Show Us as We Are
Place, Nation and Identity in Jamaican Film
268 Pages, 6.00 x 9.00 in
- Published: September 2019
Faced with the challenges that inevitably occur in small markets, feature film production in Jamaica has been sporadic and uneven, yet local filmmakers have succeeded in creating a small but exciting body of work that is receiving increasing attention. Organized as a series of discussions on a selection of the more well-known Jamaican films, this study employs close readings of these texts to reveal their complexity, sophistication and artistry. The focus on the politics of identity and representation, examined through the lens of place and nation, opens up a conversation on how these films have contributed to, and participate in, the discourse on Jamaican identity. Place is understood as both constituting and reflecting identity, and is explored within the context of the films’ representation of the postcolonial city, the dancehall, the north coast hotel and the great house. The concern with nation is revealed as a persistent and underlying focus that more often than not, directs our attention to the grievous gap between rich and poor in Jamaican society. These films’ often-criticized attention to marginalized communities plagued by problems of crime and violence can be understood, Moseley-Wood argues, as an expression of the postcolonial struggle to redefine place in ways that contest hegemonic discourses that define Jamaica as hedonistic paradise as well as challenge the unifying and homogenizing myths and narratives of nation.
Introduction: Show Us as We Are
Imagined Bonds in the New Nation: The 1962 Independence Films
“Badda Dan Dead”: Resistance and Intertextuality in The Harder They Come
The Trickster as Cocksman: The Hotel as Contact Zone in Smile Orange
Reggae and Rockers: Privileging the Local, Disrupting Paradigms of the External Gaze
Love and Sex in Babylon: Nation and Desire in Children of Babylon and One Love
Negotiating Patriarchy: The Erotic Performance of Dancehall Queen
Real/Reel Life in Jungle: Alienated Spaces in Third World Cop and Ghett’a Life
Dreaming History and the Nightmare World of Jamaican Politics in Better Mus’ Come
Epilogue: Expanding Narratives of Identity in Jamaican Film
- FINALIST, 2020 Prose Award in the Media and Cultural Studies
Show Us as We Are
“We want to be shown just as we are. We do not wish to be pictured
—Daily Gleaner, 1 February 1913, 3
IN JANUARY 1913, A SERIES of letters appeared in Jamaica’s leading newspaper, the Daily Gleaner, responding to a report that the British and Colonial Kinematograph Company Limited was on the island shooting footage for a film that was to be part of the Lieutenant Daring action adventure series.1 Local sensibilities were offended by the description of a scene in the proposed film which depicted “natives” attacking a missionary’s house, kidnapping him and demanding ransom for his return. This minor controversy, a small local quarrel, is now all but forgotten, but it is here that I want to begin. The brief but robust debate that resulted from the report resonates with the issues I explore in this book, namely, the immense investment in place as a constitutive element of identity and the function of cinema as a powerful mediating apparatus in disseminating meaning in this arena; the unstable, mobile nature of the identity of place and the resulting competing claims for authenticity; and the struggle over cinematic representation within the context of a people’s desire to define self rather than be defined by an exoticizing external gaze.
One of the first letters to appear in response to the report was written by an English clergyman resident in Jamaica, the Reverend Ernest Price, who stated that “the impression created on many who see this film will be that the people of this island are half-savage; that ‘missionaries’ here live in danger of their lives, and that Myrtle Bank Hotel is the last outpost of civilization in this land”.2 A few days later, another letter of protest by Price was published as well as one written by D.C. Beckford, who insisted that audiences tended to equate what they saw on the screen with the real world and would accept the moving pictures as “bona fide scenes of what actually occurred”.3 The following day, two more letters appeared. One writer protested that “there are millions of people in London who do not know the conditions existing in Jamaica and so will readily believe what they see reproduced by a Kinematograph as conditions obtaining here”; the other asked, “Will the promoters take the precaution of informing their audience that it is a ‘fake’ picture, and that missionaries are not in reality subject to such treatment out here?”4
In response to the initial newspaper report of his company’s activities, J. O’Neal Farrell, of the British and Colonial Kinematograph Company, went in person to the Gleaner offices to “give assurances that no possible injury would result to Jamaica as the result of the work with the camera, of his comrades and himself”. Farrell explained:
There is certainly no intention on our part to show up the people of Jamaica as being uncivilized savages who would attack a missionary’s house and demand ransom money. We will show our dramas but we do not tell people where the plots were laid and the pictures taken and there is no fear of our doing the island any injury in this connection. On the contrary, Jamaica should benefit through our visits as we have taken pictures depicting scenes in banana cultivation and other things of interest the tourist travelling around will see.5
Farrell further insisted on the ability of the British filmmakers to exercise good judgement in representing the island on the screen: “We know how far we can go in this business and we do not over-step the mark. We have taken pictures in Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, all over Canada and other parts of the Empire and believe me we are quite competent to fulfil our mission without doing anything that is likely to give offence to the people of the lands where the pictures are taken.”6
An editorial on the issue reported that the government did not intend to allow the exhibition of the offending pictures,7 and went on to acknowledge that the footage showing scenes of life in Jamaica, Jamaican industries and so on would do the colony “an immense amount of good in the way of advertisement”. In regard to the pictures of natives attacking missionaries, however, the writer was emphatic: “What we object to is misrepresentation and libel. We want to be shown just as we are. We do not wish to be pictured differently. If we may make a suggestion to this company, it is that they should show Jamaica as a colony without a colour problem. That would be the truth.”8
The Lieutenant Daring controversy speaks volumes about Jamaicans’ early relationship to cinema. Occurring in the pages of the Daily Gleaner more than a hundred years ago, the letters and editorial establish a long tradition of critical response to the cinematic representation of the island and its people and register an uneasiness in local quarters with the way Jamaica might be depicted on the screen. The incident records an early attempt to appropriate “moving pictures” of Jamaica for circulation in a global network of images in ways that reflected the colonial relationship and also indicates that Jamaicans had a fairly sophisticated appreciation of the power of such images to convey meaning and influence audiences’ perceptions. The writer of the editorial is not at all appeased by the cinematograph company’s assurance that Jamaica would not be specifically referred to in the film and thus would be immune from negative associations. Nor does he draw any comfort from the company’s smug insistence on its competence to speak on behalf of Jamaicans and judge what is appropriate in terms of the representation of the country’s identity as a place. Rather, in the editorial writer’s privileging of the local perspective and in his demand for Jamaicans’ right to be shown just as they are, there emerges a nascent nationalism, undeniably marked by an anxiety about reception by those beyond the island’s shores but, nonetheless, insistent on a difference in perspective, sensibility and interest that demarcates colony from metropole.
In the exchange in the newspaper, meanings attached to place coalesced around two opposing positions that spoke to internal and external perspectives, colonial and local objectives and concerns. It is also apparent, however, that both perspectives supported hegemonic intentions: both threatened to appropriate, fix and capture place; both threatened to silence dissenting voices. In its apparent representation of the colony as a site of savagery where the lives of white missionaries were under threat, the cinematograph company supported a view of Jamaica that was alien to those who wrote letters of protest to the paper. Equally erroneous, however, is the editorial writer’s confident assertion of a homogeneous perspective. His insistence that “we want to be shown just as we are. We do not wish to be pictured differently” raises critical questions: who comprises the collective “we” and who, therefore, participates in defining what it is that “we are”? One can safely assume that black Jamaicans would not have unanimously accepted as truth the assertion that Jamaica was a colony without a colour problem. Indeed, this would be revealed as false two decades later when black Jamaican workers’ agitation for better pay and improved working and living conditions resulted in major social unrest. Notable for the absence of the voices of the black masses, therefore, the Lieutenant Daring controversy not only raises the issue of the cinematic appropriation of images of Jamaica by external interests, it also anticipates the discursive tensions that would emerge in the latter part of the twentieth century, when Jamaicans started to make their own films.
THE EMERGENCE OF LOCAL FILM PRODUCTION
An indigenous film practice emerged in Jamaica in the 1950s with the production of state-sponsored educational documentaries, docudramas and newsreels. Early in the 1970s, ten years after political independence from Britain, a second wave of production began when independently produced narrative films began to emerge. These two discrete modes of film production signalled important shifts in the struggle over representation. The paradigm of the opposition between an external and an internal perspective remained in operation as local films continued to reflect the concerns voiced in the Lieutenant Daring debate and contest what Mbye Cham has described as the misuse of the Caribbean as “exotic background to Euro-American romantic narratives and spectacles”.9 One of the inevitable outcomes of the assertion of an internal perspective, however, has been the expression of diverse subject positions that challenge the unifying and homogenizing myths and narratives of nationalism. Far from supporting the idea that “the people [are] one”10 (that seemingly inclusive, homogeneous “we” so confidently affirmed in the Daily Gleaner editorial in 1913), local films, whether inadvertently (in the case of the state-produced documentaries) or more explicitly (in narrative features), define Jamaica as a nation marked by difference, by deep socioeconomic and cultural divides that inevitably produce widely variant perspectives.
This struggle over representation, the ongoing process of defining the identity or identities of place as it is expressed in local film, is the primary concern of this book. I am interested in the varied ways in which local films contest colonial and externally imposed conceptions of place and identity and, more specifically, in the tensions that surface in opposing claims for authenticity. I explore what Jamaican films tell us about what it means to be a “placeling” – to use Edward Casey’s term11 – in Jamaica at specific points in space–time. This is the postcolonial project of reclaiming place as it is expressed in local cinema. I attempt, then, to trace the ruptures and continuities with the past as local filmmakers “take control of [their] own cinematic image, speak in [their] own voice”,12 and forge a relationship with cinema that reflects the lived experiences of Jamaicans and which inevitably resounds with the tensions of opposing perspectives vying for dominance within the space of the postcolonial nation.13
The book is organized as a series of largely discrete discussions of specific films. I begin with the two “independence documentaries”, Towards Independence (1962) and A Nation Is Born (1962) – both released in the year Jamaica attained independence – and continue with what could be loosely described as the major local films up to 2011: The Harder They Come (1972), Smile Orange (1976), Rockers (1978), Children of Babylon (1980), Dancehall Queen (1997), Third World Cop (1999), One Love (2003), Better Mus’ Come (2010) and Ghett’a Life (2011). Readers should not expect an exhaustive study of what is still a relatively small but steadily growing body of local films. Rather, I have selected for discussion eleven films that express a pointed and explicit concern with defining place, frequently in ways that suggest, in varying degrees, alternative perspectives to colonial or mainstream cinemas that have tended to manufacture images of Jamaica “radically at odds with the reality of the people”.14 Out of this discussion, the faint outlines of a narrative of the emergence of a Jamaican cinema materializes, but I hasten to point out that it is not my objective to provide a full and historical account of the development of a national cinema. My concern with nation is thematic: I am interested in how the selected films engage with the concept of place as it is expressed in the abstract construct of the nation and how the preoccupations, anxieties, and concerns of the national body are reflected in the film text and how they help to shape it.
DEFINING JAMAICAN FILMS
The book is, however, concerned with Jamaican films and so the troublesome task of defining this category must be dealt with. Jean Antoine-Dunne has remarked that “filmmaking, perhaps more than any other art form, complicates the question of national or regional affiliation”.15 In my own engagement with what Antoine-Dunne refers to as the vexed question of the national category,16 I have drawn on a range of criteria, including the commonly used markers of nationality and the origin of financing. All of the films I refer to as “Jamaican” or “local” meet Diaram Ramjeesingh’s criteria that a Jamaican film is one which “is produced or directed by a Jamaican national, or if at least 50% of the funding needed to produce the film is sourced locally”.17 But as filmmaking is a collective effort and increasingly transnational in its funding, attempting to define a film solely on the basis of this criteria can be problematic. Paul Willemen notes that the “economic facts of cinematic life dictate that an industrially viable cinema shall be multinational”.18 In small, marginal locations such as Jamaica, these “economic facts” include the very real need to seek markets, funding and investment abroad because, as Stephen Crofts points out, most Third World economies are rarely capable of providing the continuous infrastructural support which is needed to nurture indigenous cinemas.19 Indeed, Ramjeesingh observes that the Jamaican Motion Picture Industry (Encouragement) Act, in place since 1948 and amended in 1991, “is silent on one perennial challenge that typically confronts domestic filmmakers, particularly in developing countries”, that is, “the availability and accessibility of funds at low interest rates for film projects”.20 While there has been increasing interest and discussion about developing and supporting a stable local industry, as well as a growing recognition of the contribution such an industry can make towards national economic growth, state support for production in Jamaica remains minimal. The failure to implement policy that would specifically seek to bolster local production is reflected in Ramjeesingh’s list of Jamaican films that shows only thirty-nine feature films produced between 1972 and 2012: on average, less than one film per year in a forty-year period.
Such statistics also indicate that models which propose defining a national cinema on an economic basis as the history of an industry, or “a business seeking a secure foothold in the market place”,21 might be usefully employed elsewhere, but are hardly appropriate for Jamaica, where production takes place in the context of a monopoly on exhibition theatres (all the cinemas in the island are currently operated by a single company), an absence of state support and, because of the long-standing recessionary economy, a scarcity of private investment or funding. The cumulative result of these factors is a sphere of activity that is less like an industry and more accurately defined by irregular and occasional feature production.
What then constitutes a Jamaican film? With the exception of Towards Independence, the eleven films I discuss in this book were shot entirely in Jamaica,22 and the Jamaican setting is critical to the narrative: not merely generic backdrop, it is specifically identified, thematically and aesthetically important. These films, to rephrase Mette Hjort’s discussion of Danish films, use recognizably Jamaican locations, Jamaican language, Jamaican actors and props that reflect the material culture of Jamaicans. They thus signal a certain Jamaican quality and specificity.23 I am certain that the filmmakers whose work I discuss in this book harbour ambitions to penetrate external markets, but their films speak primarily and quite pointedly to a Jamaican audience. Thus, in defining Jamaican film, I also call into play Paul Willemen’s idea that the issue of national cinema is primarily a question of address, rather than the filmmaker’s citizenship or even the production finance company’s country of origin.24 In the films I identify as Jamaican and subject to extended analysis and discussion, the frequent use of Jamaican Creole and the assumption of a certain familiarity of the viewer with things Jamaican suggest that the films are primarily directed at a Jamaican audience.
PLACE AND IDENTITY
In my exploration of place in these films, I draw on concepts that define place as a dynamic, mobile construct. Place is, as Edward Casey affirms, not merely a physical entity made up of things contained within it – “a mere patch of ground, a bare stretch of earth, a sedentary set of stones” – rather, it is in continuous production; it is more like an event: “places not only are they happen”.25 From this perspective, place “while still possessed of a distinctly spatial quality, becomes imbued with a temporal dimension”.26 This idea resonates with Doreen Massey’s concept of place as being formed by networks of social relations. Massey extrapolates from Lefebvre’s axiom that “(Social) space is a (social) product”,27 and argues that space can be understood as being constituted of social relations which “are never still; they are inherently dynamic”.28 Place, then, is formed of “the particular set of social relations which interact at a particular location”.29 Or, as Simon During explains, place is “space broken down into localities and regions as experienced, valued and conceived of by individuals and groups”.30 Massey points out that the “identities of places are inevitably unfixed”31 because of the changing and dynamic nature of the social relations which produce them and that, furthermore, this “lack of fixity has always been so. The past was no more static than is the present.”32 Place, then, can be understood as consisting of several dimensions: it is both spatial and temporal, it has physical, material as well as social qualities, and it is also constituted by the way people perceive, experience and conceptualize it.33
The sense of place or, to be more precise, the sense of the identity of place, as unfixed, multiple and unstable both resonates with the postcolonial project of reclaiming place as well as complicates it. Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin point out that the “gap which opens between the experience of ‘place’ and the language available to describe it forms a classic and all- pervasive feature of post-colonial texts”.34 Reclaiming place within the postcolonial context then necessarily entails “the development or recovery of an effective identifying relationship between self and place”35 that may involve recuperating what Glissant refers to as the history that lies beneath the surface of the landscape,36 and which, in the Caribbean, has been suppressed in Eurocentric accounts of place. It may also involve, however, “imagining a new relation to place beyond colonial violence”.37 Yet in the move to forge new relationships with place we must be mindful that, as Massey observes, space is “a complex web of relations of domination and subordination, of solidarity and cooperation”.38 Thus, Ashcroft et al.’s definition of place in the postcolonial context as “a complex interaction of language, history and environment”39 might be more specifically qualified by adding the word “power” to the list of variables as a further elaboration of “history”. An example of the interrelation between power and history emerges in Chris Tiffin and Alan Lawson’s reminder that “names and codes of naming are obvious, basic ways of curving the account to indicate who matters and who is subordinate”.40
It is precisely because place is such a critical constitutive element of identity as well as a decidedly mobile concept that is subject to change and transformation, that the meanings or identities attached to place are frequently expressed within highly charged and politicized exchanges. Thus, the relationship between place and identity may emerge in a context when identity is challenged or threatened.41 What prompted the passionate responses of the letter-writers in the Daily Gleaner was an anxiety about the displacement of their concept of the identity of Jamaica as a place. Bazin’s sense of the immediacy of the photographic image, the tendency of the viewer to respond as if the “photographic image is the object itself”,42 informs the Jamaican letter-writers’ concerns about the film’s reception abroad. Their sense of a slippage between reality (that is, their definition of place) and its proposed representation in moving pictures produces a moment of anxiety as they confront two incontrovertible facts. The first is that the new photographic technology, rather than reproducing “the object itself”, creates an image that results from the manipulation of its authors. This is the realization that the film is a product of mediation and that meaning in the film depends, as John David Rhodes and Elena Gorfinkel state, less on “the world it photographs and more on its operations as a text”.43 And yet, paradoxically, underlying their protests and anxiety is a naive belief that the new medium can reproduce reality; that it can, indeed, show us as we are. The second fact the letter-writers confront has to do with the comprehension that the new technology of moving pictures, in the hands of a company with international reach and influence, had the power to displace their reality in the global imaginary and define Jamaica differently for an audience far removed from the island’s shores.
In their attempts to grapple with “the reality” of the Jamaican people, the films discussed in this book speak to experiences that are not readily acknowledged by tourism-oriented “Euro-American image factories”44 which reduce the Caribbean to a site for the hedonistic pursuit of sun, sea, sand and sex: clichés, as Jane Bryce observes, that are now “so intrinsic to the popular concept of ‘Caribbean’ that they can be left unspoken”.45 Nor, indeed, do the experiences these films reproduce always coincide with formations of national identity generated through the agencies and institutions which function as vehicles for nationalism. Instead, in their complex evocation of place, the films discussed in this book, in particular, the narrative films, define Jamaica as a site marked by the accretion of history. That acknowledgement of history frequently takes the form of identification with the marginalized, expressing a desire on the part of the filmmakers to bring attention to the plight of the poor: those whose lives and experiences are often concealed from public view and whose voices are seldom heard in the clamour of public discourse. In some instances, the films do provide some limited insight into the lives of the middle class and elites and the spaces they occupy, but this often functions primarily to create a sense of the contrast that exists in Jamaica between widespread poverty and conspicuous displays of wealth.
This contrast is both disturbing and apparent. Commenting on the “incongruity of the ‘Two Jamaicas’ ”, Brian Meeks notes that the increasing disparity between rich and poor is “already one of the most notoriously wide in the region”. Meeks points out that the “lifestyles of the wealthy. . . with their Mercedes Benzs, BMWs and shopping junkets to Miami, rival anything to be found in the USA”, but contrast sharply with ways of life in ghetto communities, such as in the “desperate Riverton City, where thousands of people live literally on the city dump and many survive by a daily schedule of picking through the refuse for spoilt food and saleable junk”.46 In the context of patterns of socioeconomic disparity that have created a geography of bounded communities, spatial alienation and social separation, the Jamaican films’ privileging of the perspectives of the marginalized and the places they occupy can be understood as engaging in social commentary that seeks to expose the failure of the nation state to realize the promises of independence. By repeatedly reminding audiences of this “gap between promise and fulfilment”,47 Jamaican films participate in an ongoing dialogue about what it means to be Jamaican in ways that expand our understanding of the consequences of postcolonial political arrangements that have denied the benefits of full citizenship to certain groups and individuals.
In some respects, this focus on the poor evokes parallels between Jamaican film and the West Indian novel. In an essay written as the introduction to his classic Bildungsroman of West Indian colonial experience, In The Castle of My Skin, George Lamming comments on the preoccupation of the Caribbean novelist with the poor and explains this as an attempt to restore humanity to a class of people that plantation slave society sought to reduce to mere components of an economic system. It also reflects, he states, the recognition that “this world of men and women from down below” represents “the richest collective reservoir of experience on which the creative imagination could draw”.48 Lamming states:
This world . . . is not simply poor. This world is black, and it has a long history at once vital and complex. It is vital because it constitutes the base of labour on which the entire Caribbean society has rested; and it is complex because Plantation Slave Society (the point at which the modern Caribbean began) conspired to smash its ancestral African culture and to bring about a total alienation of man the source of labour from man the human person.49
The attempt Lamming identifies in the West Indian novel to heal the “fractured consciousness” and “psychological injury”50 that resulted from this rupture with the past is evident in the work of Jamaican filmmakers. While considered problematic in some quarters, their insistent focus on the lives of the poor (and in particular, the urban poor), the use of inner-city spaces as setting, and the reproduction of violence and crime as defining features of Jamaican life and experience can also be understood as an attempt to claim, as part of the fabric of national culture, the perspectives and experiences of those who have been socially and culturally stigmatized and systematically excluded from access to the state’s resources. Like the novelist, these filmmakers also attempt to restore humanity to denigrated individuals; not the peasant or the folk, but the black urban dweller who, bearing the brunt of what Meeks describes as “a long and drawn out economic trauma”,51 experiences intense forms of social alienation and cultural stigmatization.
Stuart Hall writes that the vocation of a modern Caribbean cinema is to allow us “to see and recognize different parts and histories of ourselves”.52 With a cast of characters that includes gunmen, badmen, dons, gigolos, ghetto dwellers, babymothers, Rastafarians, dancehall queens, rebels, reggae and dancehall musicians, tricksters and “sufferers”, Jamaican narrative films are peopled by figures from which so-called polite society seeks to distance itself, but which undeniably exist as important, if often denigrated, elements of the national culture and identity. In essence, these are Lamming’s men and women from down below.
The emphasis in the narrative films that emerged after independence, on socioeconomic disparities, essentially contradicts notions of the nation as a community marked by homogeneity rather than diversity, and also exposes the vaunted ideal of a deep horizontal camaraderie as a myth: all citizens are not equal. Indeed, these films are vitally engaged with the concept of place as it is expressed in the abstract construct of the nation. There is a persistent concern – explicit, self-conscious and affirmative (as one would expect) in the independence documentaries and less overt but undeniably present in the narrative films – with the notion of defining the nation. The independence films thus create a useful and expected contrast with the later films. Made by the state, the independence documentaries reproduce an ideal representation of the nation and attempt to do the work of nationalism, which Paul Willemen defines as binding people to reductive, politically functional identities.53 In the decades following independence, the narrative films chart the fragmentation and disintegration of those concepts of identity, interrogate an assumed national unity and draw on modes of popular culture to express diverse cultural values.
In their intention to challenge nationalism’s myths and claim legitimacy for subjects and identities which remained marginalized after independence, the narrative films mount an unavoidable incursion on official representations of national identity and work to define nation in ways which acknowledge and embrace difference. They contest, whether explicitly or implicitly, the idea underpinning the Daily Gleaner editorial, and echoed in the independence films, of a singular, coherent Jamaican (or national) perspective and identity. The post-independence narrative films speak not merely to a broadening of the definition of what constitutes “us” (that is, the Jamaican people and nation); more fundamentally, they underscore the idea that the work of defining “us” is always incomplete and always in progress.
AESTHETICS AND THE CLAIM FOR AUTHENTICITY
Members of the elite and the middle class, those with greater access to traditional media and other vehicles of public discourse, at times react vociferously to the tendency in Jamaican cinema to approach social commentary by focussing on the marginalized and by highlighting instances of societal dysfunction.54 Such criticism, often expressed in letters to the editor or in the op-ed columns of newspapers (as occurred in response to the Lieutenant Daring film), raise important and related questions about aesthetics and authenticity. While the early West Indian writer also had to confront aesthetic issues of crafting an appropriate language with which to convey the identity and experiences of the West Indian, the commercial and industrial nature of film production lends a greater urgency and immediacy to such considerations in the film sector. As occurs in most small localities, the need to generate profits to ensure survival and continued production is critical and can exert pressure on filmmakers to conform to local (and international) demand for films which maintain the familiar codes of commercial cinema. This is a recurring tension that is expressed in the films discussed: the impetus to explore new and alternative aesthetics in an attempt to speak in a more authentic voice to local experience is held in balance with the need to remain within familiar aesthetic territory and, possibly, sensational subject areas. The pressure on local filmmakers to gain points in the marketplace was brought home to me in a conversation with Douglas Graham, executive chairman of Palace Amusement, Jamaica’s sole cinema chain and film distributor. Lauding Disney’s commercially successful formulas, Graham said that he had encouraged the young director Storm Saulter to create an upbeat, happy ending for his film Better Mus’ Come. Had he done so, Graham stated, the film would have been more successful. When I pointed out that the movie was very successful and had run for many weeks in his cinemas, Graham responded that if the protagonist had been reunited with his love interest rather than killed at the end of the film, it would have run for twice as long.55 Happily, Saulter did not follow Graham’s advice.
What then might be the most appropriate narrative forms and approaches for telling stories about poor black urban communities affected by crime and violence so that an intended social commentary does not create opportunities for the reproduction of harmful stereotypes about blackness, masculinity, poverty and violence? Some of the strategies used by Jamaican filmmakers as they negotiate competing demands and attempt, with varying degrees of success, to create textured, complex stories of lives in marginal spaces include the use of local cultural elements, particularly popular music and dance, but also folk elements; alternative aesthetics such as self-reflexivity; the engagement with history; and the use of mise en scène that contrasts the “two Jamaicas”.
Even as Jamaican filmmakers attempt to give voice to the marginalized, however, significant gaps remain in the experiences and issues addressed in Jamaican cinema. Female directors and writers are underrepresented in feature film production, which probably explains why male protagonists continue to dominate and women’s experiences remain largely unaddressed in Jamaican narrative film.56 Further, we are yet to see a local feature film that openly explores non-hegemonic sexual identities and challenges a deeply entrenched homophobia in Jamaican society. Such aspects of identity, if fully engaged, threaten to further explode the myth of homogeneity. In addition, the failure, as yet, to fully explore contradictions and existential issues in the lives of the middle class and the elite also neglects significant aspects of Jamaican life and has not allowed for the full examination of important nexuses of power and social networks that perpetuate hegemonic attitudes and social structures. At a 2012 forum on film at the University of the West Indies, Mona, activist documentary filmmaker Esther Figueroa provocatively declared, tongue-in-cheek, that she would be interested to see what tales of dysfunction would emerge if residents of downtown were given the opportunity to make films about the rich and the middle class. Figueroa’s comment emphasizes the tendency of Jamaican filmmakers (many of whom are educated and middle class) to focus on the poor instead of the communities to which they belong and how this focus can perpetuate, rather than alleviate, certain imbalances of power in the society.
Manthia Diawara makes a powerful argument proposing that race, like gender, is an important variable that enters the process of spectator identification.57 Given the frequent use of the Caribbean as a location for American commercial films, one might also consider the possible dynamics that might operate in the relationship between postcolonial spectators and the cinematic text when they confront what, for them, is a slippage of representation. Thus, in The Middle Passage, V.S. Naipaul relates an incident in a Trinidad cinema where, because of their particular identification with the place where the film was set, local patrons become what Diawara would describe as resisting spectators: “ ‘Where do you come from?’ Lauren Bacall is asked in To Have and Have Not. ‘Port of Spain, Trinidad,’ she replies, and the audience shouts delightedly, ‘You lie! You lie!’ ”58 Experiencing such moments of rupture in the process of identification with foreign-made films set in the Caribbean may well intensify demands for authenticity when the postcolonial spectator watches locally made productions. However, because the number of features produced in Jamaica remains quite small, each new release, normally greeted with much fanfare, public excitement and expectation, tends to bear the full weight of such demands. Each film is thus quite unreasonably expected – by both local and diasporic Jamaican audiences, the main consumers of Jamaican films – to achieve the impossible task of representing Jamaica in ways that satisfy what may be quite diverse, even opposing, concepts of what constitutes “authentic” representations of “home”. This is one of the consequences of limited production. As Isaac Julien and Kobena Mercer point out in reference to black British film, where access and opportunities are rationed so that films tend to get made only one at a time, “each film text is burdened with an inordinate pressure to be ‘representative’ and to act, like a delegate does, as a statement that ‘speaks’ ” for the community as a whole.59
STRUCTURE OF THE BOOK
The problematic task of affirming authenticity is addressed throughout this book and emerges in the first chapter, which examines the representation of Jamaica in the two “independence documentaries”, the newsreels Towards Independence (1962) and A Nation Is Born (1962). The chapter explores the inevitable ideological tensions that emerge in these films’ explicit and self-conscious attempts to define the new nation for its new citizens by drawing on old colonial paradigms and values. By contextualizing the representation of place in these two state-produced documentaries against the background of the formation of the Jamaica Film Unit (JFU) and its contribution to an indigenous film practice in Jamaica, the chapter also identifies the emergence of this new mode of production as an important aspect of the decolonization process as well as the move to nurture a national culture.
The Harder They Come (1972), one of the most provocative and complex representations of place and identity in Jamaican cinema, is the subject of chapter 2. Ivan, the country bwai (boy) come-to-town, embarks on a quest for identity and visibility in a place defined by a series of contrasts: wealth and poverty, promise and denial, dream and reality, tradition and modernity. In the discussion of this iconic tale of the badman, The Harder They Come is treated as a hypertext – that is, a text that engages with and draws on another text, in this instance the accounts of Rhygin, the notorious gunman of 1948. I use this historical context to explore “badmanism” as a cultural narrative that has allowed poor Jamaicans to infuse their marginality with agency and meaning. I propose that Ivan’s exploits as gunman can be seen as a strategy through which he constructs an identity that demands respect and honour in a post-independence society in which the poor black masses still struggle to claim the benefits of full citizenship.
In chapter 3, I discuss another enduring expression of male identity, the playboy trickster, in Trevor Rhone’s film, Smile Orange (1976). This film shifts the discussion of place beyond the city to the rural environment and, more precisely, Jamaica’s north coast, which is the centre of the country’s tourist industry. In this satire, Rhone deflates the problematic but durable image of the Caribbean island as paradise by constructing the north coast hotel as a place informed by the racial, social and economic politics of the plantation. Like the gunman/badman, the trickster assumes a role in order to aid survival, but within the context of the hotel/plantation this role both enriches and debases the protagonist. As Ringo uses role play and deception to outwit the hotel’s manager, and as he plays gigolo to the female guests, his body becomes the site of both accommodation and resistance to historical forces.
Chapter 4 moves the focus back to the inner city with a discussion of Rockers (1978). Directed and produced by non-Jamaicans, this film disturbs common assumptions about the alienating external gaze and prompts us to think anew about the usefulness of defining film on the basis of the citizenship of the director or primary creatives. A focus on the Rastafari and its relationship to the production of reggae music as a rich cultural form as well as an expression of resistance is intrinsic to this film’s atypical view of inner-city life. The familiar problems of the ghetto – social discrimination, harsh living conditions and the perpetual struggle for economic survival – are evident, but Rockers emphasizes the positive attributes of the community. Here there is no struggle for visibility in an uncaring society or the need for the alienated individual to redefine self. Instead, the male protagonist exists at the centre of a caring network of “brethren” who support each other in the struggle, rather than compete for scarce resources or dominance.
More than twenty years separate the release dates of the films Children of Babylon (1980) and One Love (2003), but they are paired for discussion in chapter 5 on the basis of their common concern with heterosexual bonding, not a popular focus in Jamaican cinema. Both films use rural locations as the setting for stories about interpersonal relationships, and the quest for a partner functions as a vehicle to explore concepts of nation. Set against the backdrop of the ideological clashes and conflict of the turbulent period of the late 1970s, in Children of Babylon the quest for national unity is undermined by the failure to resolve deep-seated conflict in a society that has been divided by a history of slavery and colonialism. One Love offers a far more optimistic vision of nation, but here, social and political differences are more superficially drawn and, therefore, easier to reconcile. In this film, true to the generic conventions of the utopian romance, love conquers all and the film concludes with the idealistic vision of a unified community.
In Dancehall Queen (1997), the film discussed in chapter 6, we see our first working-class female protagonist and one who, unlike several female characters in earlier films, succeeds in overcoming the challenges that confront her. The film reflects the shift from reggae to dancehall music, which by the 1990s was dominating Jamaican airwaves. However, unlike what occurs in Rockers, where music and musical performance constitute an integral part of community life, in Dancehall Queen the dancehall is associated with specific, discrete sites in the urban area. Characterized in the film by the revealing, erotic costuming of its female participants and their equally daring and erotic dance, the dancehall is a place to see and be seen, where women claim the freedom to assume expressive erotic identities. In the discussion of this film, I attempt to work through what I identify as a tension in the narrative. This is the reproduction of an objectifying male gaze to view the erotic dance of the female and the narrative’s insistence that this performance is the source of the protagonist’s empowerment and liberation from patriarchal thinking. This complex representation of the dancehall compels us to ponder what happens when an erotic cultural performance is mediated by the camera and becomes detached from its source and context of production.
In chapter 7, I return to the issue of authenticity, examined here in the context of the use of realist and popular genre conventions to tell stories about social dysfunction in poor black communities. While several of the other films incorporate self-reflexivity and other elements that suggest the referencing of alternative aesthetics, Third World Cop (1999) and Ghett’a Life (2011) operate mostly within the boundaries of mainstream realist and generic conventions. These two films, in which black men, gun violence and social dysfunction feature heavily, are popularly conceived as conveying authentic representations of ghetto life and perhaps even functioning for the middle class and elite as a means of imagining the nation, that is, imagining the lives of fellow citizens with whom they may have limited personal contact. The chapter interrogates the claim for these films’ authentic representation of “ghetto life” and proposes that they confirm and support ideas about the poor that maintain the status quo.
The concern with history in Storm Saulter’s Better Mus’ Come (2010) suggests that it is an appropriate subject with which to close this discussion of Jamaican film. This concern with history is expressed in the film’s focus on the critical period of the 1970s as well as in its referencing of The Harder They Come, the first narrative film discussed in this book. In his revisiting of the decade following independence, Saulter is concerned with the political schisms that emerged more forcefully in the latter part of the decade and which lead to brutal acts of violence. The chapter explores Saulter’s vision of the 1970s and the cultural narrative of badmanism played out within the context of partisan political violence, as well as, more broadly, the film’s concern with reconciling the bitter memory of one of the most divisive periods of modern Jamaican history.
Collectively, these films provide compelling and textured representations of place, nation and identity in Jamaica. It is my hope that this book will generate greater interest in Jamaican cinema and encourage more people to seek out Jamaican films, and that audiences will become more open to the complexity, nuance and the craft involved in making these films. Jamaican films are certainly good entertainment, but they also make a valuable contribution to the continuing conversation about what and who the Jamaican people are.