(director/writer: Perry Henzell; screenwriter: Trevor Rhone; cinematographers: Frank St. Juste/David McDonald/Peter Jessop; editors: John Victor Smith/ Seicland Anderson/Richard White; music: Jimmy Cliff ; cast: Jimmy Cliff (Ivanhoe ‘Ivan’ Martin), Carl Bradshaw (Jose), Janet Bartley (Elsa), Winstone Stona (Detective Ray Jones), Bobby Charlton (Hilton), Lucia White (Mother), Basil Keane (Preacher), Ras Daniel Hartman (Pedro); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Perry Henzell; New World Pictures; 1972)

Predated Bob Marley’s success by a year.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The first film from Jamaica made by Jamaicans is directed by Perry Henzell(“No Place Like Home”), who previously shot TV commercials. The white Jamaican film-maker, a wealthy blond, whose family owns a Jamaican plantation, financed the film from his own pockets and co-writes it with Trevor Rhone. The cast is all black. The film predated Bob Marley’s success by a year, as it introduced reggae for the first time to an appreciative American audience.

It roughly blends together your usual gangster black exploitation movie with a celebration of Jamaican reggae music. The movie got international recognition and went on to become an underground sensation after shown at the 1972 Venice Film Festival. It hit a nerve with viewers taken with the unique Jamaican sounds and its gripping pulse of the urban Jamaican scene unseen by tourists. Complaints followed saying that the pic encouraged crime, and three years after its release it was banned in Jamaica. In cities like New York, it became popular as a midnight movie and drew enthusiastic ganja (marijuana) smoking crowds at the Elgin digging it for both its radical politics and as a film with mind-blowing music. The filmmaker denied he had any Marxist intentions, something the pic was critiqued for by some.

The charismatic Jimmy Cliff plays Ivan, a reggae singer from the country, who tries to make it in Kingston’s music business. He is rejected and when he can’t get his music recorded becomes a handyman for a preacher (Basil Keane) recommended to him by his mom (Lucia White). Ivan goes to prison over knifing someone trying to steal his bicycle. Upon his release he stays with the preacher’s ward Elsa (Janet Bartley), and puts all his energy into trying to cut a record with the island’s top record mogul Hilton (Bobby Charlton). The church doesn’t appreciate his music’s militant social protest messages and he’s fired. When Hilton tries to buy his songs for practically nothing, at twenty dollars, Ivan rebuffs him for trying to cheat him. The producer retaliates by failing to promote his record. The penniless Ivan feels he has no choice and turns to dealing ganja under the untrustworthy dealer kingpin Jose (Carl Bradshaw). When Ivan’s criminal rep grows, the cunning Hilton promotes his record. The records sales grow rapidly at the same time his crime rep grows. But things go whacky when Ivan kills several cops after getting double-crossed over payoffs to the police. With the help of his Rastafarian friend Pedro (Ras Daniel Hartman), he’s about to escape on a boat to Cuba. But Elsa betrays her ex-lover to the Preacher and he rats him out to the police, who kill him during a shootout at his hideout.

The electric performance by Cliff as the country-boy singer unable to handle the city slickers while striving only for riches and fame is highly entertaining, while the revealing neorealist view of the squalor in the shantytowns and the police corruption is shocking to behold. When you add on to that the stirring reggae sounds, this gutsy film looms as quite an accomplishment. But it’s a film also with severe limitations, as its ego-tripping martyred hero is on a dead-end trip and his tenuous romanticized journey never gets to how it’s the corporate structure in Jamaica that has a strangle-hold on the country’s economy and its social structure.