice. In simple terms, to be black and working class means to face double discrimination. Black men are 2.5 times more likely to be unemployed than a white male. Black men with degrees are 7 times more likely to be unemployed than white men and a black man is 5 times more likely than a white man to be stopped by police.  Unfortunately, many forget that institutionalized racism does not only exist in the police force but also in many, if not all, of society's institutions. What of multiculturalism, I hear you ask?  We are constantly reminded that England is a multi racial society where the majority of players in the football team have kinship ties emerging from the Windrush era. These people should be reminded of the fact that there still are many parts of the country where black people are either at one extreme seen as a novelty, or at the other extreme as deeply suspect.

What becomes apparent is that black men are in search of respect: respect which many of them believe society has taken from them. They want to be heard and acknowledged, without having to adopt deviant patterns of behaviour to do so. However, as the mantra of society has become 'you are what you own,' and the dichotomy between rich and poor has widened, some feel the only manner in which so-called success can be achieved is to bend the rules. Unfortunately, for those who decide to take this route, the costs are high. Many, like Ivan, believe that if 'you live by the gun you will win by the gun.’  This is simply not true, as many gifted and talented individuals are losing their way as a result of 'a search for respect' from others. If the only place where the many Ivan O' Martins of the world can find success and feel respected is within the role of playing the rude boy, then this needs to be addressed seriously, as sometime the hero does indeed die before the last reel.

Given the importance of the film to so many and on so many levels, Stratford East was brave to turn it into a stage adaptation. And they have been vindicated in doing so. It is a great production with flawless acting and fantastic music. Jimmy Cliff himself is rumoured to be very pleased with the results and the run is nearly sold out. My only reservation with this production is that the underlying moral of the story should never be lost amongst the hype. This is a serious story with a serious message which raises some immediate and urgent questions in my mind. Will the youth of Britain see the parallels between Ivan O'Martin and themselves? Will the youth be able to learn from its message?

Kenny Monrose is a PhD student at the University of Essexkmonro@essex.ac.uk

1st June 2006

Is The Harder They Come Hard Enough?
By Kenny Monrose