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The Harder They Come review – a searing mix of politics, realism, chaos, and music

Jimmy Cliff stars and sings in this 1972 blaxploitation classic, now on re-release, about a country boy on a crime spree in Kingston

The standard narrative around The Harder They Come presents it as a captivating and grimy crime flick that also helped catapult Jamaican reggae to a wider worldwide audience, a film in which Jimmy Cliff – also its star – takes centre stage, courtesy of his soaring tenor. At the time of its release, the movie, made on a shoestring budget in a country without much of a film industry, was primarily marketed and presented as a blaxploitation film, along the lines of Shaft and Super Fly (two films whose soundtracks are also part of their appeal), pulling in many of the sub-genre's tropes.

None of that is untrue, but it also does a disservice to the radical anti-capitalist and liberationist message at the heart of the film. The Harder They Come tells the story of Ivanhoe (Cliff), a country boy who comes to the big city, eventually starting a crime spree that becomes infamous. We’ve seen that basic structure plenty: what really separates this film is director Perry Henzell’s interest in the textures and sounds of Kingston, deploying a DIY, hand-held shooting style, combined with fragmented, elliptical editing that has far more in common with the wider Third Cinema movement that was taking place across Latin America at the same time – a furiously politically-motivated cinema that took no prisoners.

Appropriately, Ivanhoe’s journey is pockmarked by rampant corruption, overgrown capitalism and colonial hangovers (Jamaica at this point had been independent for less than a decade). The centrepiece of the film is the title track – an uplifting paean to struggle and self-determination at all costs. The producer who records the single, Hilton (Bob Charlton), gives Ivanhoe an exploitative contract and opts to suppress the track. His parasitical relationship to the music in effect sets Ivanhoe on the road to outlaw status, and Henzell makes no bones about the hand-in-glove relationship between company bosses, state security and profits from the drug trade, connecting the dots between all three at the higher echelons of Jamaican society. That fragmented editing again comes to the fore here – the film is rarely interested in the who-what-why of the plot, but in the visual connectivity between all these forces, using the improvisatory, on-the-fly nature of the shoot to craft a work that burns with energy.

Early on, in his first night in Kingston, a penniless Ivanhoe goes to the cinema and sees Django, a classic spaghetti western. The spaghetti western, of course, is the Italian reinterpretation of a genre that white Americans invented to tell a myth of exceptionalism and superiority. Henzell though, focuses on the audience, a predominantly Black crowd cheering on the film-within-the-film. Later on, as Ivanhoe makes his last stand – having become a local folk hero – the editing returns to the audience cheering, suggesting that the crime genre, as constructed and exported by American culture, is ripe for re-appropriation by a rapidly developing and modernising world. It’s an exceptional moment of self-reflexivity that suggests freedom in re-imagining cinema’s past to provide answers for its future. Fifty years on, The Harder They Come’s searing mix of politics, realism, chaos, and excellent music has rarely been equalled.

The Harder They Come is now re-released in UK cinemas.

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