Rising out of the social and economic discontent of Jamaica in the late 1960s, reggae music was like nothing before it. A heady meeting ground where drum, bass and melody alchemised with word, sound and power, reggae — and the Rastafarian religion with which it is inextricably bound — brought a welcome message of political resistance and spiritual redemption to and from the people.
Almost from the start, filmmakers were there with their cameras to bear witness to the phenomenon, both through factual portraits as well as fictional renderings of the burgeoning artform. Over the years, a canon of films about and featuring reggae has emerged to complement the music itself.
Here is a selection of six of the most potent of these works. While they vary widely in subject, setting and approach, these films all have one thing in common: a commitment to telling reggae’s story in the most unforgettable way imaginable.
Horace Ové, 1971
Reggae might be a Jamaican creation but let the record show that, arguably, the first film to document the sound in any significant way was made in the United Kingdom, and by a Trinidadian no less — the recently deceased, pioneering director Horace Ové.
Using Britain’s first major concert featuring artists from Jamaica as its jumping-off point, Reggae interweaves electric performances by the likes of ska pioneer Millie Small (whose “My Boy Lollipop” was the first international ska hit) and the duo Bob and Marcia with frank testimonies by fans, radio DJs and record producers, as well as news footage of race-fuelled police brutality against the Caribbean community.
The provocative result is a testament to reggae as the soundtrack of a generation of both Black and White youth determined to fight back against an unequal, unjust society.
The Harder They Come
Perry Henzell, 1972
So iconic is the status of The Harder They Come — it’s the foundation stone of Anglophone Caribbean cinema — that it’s easy to forget what a sensation the movie was when it first burst onto screens, presenting an unapologetically rough and raw image of Jamaica to the world.
Jimmy Cliff’s magnetic two-gun troubadour Ivan O Martin took on nothing less than the whole of society — a wronged man grimly determined to get his share (“Now!”). In the process, he gave ordinary Jamaicans their first homegrown cinematic (anti)hero — a living, fighting embodiment of the corrupted dreams of independence.
It’s an undeniable classic that feels thrillingly subversive today. And the songs: the film’s choice soundtrack, a collection of existing hits and Cliff-penned originals — like the immortal “Many Rivers to Cross” and the take-no-prisoners title tune — remains one of the most memorable assembled.
Franco Rosso, 1980
Back to Britain and a film that could be characterised as that country’s answer to The Harder They Come; indeed, many have. Yet to peg Babylon as The Harder They Come save with British accents is to sell the former very short indeed.
This is an incendiary film, a cri de coeur of urban alienation focused on Blue (played with passion by Brinsley Forde of the group Aswad), a young man immersed in South London’s vibrant reggae soundsystem scene.
Misunderstood by his Jamaican-migrant parents, fired from his mechanic job by a racist boss, and harassed by the police at a time when a Black man could legally be stopped simply because of his colour, an increasingly disillusioned Blue is pushed to the margins of a society that has made no place for the likes of him.
The results are, simply and shockingly, explosive. Banned when it was made, Babylon feels as urgent and necessary as ever.
The Land of Look Behind
Alan Greenberg, 1982
Bob Marley’s early death from cancer was an incalculably momentous event for reggae, Jamaica, and the Caribbean at large. Yet the loss of the Great One unwittingly provided the beginnings of what was to become one of the best documentary artefacts of reggae music and Rastafarian culture, The Land of Look Behind.
In Jamaica to record Marley’s funeral in 1981, American filmmaker Alan Greenberg used the opportunity to delve deep into the society that gave the world its most profound popular music form in decades, as well as the religion that undergirded it.
Shifting between country and town, and not seeking to theorise or explain (the film has no narration or expert interviews), The Land of Look Behind is a brilliantly sensorial visual poem, a natural-mystic, ganja-smoke-wreathed vibe of a film that combines ritual, performance (Gregory Isaacs and the dub poet Mutabaruka feature prominently), and — to use a Rasta term — reasoning to powerful effect. A transcendental experience.
Stepping Razor: Red X
Nicholas Campbell, 1993
Peter Tosh — one third of the triumvirate alongside Bob Marley and Bunny Livingstone that comprised the incomparable Wailing Wailers — was always marked. The self-styled Mystic Man claimed that wherever his named appeared in officialdom, it was always accompanied by the censorious red stamp of a letter X.
Assembled after his murder in 1987 from audio tapes recorded over several years in preparation for a biography, Stepping Razor: Red X features archival footage from Tosh’s life as a Wailer and later a solo musician, and brilliantly burnishes the reputation of an outlaw artist militantly opposed to the “sh*tstem” of a world order that kept the mass of Black people dispossessed, and his sacrament marijuana illegitimate.
Defiant to the tragic last, the imperiously righteousness Tosh is laid out here in all his uncompromising, unvarnished — his reported remarks on hearing of the death of Bob Marley are wince-inducing — and inimitable glory.
No Place Like Home
Perry Henzell, 2019
The name Perry Henzell is synonymous with The Harder They Come, the Jamaican filmmaker’s first, and to many, only film. Yet it wasn’t his only film. Filmed starting in 1973 and finally released in 2019, Henzell’s long-lost second feature is every bit as good as his first.
Set amid the stunning landscapes of Jamaica’s north coast, and starring the charismatic Carl Bradshaw, No Place Like Home is an improvised road movie that uses a simple set up (New York production company flies to tropical paradise to shoot shampoo commercial) to tell a smart, sexy, and deceptively easy-going story of third world “development” and tourism-driven, neo-colonial exploitation.
It’s Henzell’s characteristically judicious use of songs, however, that gives No Place Like Home the status of a great reggae film. From Desmond Dekker’s evergreen “Israelites” (driving home the impoverishment of the ghetto) to Toots and the Maytals’ cover of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” (hymning Jamaica’s pastoral beauty) to the Wailers’ “Stir it Up” (soundtracking a — what else? — steamy lovemaking scene), No Place Like Home is the fitting final testament of a man who had a defining hand in bringing the worlds of reggae and cinema together.