Reggae on Film: from the streets to the dancehall to the screen



On August 6 1962, Jamaica declared independence from colonial Britain. The new flag had a St Andrew’s cross designed in gold and green (symbolic perhaps of hoped-for rebirth) and black (in recognition of the hardships of Jamaica’s slave plantation past). What the Colonial Office described as an “orderly transition” to self-government was, however, deceptive.

Beyond the bunting and float parades of the great independence party simmered a volatile brew of nationalist pride and pan-African activism. Queen Elizabeth II was upheld as the Caribbean island’s sovereign, but African Jamaican historical figures who had been denigrated or ignored by the British administration — the rebel Baptist preachers Sam Sharpe and Paul Bogle, the political activist Marcus Garvey — were made semi-official national heroes. Jamaican roots reggae, with its Garveyite back-to-Africa ideology, offered hope of deliverance to “downpressed” Jamaicans and encouraged a generation of British-born black West Indians to embrace a part of their heritage — Africa — that their parents had often shunned.

To mark 60 years of Jamaican independence, the BFI Southbank’s From Jamaica to the World: Reggae on Film season explores reggae’s relationship to cinema. Music is a serious business in Jamaica and the season covers all aspects of reggae culture in film, from fashion to sport to dance to the dancehallese sublanguage (“buffilous”, “batty riders”) that permeates the capital of Kingston downtown.

Curated by Lloyd Bradley, author of the books Bass Culture and Sounds Like London, the season explores, among other things, potent US-Jamaican musical exchanges. Dancehall — the digitalised reggae that Jamaicans sometimes call ragga or Yardcore — significantly influenced hip-hop with its deejay-styles of delivery known as “toasting” (scatting and talking over reggae records while moving the crowds).

The British Home Office has denied entry to some Jamaican dancehall singers because of their homophobic lyrics, most infamously Beenie Man (“I’m dreaming of a new Jamaica, come to execute all the gays”). Yet some dancehall singers, with their shaved eyebrows, diamond earrings and carefully manicured nails, present an almost Gloria Swanson-like queenly image of adornment. Dancehall Queen (1997), directed by Don Letts and Rick Elgood, claims reggae as the musical voice of Jamaica, just as rai is the musical voice of Algeria or flamenco that of Spain — a trance-inducing music out of Africa.



A high point of the season is the 50th anniversary re-release of Jamaica’s most famous film, The Harder They Come (1972). Starring the reggae singer Jimmy Cliff as the Ned Kelly-like bandit Ivan Martin, the film is, among other things, a documentary, bleakly fixed in the ghettos of western Kingston. Perry Henzell, the director, a white Jamaican who had been educated at a public school in England, was a devotee of the Italian neo-realist school of film-making (Bicycle Thieves, Bitter Rice), and he brought a raw, unpolished immediacy to Jamaican cinema.



The soundtrack, put together by Henzell in under a week, in effect introduced reggae to college audiences abroad. Reggae would not have flourished outside Jamaica in the way it did without the soundtrack album. Nightclubs and wine bars in mid-1970s London and New York often rang out with the Slickers’ “Johnny Too Bad”, Desmond Dekker’s “007 (Shanty Town)” and other numbers from the film. Henzell’s trailblazing movie helped pave the way for Bob Marley’s success soon after.

Prior to The Harder They Come, Marley had been given only minimal airplay on BBC radio, and the British music press was hardly enthusiastic. Reggae was “kind of monotonous” and “black music being prostituted”, Melody Maker quoted Deep Purple and the Edgar Broughton Band as saying. In 1984, apparently on account of its harping on Africa and repatriation to Africa, Morrissey of the Smiths announced that “all reggae is vile”. (Bizarrely, in October 2007, British Conservatives adopted Jimmy Cliff’s rousing “The Harder They Come” as a Tory anthem, thus endorsing, albeit unwittingly, the crime habits of a Jamaican rude boy drug entrepreneur.) Henzell’s film was part-financed by the Island Records founder-boss Chris Blackwell, who saw in Cliff’s rebel screen image a means to promote his latest “discovery”, Bob Marley.

Marley’s life (he died of cancer in 1981, aged 36) is chronicled in Esther Anderson and Gian Godoy’s 2011 documentary Bob Marley: The Making of a Legend. For many non-Jamaicans, Marley is reggae, but the cult of Holy Bob the “Rock Reggae King” is problematic. The first Bob Marley and the Wailers album produced by Blackwell, Catch a Fire (1973), was a Jamaican-American hybrid, whose hard-driving Kingston rhythms had been overlaid in a London studio with mellow denim-rock guitar solos.



Unsurprisingly, Catch a Fire was largely ignored by Britain’s black Rastafari reggae community. The Harrow-educated Blackwell was “Chris Whiteworst” to Peter Tosh, the firebrand Wailer member whose story is told in Nicholas Campbell’s 1992 film Steppin’ Razor: Red X.



The word reggae, originally spelt “reggay”, first appeared in 1968 with a Leslie Kong-produced hit called “Do the Reggay” by Toots & the Maytals and is believed to be of African — possibly Yoruban — origin. A string of magnificent Afro-centric roots reggae albums emerged in 1970s Jamaica. The most righteous of them — Satta Massagana by the Abyssinians — was quoted by the Clash on their London Calling album. The music radiated a hymnal, incantatory vibe that few punk bands of the time could hope to emulate. Franco Rosso’s Babylon (1980) and Menelik Shabazz’s coming-of-age film Burning an Illusion (1981) unfold amid London’s black community at a time of Metropolitan Police strip-searches and Linton Kwesi Johnson’s incendiary “dub” reggae poetry.


A taste of Trench Town Kingston swagger was brought to inner-city Britain by the UK Trojan record label, which promoted ska, an upbeat, calypso-influenced dance music that originated in the early 1960s as a Caribbean twist on Motown and rhythm and blues (“upside-down R&B”, the Jamaican reggae guitarist Ernest Ranglin called it.) Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records (2018), by Nicolas Jack Davies, looks at how sharp-suited Mods and, later, skinheads embraced ska as part of their diet of imported American soul. Ska was, triumphantly, a Commonwealth music, whose rackety hop, skip and jump rhythms brought white and black Britons briefly together.



Rastafari, born in interwar Jamaica of a Garveyite-Revivalist religiosity, was given impetus and a cause by Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia. Lion of Judah, War in Ethiopia, Lutz Becker’s 1975 documentary, contains rare footage of Fascist Italy’s plundering of Haile Selassie’s kingdom. To Rastafari, King Emperor Selassie was a black Christ figure and bulwark against “Babylon” (oppressive colonial society).



In Jamaica, as elsewhere in the English-speaking West Indies, Rastafarians were for many years maligned as work-shy, narcotically impaired troublemakers. Roy T Anderson’s African Redemption: The Life and Legacy of Marcus Garvey (2021) casts a sometimes critical eye on the Jamaican “Black Moses” figure whose messianic notions of Africa and black race-consciousness powerfully influenced Rastafari culture.

The BFI season celebrates the work of a number of forgotten Jamaica enthusiasts. Theodoros “Ted” Bafaloukos, the New York-based photographer and screenwriter, was so impressed by The Harder they Come that he decided to make a reggae film of his own. Rockers (1978), a full-length feature made on a budget of $250,000, was shot by Bafaloukos in Jamaica at a time of murderous political gang warfare, and starred a number of well-known reggae singers and musicians, from the drummer Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace to Winston Rodney of Burning Spear, Gregory Isaacs, Big Youth and Jacob Miller. Bafaloukos (who died in 2016) showed roots reggae culture at its peak before the advent of dancehall with its computerised keyboards and preset drum machines. Nattily dressed youths in their tracksuits and Rasta tams hang out in the zinc-fenced shanties and ganja-yards of western Kingston while reggae booms from giant loudspeaker cabinets. The history and mythology of the Jamaican people are fabulously revealed in the heavy musical beat.


This article first appeared in the Financial Times on 30 July 2022