Reggae revolution

Perry Henzell created Jamaica's first feature film against all the odds, writes his daughter.

It was only when their grandfather Perry Henzell passed away, a little over a year ago, that my children took in how significant his influence had been around the world. Of course, they knew he was the co-writer and director of Jamaica's first feature film, The Harder They Come. My son had the poster over his bed; his sister was old enough to actually watch the film. But they were a little surprised by the magnitude of the tributes and obituaries that streamed in.

More than 30 years earlier, my passionately nationalistic father had taken the decision to risk his career by making a film for Jamaicans, using Jamaican vernacular, music, cast and crew. This was before the reggae revolution, when all the outside world knew of Jamaica was that it had nice beaches. Nevertheless, Perry was determined to capture the raw energy and talent he saw on the streets every day in the capital city, Kingston. It took three years, four different shoots with three different cinematographers, countless script re writes, and numerous edits and editors before The Harder They Come premiered at the Carib Theatre in Kingston in 1972. Jamaicans heard and saw themselves on the big screen; they laughed and shouted for the entire hundred minutes and came to see the film in record numbers, resulting in riots around the cinema.

Still, the prospects of finding an audience for the film outside Jamaica seemed slim. Perry was advised that audiences would be resistant to an all-black film, and that they would need subtitles to understand the patois. The film won awards in Cork and Venice but failed to attract a distributor. Undeterred, he embarked that same year on a six-year journey around 43 countries in total, taking the 35mm film cans everywhere from the cinema at Harvard College to white sheets hung in the street in Lagos, Nigeria. There were notable parallels between Perry's uphill struggle and that of Ivan, the central character, who moves to the city to make it as a musician.

As the film travelled, so too did its soundtrack, featuring stars such as Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker and Toots and the Maytals. Between 1973 and 1978 Bob Marley and the Wailers released landmark albums, having been signed by Chris Blackwell at Island Records. Reggae was becoming a worldwide cultural phenomenon.

The Harder They Come has since become a cult classic. Michael Thelwell wrote a thrilling literary novel based on the film, and many people approached my father about a sequel or even a contemporary remake. But he was most excited by the prospect of seeing the story recast as a musical for the stage. He had always loved the theatre and decades prior had written and directed a show based on the life of Marcus Garvey to celebrate the centenary of his birth. So, though struggling with cancer, he wrote a stage adaptation for the musical, complete with lyrics for new songs and stage directions to assist the directors. He lived to see the premiere in March 2006 at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, where it played to packed houses. A new production has just opened at the Barbican Centre in London.

He is gone now, and I have come in his place to a rehearsal in East Ham where the young black British cast, seated in a circle, is being taken through the refrain of "You Can Get It If You Really Want", a song heard, ironically enough, at last year's Conservative party conference. Most of these youngsters were not yet born when The Harder They Come was released, and they don't realise that the reason they are able to sit here wearing the black, gold and green of the Jamaican flag on their trainers and jackets is in part the impact of the film they are once more bringing to life.

While doing advance media for the show, however, I have been depressed to be confronted with the same question that dogged my father all those years ago: will The Harder They Come cross over from the primarily West Indian audience at Stratford, in the East End, to the Barbican's mixed clientele in central London? Perry used guerrilla marketing techniques when the film came out, personally handing out flyers outside Brixton Tube station to fill the theatre, relying on word of mouth to spread the buzz from immigrant communities to the mainstream. These days, however, those constituencies seem even more segregated. We still speak about "black radio" and "black media", and wonder whether a Caribbean audience will feel comfortable going to the Barbican.

After the singing class, the rehearsal moves into the dance studio, where the cast is taught how to "skank". The choreographer, Jackie Guy, a 63-year-old Jamaican, knows first hand how we used to dance in Kingston in the Seventies. He banishes the hip-hop moves familiar to the actors, slows down their hips, deepens the bend in their knees and takes them back to their parents' era. Authenticity is as essential to the stage version as it was to the film - no watering down, no yielding to the temptation to make it "accessible". This holds fast to Perry's belief that a great story well told, with boundless energy, genuine star quality and a driving bassline, will connect with audiences, regardless of ethnic origin. Perry's grandson will be attending the Barbican premiere, and he will see that his poppa was right.

"The Harder They Come" is at the Barbican Theatre, London EC2, until 5 April. For details visit:

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How Hillary did it