Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come is probably more important than good, but it’s reasonably entertaining at that. Jimmy Cliff stars as a young man on the make. Coming into Kingston from the Jamaican countryside, he has ambitions, but he needs to eat. Very quickly, he gets a job working for a preacher, seduces the girl the preacher has lined up for himself (Janet Bartley), records a great album that doesn’t get play because our hero wants all the money for himself and doesn’t play along with a scumbag record distributor. To make money, he finally enters the marijuana trade. But he gets in trouble here too for the same reason–he doesn’t want to share the money. When the syndicate gets sick of him, they send the cops (who ultimately control the trade) after him. But then he proves tough to kill. In fact, what he’s really good at is killing cops and then publicizing it. So he becomes a folk hero and while his demise is likely, it will also be very manly and heroic.
So it’s a pretty stock movie with a lot of plot holes. And the acting isn’t always that great. But it does have a few things going for it. First, it shows in full force the entrenched poverty of Kingston and the few opportunities young people from the country have going for them. It’s not meant to be a sociological expose, but it does work toward that goal. Second, it helped introduce the world to reggae. The music is great of course, and the studio scenes especially so. The Harder They Come became a big hit in the arthouses of the U.S. and Europe, in part because of the open marijuana smoking, in part because of the music, and in part because of the iconic manhood. And while the last part of that can become tiresome, it works because it so wears its heart on its sleeve. One of the first scenes of the film is the newly urbanized Jimmy Cliff going to a theater and watching Django, particularly the scene where Django blows away all the guys in red masks with his traveling machine gun. That spaghetti western violence becomes his inspiration and the film’s most iconic shots are of Cliff posing in an old west gunslinging manner for photographs that are meant to taunt the cops.
So it’s not a great movie but it’s a pretty fun one, like much grassroots violent cinema of the period, including spaghetti westerns, blaxploitation, and hippie indie films. Taken as part of that, plus awesome music, and you have a worthy film.