Review: Do the Reggae: A Celebration of Jamaican Culture through Film at BAM – New York

This year, Jamaica celebrates its 50th anniversary of independence from Great Britain. The essence of this celebration is the idea that Jamaica, as a nation, is a reflection of several key themes that relate to human survival. That a nation of little over 2.7 million people could have such a great impact on the world is a remarkable fact. It is then no doubt that Jamaica is blessed beyond belief with people who have remarkable talent, remarkable strength, and remarkable aspirations.

When the organizers of this event selected “The Harder They Come” as the opening screening for this event, they must have imagined a weekend filled with images that depicted the various themes that depict the downsides Jamaican life such as post colonialism, exploitation, corruption, and violence. The film does that but also shows self-efficacy, endurance, and the will to fight. It also holds historical significance as we see icons of Jamaican culture including the Baby Sham, a vintage bottle of Pepsi, Chantel Olive Oil Pomade, and people dancing the ska in the dancehall.

“The Harder They Come” takes us on a journey with Ivanhoe Martin, a destitute man from the ghetto, whose talents are exploited by an upper class, lighter-skinned businessman who pays him $20 for his hit record. Ivan’s one lifelong dream is to be famous. As Ivan seeks to navigate the politics of the industry, he comes to realize that it is controlled and nobody will do business with him outside of the label. Dejected, he resorts to a life of crime, selling marijuana for a middleman named Jose. While engaging in this underground trade, he notices again that much like the record deal that went awry, he and other ganja farmers are getting a raw deal when their hard work is over each week. He rebels and speaks out against such forms of injustice stating, “somebody getting all the money. I only getting spit!” His decision rid himself of exploitation leads to a newer, more complex life riddled by violent crime. Despite this, however, Ivan’s determination to become famous remains his driving force. While his hit record hits airwaves, he becomes a famous hit man, killing several law enforcement agents and civilians in the names of fame and survival. Ivan becomes a tragic hero but on his own terms.

Though attendance for the first screening of the movie was low, some in attendance were excited to have been able to view the film for the first time. Denise Harris, a professor at Medgar Evers College remarked that the movie was “inspirational.” She had never seen the film before but thought the movie shows that “in order to make progress, you have to go through changes.” Similarly, Joanne “BlackPoet” Stephenson, an author and poet from Brooklyn, NY mentioned that “although humorous at times, the film shows perseverance and to never give up on your dreams. He wanted to be famous, and he was!”
The significance of opening Do the Reggae with the classic Jamaican film, “The Harder They Come,” is that it catalogs poverty and exploitation of the poor while displaying the willpower that those in destitute situations often have. The lyrics to Ivan’s song explain his enduring spirit as it states, “No Milk and honey in the sky. It’s here and I want my share.” Ivan doesn’t subscribe to the “pie in the sky” idea. He simply wants what’s fair and that to which he is entitled on earth. Ivan becomes a fugitive because of his own desire to seek justice for his stolen talent. The film shows his desperate attempt to become “a revolutionary to rass” and to get medical attention for a shoulder he injured at the hands of the police forces. Throughout the film, Ivan uses Anancy-like wit to overthrow his comrades and foes alike to gain him freedom by any means necessary. These are all experiences that express and explain how Jamaica has continued to survive for fifty years as a developing nation.