Interviews

Making Bad Friday Better: An Interview with Deborah Thomas

Written by Andrea Shaw Nevins

Dr. Deborah A. Thomas is a professor anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, a dancer, and most recently added filmmaker to her accomplishments. Deborah directed and produced the new documentary Bad Friday in partnership with her husband John L. Jackson, Jr.; Junior “Gabu” Wedderburn; and Junior “Ista J” Manning. Bad Friday focuses on a community of Rastafarians in western Jamaica who annually commemorate the 1963 Coral Gardens “incident,” a moment just after independence when the Jamaican government rounded up, jailed and tortured hundreds of Rastafarians. It chronicles the history of violence in Jamaica through the eyes of its most iconic community, and shows how people use their recollections of past traumas to imagine new possibilities for the future. Here is our conversation with Deborah on her new film Bad Friday.

Please tell us about the event that is the subject of your documentary Bad Friday.
On April 11, 1963, five men understood to be Rastafari responded to a long-term land dispute that had resulted in the shooting and imprisonment of Rudolph Franklin by seeking revenge on the handful of persons who were responsible.  In doing so, they burned down a gas station and killed a number of persons including two policemen and a white Jamaican from Kingston.  As a result of the hysteria that followed, Bustamante is said to have proclaimed, “Bring in all Rasta, dead or alive!”, and as police attempted to find those who perpetrated the incidents in Coral Gardens, civilians also arranged themselves into vigilante groups and hunted down all Rastafari in western Jamaica and beyond.  This meant that Rastafari far from the event itself were being rounded up, beaten, jailed, and in some cases killed, only because of the Jamaican population’s extreme fear of Rastafari during that period. 

How did you come to know about this incident in Coral Gardens, given that it is has generally received limited discussion in the Caribbean media?
It is mentioned briefly in a couple scholarly books dealing with the decade after independence, but in these cases the authors relied on The Gleaner’s (Jamaica’s most widely circulated newspaper at that time)reporting of the incident itself.  At the time, John Maxwell also published some articles (some with firsthand accounts) in Public Opinion.  I had read about Coral Gardens in these venues, but realized that nowhere was there a full account, and that because of this the events of 1963 had largely been silenced from the general story of Jamaica’s history, particularly in the immediate post-independence years.  Another such silenced historical moment, by the way, is the Green Bay Massacre, and Storm Saulter has recently released an excellent film based on that event in 1978. 

The incident on which your film focuses took place in 1963. Why do you think that in the half-century or so since that time such little information about this event in Jamaican history has been available?
I am not sure.  That the government and security forces would have had such an alarmingly violent response to the actions of five individuals is stunning though of course, we have to understand this in relation to the climate of extreme fear of anything having to do with black consciousness at the time.  I’m sure the excessive response constitutes an embarrassment on the part of the government, but times are different now and people are ready to bring these sorts of violent legacies to the fore.  Additionally, around the world there is a very limited understanding of the various brutalities and struggles earlier generations of Rastafari faced, given that many outside the Caribbean who come to Rasta do so because of the music and know relatively little about the social and political context of Jamaica during that period.  

How many people died on Bad Friday, and was anyone ever charged and tried for these deaths?
By the end of the day 11 April 1963, at least eight people had been killed, including Rudolph Franklin and two of his crew.  Three men were hunted down and arrested for murder and conspiracy to commit murder – Carlton Bowen, Clifton Larman and Leabert Jarrett.  Their lawyers – Mssrs. Beresford Hay, David Muirhead, Carl Rattray, and Hewart Henriques – argued a defense of “diminished responsibility.”  All three men were sentenced to death by hanging.  In May 1964, Jarrett was released on appeal, but Bowen and Larman were hanged on 2 December 1964.  It is still not known exactly how many Rastafari were rounded up by the police, jailed, tortured, or killed. 

What is your professional background, and how did it prepare you to make this film?
I am an anthropology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and in my life before graduate school, I was a professional dancer in New York City.  I don’t have a professional background in film, obviously, though my husband John Jackson, who is the co-director for the film does, so this is why we thought we could tell this story in that way.  Junior Wedderburn and I did most of the camera work and the interviewing, with the help of many Rastafari involved with the Coral Gardens Committee (especially Junior “Ista J” Manning, when he was still living, and Ras Simba and Ras Iyah V).  Junior, John and I sat together to think through how we wanted to tell the story and who the primary audience should be, and Junior also created the music for the film, working with a number of excellent musicians in Brooklyn. 

Of all the subjects you could have had as the focus of your documentary, why the Coral Gardens Incident?
I was working on a book about violence in Jamaica, that has actually just been released.  It’s called EXCEPTIONAL VIOLENCE:  EMBODIED CITIZENSHIP IN TRANSNATIONAL JAMAICA.  The last chapter of that book concerns the Coral Gardens “incident” as I wanted to talk about the history of state violence against Rastafari and how this violence was geared in part toward solidifying a particular idea about citizenship that Rastafari countered.  As I was doing the research for the chapter, one of the elders with whom Junior Wedderburn and I had been talking suggested that it might be more useful to make a film about it, so we did. 

Where did you get funding to make the film?
The University of Pennsylvania has provided all the funding for the film, which has been incredibly helpful, obviously, as all the trips back and forth and the archival footage we use, as well as our own time and energy (which has been uncompensated), have ended up costing quite a bit.  The good thing is that because we’ve been supported by the university to make the film, we are now not concerned with recovering all these costs through sales of the film.  Instead, we are able to donate all of the proceeds from the film to the Rastafari Coral Gardens Committee, and indeed this was part of our agreement with the community all along.  Right now, we are in the final stages of creating the cover design for the DVD and making copies so that we can bring them some boxes to sell in Jamaica.  The film will also be available on our website: (it is still, currently, in construction). 

What was one of the best decisions you made regarding how to develop this film project?
I think our decision about audience has been important.  We went back and forth about the kind of documentary it should and could be, and how it could reach the broadest audience, and we ended up deciding that the community itself – both within and beyond Jamaica – should be primary.  The secondary audience, which of course overlaps with the community, comprises those interested in issues related to Pan-Africanism, Rastafari, black consciousness, and Jamaica.  We know there are communities of Rastafari or like-minded individuals who will be interested and who will look for the film all over the world.  We also feel that Jamaicans generally should see it, both on the rock and abroad, in order to have a better sense of our post-independence history. 

What was the biggest challenge you faced while making Bad Friday?
Because Rastafari have been so over-exploited in terms of their imagery and iconography, and because they have also been mis-represented on numerous occasions, or mistreated by researchers, cultural workers, or filmmakers, or not given what was promised to them, there is a fair amount of skepticism among leaders within the community about any project like this (though in our experience, this skepticism did not extend to the elders themselves).  We were fortunate to have the support of key individuals who were part of some of the current initiatives within the community, like the move to secure some degree of intellectual copyright protection and to protect their interests vis-à-vis the mobilization of their image in tourism advertising, etc.  This meant that while we were in some ways taken as a test case for these initiatives, we were also, for the most part, trusted as to our sincerity.  A big plus in this regard is that we ourselves are not trying to make money off the film, but instead see it as a gift to Jamaica and to the worldwide community of Rastafari.

 

If you could spend an afternoon interviewing anyone who has passed away but was involved in the Coral Gardens Incident, who would that be and why?
There is a sistren who was one of the only women arrested during the aftermath of Coral Gardens with whom I would love to have spoken; and there is another brethren who was involved and who was mentioned by several of the elders and others close to the situation, who has since passed.  A number of policemen who were part of the original battalion who responded to the events of that morning have also passed, and it would have been interesting, I think, to see whether they were willing to rethink what happened on those days.  A few of the elders who we did have the privilege of interviewing have also transitioned since, so we were happy to have been able to record their stories so that others may hear them.  Thankfully, the Public Defender is now investigating the case, in part because of the film but also as a result of the long-standing agitation of members of the community.  He has asked for our raw interview footage (which we gave him) and members of his office have already traveled to MoBay to take sworn testimony from individuals who went through the experience.  I know that he is also asking that if anyone beyond western Jamaica or even outside Jamaica can talk about their own experiences in relation to the events at Coral Gardens, they should contact his office, by email or by calling 876-922-7109 or 876-922-8256. 

If you had an unlimited budget to make any one film, what would it be about? 
This was it, really.  As I am not a filmmaker per se, I don’t lie awake thinking about the next one.  However, if something arose as organically as this did and it seemed to make sense in terms of what it could do to support the efforts of those I am working with, I might think about doing it again. 

How can people purchase the film or get more information about it?
The film is being distributed to institutions (educational and otherwise) in the U.S. and Canada by Third World Newsreel  and individuals can buy it from our website  within the next few weeks!  The soundtrack from the film will also be available from both sources, and will feature a couple of extra tracks. 

About the Interviewer:
Andrea Shaw, Ph.D., is assistant director of the Division of Humanities and an assistant professor of English at Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale. She was born in Jamaica and is a creative writer and a scholar of Caribbean and African Diaspora studies. Her book, The Embodiment of Disobedience: Fat Black Women’s Unruly Political Bodies, was published in 2006. Her creative and scholarly writing have been published in numerous journals, including World Literature Today, MaComére, The Caribbean Writer, Crab Orchard Review, Feminist Media Studies, Social Semiotics, and FEMSPEC. She graduated from the University of Miami with a Ph.D. in English and from Florida International University with an M.F.A in Creative Writing.

NOTE: “Bad Friday-Rastafari After Coral Gardens makes its New York premiere at the mulit-media, family friendly, Reggae Culture Salute 2011 on Saturday, Nov. 5th. The event honors the 81st anniversary of the coronation of HIM Emperor Haile Selassie I and Empress Menen of Ethiopa with a salute to the unique relationship between reggae, rasta, Selassie and Jamaica. The event which features Big Youth, Dubtonic Kru, IWayne and others benefits the Coalition to Preserve Reggae Music, Inc. (CPR) a 501 (c) (3) organization. Email [email protected] or call 718 421 6927 for further information.”

About the author

Andrea Shaw Nevins