THE HARDER THEY COME 1973 director: Perry Henzell; starring Jimmy Cliff
Reggae was just beginning to become a recognizable sound on the global music scene, and blaxploitation was already in full swing in 1973 when this little film from Jamaica landed in theatres. Few people ever refer to it as a blaxploitation flick, even though the film was originally marketed as such by Roger Corman’s distribution company, New World. But to be clear, Perry Henzell’s cult classic contains all the trappings of the blaxploitation genre – sex, drugs, violence, anti-establishment message – and it came out during the height of the blaxploitation era. Well, if it looks like a duck, and walks like duck, then it must be a duck (even if it speaks in Jamaican patois).
Singer Jimmy Cliff stars as Ivan, a young man from the country who ventures into the rough-and-tumble streets of Jamaica looking to make a name for himself. Just a few minutes off the bus and the naïve Ivan already falls victim to a big city rip-off, losing all of his possessions. But rather than get out while the getting is good, he bums around looking for a way to make ends meet, eventually seeking refuge at a church. But when Ivan develops a boner for a young woman, and she gets a bit moist between the legs for him, things go bad (it seems the church’s preacher has his eye set on popping the cherry of Miss Thang). Ivan decides to pursue his dream of being a singer, but winds up getting screwed over by an unscrupulous producer. Just when it looks like things can’t get worse for our hero, he lands a job as small-time ganga peddler. Now I know that for some of you a career in dope dealing…oh, excuse, marijuana is an herb…may seem like a good job. But for Ivan, who seems to have been born under an unlucky star, his new job simply leads to more problems, including him shooting a cop. Quicker that you can say, “It was I who shot the sheriff,” Ivan is on the run from the law. Soon, with his song blasting from every radio and the cops looking everywhere for him, Ivan becomes a folk hero.
Upon its initial release – as something of a blaxploitation crime thriller – THE HARDER THEY COME had trouble finding an audience. All of that changed when it found a home in the bourgeoning midnight movie scene, which had made big hits of films like EL TOPO and NIGHT OF THE LVING DEAD. THE HARDER THEY COME quickly developed a cult following, in large part to midnight screenings in New York and Boston (in Boston it stayed in theaters for an amazing six years), where it became a seminal favorite among the art house/foreign film crowd. This is the primary reason it is seldom talked about in the context of other blaxploitation films, which is fine, because it really does deserve the status it has earned. But at the same time it should be recognized as a classic blaxploitation film.
Inspired by the real life Jamaican criminal/folk hero, Ivanhoe Martin, better known as Rhyging, Jimmy Cliff’s Ivan is the quintessential blaxploitation hero, cut from the same cloth as characters like Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweetback, who exist at the very bottom of society’s ladder. Ivan embodies the ultimate rebel, a poor man who seeks to better his life, only to be betrayed by the church, exploited by the wealthy, and persecuted by corrupt law enforcement. His rise to fame is not through his creative genius or his hard work, but through the criminal activity that comes as a result of his being pushed too far. He is a character that the disaffected and disenfranchised audiences of the time could rally around, and that was part of what led to the film’s success.
The other factor in the success of THE HARDER THEY COME was the classic soundtrack. Regarded by many as one of the greatest reggae albums of all time (no argument there), it is also, because of the nature of the film, a great blaxploitation album. Many of Cliff’s greatest songs appear on this album, which serves the film as a Greek chorus in much the same way Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack fueled SUPER FLY.