Cowboy Westerns have long influenced new filmmakers around the world to pick up movie cameras and shoot. But in Kingston during the 1970′s, those same films inspired a number of Jamaican criminals to model their behavior after romanticized outlaws of the cinematic Old West — because they lived (and died) by the gun. Harvard academic, Laurie Gunst visited Jamaica in 1976, during a particularly violent election season. Incumbent Prime Minister Michael Manley implemented a program of “Heavy Manners” aimed at his rising nemesis, and future PM, Edward Seaga. Gunst watched an emotional speech Manley gave in Sam Sharpe Square — the air thick with Sharpe’s legacy as leader of the 1831 general strike that became a slave uprising — even as Jamaica’s two main political parties were funding armed gangs in Kingston’s ghettos to battle for political turf. Gunst later published a memoir about these criminal “posses,” titled Born Fi’ Dead. Early on, she analyzes a scene from 1973′s The Harder They Come, in which rural-born protagonist, Ivan Martin goes to a Kingston cinema to see (Italian) Western, Django starring Franco Nero — who, as the film’s hero, cheats death at every turn. When Martin later becomes an outlaw hunted by the Jamaica Defense Force, he expects the same level of real-life invincibility, only to be effortlessly cut down in a barrage of machine gun fire. “Like hundreds of Jamaican gangsters before and after,” Gunst writes, “he lives and dies with gunslinger bravado acquired from the movies.” Rather than being called “gangs,” Kingston’s gunmen ran in “posses,” and Gunst has a memorable meeting with “a ranking nicknamed ‘Billy the Kid’, who was very reluctant to talk to me until someone mentioned that I’d only recently come to Jamaica from Wyoming. ‘Whoy,’ Billy breathed in a reverent whisper. ‘I know ’bout that place! Nuff-nuff bad-mon come from out there! Hole-in-the-Wall, Butch Cassidy an’ the Sundance Kid…’” But to get a homegrown Jamaican-shot film like The Harder They Come off the ground, director Perry Henzell didn’t have access to Paul Newman or Robert Redford. But he did have Jimmy Cliff. The famous reggae singer plays a character based on one Ivanhoe “Rhyging” Martin — a 1940′s Jamaican outlaw who also died in a hail of bullets. The film’s soundtrack was released in the U.S. in 1973, and proved to be a smash success. Boasting hits by Cliff, the Maytals and others, it helped energize reggae’s international popularity. In 1978, several reggae stars came together for the film, Rockers, starring Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace, Burning Spear and others. In a rare January 2010 interview with Vice Magazine, director Ted Bafaloukos (at left with Wallace) tells of spending more than two years convincing musicians to appear in his still-unwritten film. “I didn’t want to shoot a documentary,” he recalls. “Anyone could do that. I wanted to make a movie on Jamaica’s music and include everyone who was there, except Bob Marley.” Rockers eventually morphed into a feature where the musicians play themselves — and Bafaloukos shooting the non-violent film around Kingston, despite a swirling threat of armed posses. He also recalls once being detained by local police on suspicion of being with the CIA — as well as the amazement of his frightened Jamaican friends when he returned home unscathed. That same fear drives the Rastafari, Countryman to rescue an American couple after their plane crashes in a Jamaican swamp, and corrupt local officials brand them as CIA to score political points in upcoming elections. By now, political relations with the U.S. had improved with Seaga’s victory in the blood-soaked elections of 1980 — making the plot of writer/director Dickie Jobson’s 1982 film more at home in the 1970′s Manley era. This was also yet another Jamaica-shot picture whose notoriety was enhanced immensely by a soundtrack from a lion of reggae: Bob Marley. Countryman was produced by Chris Blackwell, who owned the local Island Records music label, where Marley was the top act before his death in 1981. Just three years later, in 1984, Gunst moved to Kingston to begin writing Born Fi’ Dead, and noted how reggae’s jukebox popularity had been usurped by “rapid-fire dance hall tunes with a lot of gun sounds on the tracks.” In the cinematic battle for musical legacy, though, reggae wins the shootout.
Guns and Reggae in ’70s Kingston, Jamaica
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