Hidden Gem: Why Perry Henzell’s ‘The Harder They Come’ deserves more recoginition


I first stumbled across The Harder They Come during an especially bitter winter walk. Loneliness led to an aimless wander through the then unknown to me places surrounding campus, and the usual reliance on music (and art generally) for escapism and familiarity led to replaying Earl Sweatshirt’s dreary 2018 record some rap songs. The hazy nature of the instrumentals almost always meant that the lyrics passed by without striking my ears too much, until one of my favourite tracks on the album featured the line “In the blistering cold, watching Harder They Come”. Some Googling later, I found the film that the line was referring to, an almost entirely forgotten 1972 Jamaican film directed by Perry Henzell about a struggling artist in Kingston trying to make his way as a reggae artist.

All sounds well and good with the premise. Nothing like a wholesome rise to stardom comedy in the winter to cure a lighter case of the blues, right? Wrong! As The Harder They Come has little interest in protagonist Ivanhoe’s rise to stardom in the Reggae world (played by real Reggae artist Jimmy Cliff!). Instead, the film is an icy neo-realist film that takes inspiration from films like Vittorio De Sica’s famous Bicycle Thieves and the lesser known Uptight by Jules Dassin, making for a film which starts light enough but gradually becomes darker as even the colourful Jamaican streets turn crimson with bloodshed and capitalism continues to take hold.

As if Ken Loach went to Jamaica to make a terrific film about an urban legend character who makes music, deals drugs, gets in trouble with the police and ‘takes on the man’ (as the tagline says), The Harder They Come is just brilliant, and yet it remains an intensely unsung film in a similar way to work like Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends (1978) or your favourite experimental short filmmaker’s most obscure film. Perhaps that is due to the Jamaican setting, perhaps it is due to the film being made in 1972 or maybe it is something else entirely, but no matter what the reason is for this film’s lack of praise compared to most films like it (in terms of quality, theme and form), its status is undeserved and in need of reappraisal. Thankfully, its recent break into the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list should help it find its standing culturally.

To come full circle, the irony of discovering a film like this through a mainstream 2018 album isn’t lost on me, and neither is the fact that I watched such a sun-drenched film on a day so cold that I had to shower when I got in to shake the chill from my bones. In fact, nothing involving my experience with this film is lost on me – both the film itself and my personal experience with it are close to my heart, and the film’s beautiful empathy, gorgeous cinematography (as colourful as Touki Bouki!) and great sentiments regarding the police make it a must watch for any film fan.

The Harder They Come is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD. 


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Third year film student.

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