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Father of Jamaican cinema bows out

By unknown | Dec 08, 2006 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

Perry Henzell was considered the father of Jamaican cinema. He was best known for his hugely successful 1972 film The Harder They Come, which he co-wrote, directed and produced.

It introduced the world to reggae music and turned the unknown singer Jimmy Cliff into an international star with its title song,

The soundtrack, which included 007 (Shantytown) by Desmond Dekker, and By the Rivers of Babylon by the Melodians, was often listed among the top 100 soundtracks of all time. It was partly edited by another white Jamaican, Chris Blackwell, of Island Records.

The Harder They Come tells the story of Ivan, an innocent youth from the backwoods of Jamaica, who moves to the bright lights of the capital, Kingston, to seek fame as a star of an emerging form of music, reggae.

But Ivan runs into a murky world of poverty, ganja, and guns, is betrayed by music producers and finally falls victim of crime and despair.

The film was based on the true story of Ivanhoe "Rhygin" Martin, a pistol-toting outlaw from the market town of Linstead who terrorised the well-to-do, black and white alike, in West Kingston in the 1940s.

Martin was seen by many poor blacks as something of a Robin Hood because of his daring and the help he gave to struggling families.

The film was a hit in the US and later in London, where it ran for months.

As Henzell pointed out, Jamaicans - indeed, West Indians - had never seen themselves portrayed on screen as they were then. Previously they had been depicted as servants or slaves. His film celebrated the island's raw culture at a time when it was seen as the land of sunshine and beaches portrayed in the calypso songs of Harry Belafonte.

When the film came out, Bob Marley had never been outside Jamaica and his genius might have lingered unnoticed for years had the world not been shocked into awareness of reggae music by Henzell's vision. The film gave Blackwell a launching pad for Marley.

With his wild white hair and beard, Henzell was a celebrity in Jamaica. In later years he became a somewhat reclusive writer at Runaway Bay on the island's north coast, while his wife, Sally, and his son, Jason, ran the famous Jake's Place on Treasure Beach on the south coast. His first novel, Power Game, appeared in 1982. A second, Cane, was published in 2002.

On the day of his death, Henzell had been scheduled to travel to the resort town of Negril to attend the local premiere of No Place Like Home, a sequel to The Harder They Come.

Henzell was a representative of a typically Jamaican phenomenon: he was a member of the "plantocracy", a white man of European stock whose family had been sugar-plantation owners but who, after the abolition of slavery, cast their lot with their black, ex-slave compatriots rather than with the lingering colonials.

He was born in Annotto Bay in the parish of Saint Mary in 1936 to a white Antiguan father and a white Trinidadian mother. Like most wealthy whites, they sent him abroad to get an education.

But he felt his best education had been as a child on the streets with black Jamaicans and he dropped out of university, first to ramble around Europe and eventually to land a job as a scenery shifter for BBC television's drama department in London.

He returned to the island to set up a company, Vista Productions, in 1962.

He is survived by his wife, Sally, by a son and by two daughters. He died of cancer on November 30, aged 70. - The Times News Service, London


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