The Rhetoric of Reggae in Artful Cinema for the World

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The Rhetoric of Reggae in Artful Cinema for the World

Perry Henzel's The Harder They Come is credited with a significant and unique role in introducing American audiences to reggae. Whereas earlier cinematic crossmarketed films like A Hard Days Night or Help! were adjunct to and dependent on a group's previous commercial musical success, Henzel's film was for many an introduction to reggae and both precursor and impetus for its international impact and commercial popularity. The film's status as a cult classic and phenomenon, to the extent a phenomenon can be explained, perhaps rests on its lack of commercial pretentions or promotional glitz, and thus its authenticity. The rhetoric of this film -- its images, words, and music in complementary array -- is rhetoric in the best sense because it uses the power of language to reveal, not to disguise, the unconscionable constraints on the lives of poor Jamaicans. Principally it's a film by a Jamaican artist about some musically and culturally significant events happening in Jamaica at the time, and though it is formulaic as films tend to be, it also encompasses all of the majors themes and conflicts that define and swirl around reggae music: spirituality, sensuality, commercialism, social justice, the messiah, and even Armageddon, though its tenor is decidedly secular

The genius of the film is that it synthesizes a multitude of cultural and musical elements and still manages to function rhetorically on separate but parallel levels of communication. The fundamental message for Jamaican audiences was to document, authenticate, and value the Jamaican reality. As Henzel notes in his running commentary, a special feature of the DVD, Jamaicans cheered the film's opening scenes wildly, simply because they recognized themselves and their world in a powerful global medium that had paid them no mind until then. "There is no thrill in moviedom like people seeing themselves on the screen for the first time." The experience and the legacy of colonialism accustoms people who suffer it to literature and film that depicts the lives and perspectives of the colonizers, not the colonized. As Jamaica Kincaid explains in a memoir of a Carribean childhood, all of her reading was from books set in England. Her land and its people were not worthy of literary attention. While finally getting such cinematic attention is a joyful, liberating, and affirming interaction for the Jamaican audience, it has an ironic dimension too in that the downpressed are joyous because at last they see themselves if not through the downpressor's lens, at least on his screen.
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