Christian Niedan’s History Storytellers — Part Three: The Memoirist

by: Christian Niedan

The third installment of a twelve part series, recounting and expanding upon an array of interviews with an assemblage of historians and history-infatuated filmmakers. The series continues with a look at the influence of Spaghetti Westerns on Jamaica through insight garnered from author Laurie Gunst…

A reoccurring theme within Spaghetti Westerns is that the main character dodges death until the end of the film. Otherwise and obviously, there would be no movie. Jamaican film audiences picked up on this — and in their island cinemas, blood-soaked gunplay-heavy Westerns set one hundred years prior were popular among youths growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s. This Italian-derived genre is referenced in the most famous Jamaican film, The Harder They Come, where Jimmy Cliff’s modern day outlaw character, Ivan Martin, visits a raucous cinema to watch Franco Nero gun down bad guys in 1966’s Django, while emerging un-shot. Martin’s friend describes the reason for Nero’s character Django’s survival in his island patois tongue: “The hero can’t dead til the last reel!” Sure enough, Cliff dies at the close of his own film — gunned down by the Jamaica Defense Force, while imagining himself as a cinematic gunslinger dramatically drawing down against bad guy opponents, as an imaginary movie audience cheers him on.

This Western genre obsession bled out onto Jamaican streets roamed by island gangs, who dubbed themselves “posses,” and who took cues from films like Ride the High Country and The Wild Bunch, both directed by Sam Peckinpah. I first learned of this influence after reading Harvard academic Laurie Gunst’s 1995 memoir/history of Jamaica, Born Fi’ Dead: A Journey Through The Jamaican Posse Underworld. Intrigued, I wrote an essay that touched on this cultural undercurrent for my film website, Camera In The Sun, titled “Guns and Reggae in ‘70s Kingston, Jamaica.” Among those I quoted was Gunst, who interacted with various gang members, and wrote of Martin’s climatic shootout death, “Like hundreds of Jamaican gangsters before and after, he lives and dies with gunslinger bravado acquired from the movies.”

Among those Gunst interviewed for Born Fi’ Dead was a posse “ranking” named “Billy the Kid,” who was a fan of Western outlaw lore – writing that “[He] was very reluctant to talk to me until someone mentioned that I’d only recently come to Jamaica from Wyoming. ‘Whoy,’ Billy breathed in a reverent whisper. ‘I know ’bout that place! Nuff-nuff bad-mon come from out there! Hole-in-the-Wall, Butch Cassidy an’ the Sundance Kid…’”

Despite ongoing litigation on behalf of Jamaican former-Prime Minister Edward Seaga over his portrayal in the book, which blocked its availability on the island, Born Fi’ Dead was reissued for a second print run in 2003, and thanks to former-Natty Dread Magazine chief editor Thibault Ehrengardt (who I interviewed for CITS in 2014), received a French edition in 2010. That edition was published just before the infamous May 2010 Jamaican army and police raid of the Tivoli Gardens housing projects in West Kingston, which resulted in the capture of “Shower Posse” leader Christopher “Dudus” Coke — and resulted in the deaths of seventy people, and laid bare the violent confluence of Jamaican crime and politics that Gunst explores within Born Fi’ Dead. Later that year, I interviewed Gunst for CITS about her thoughts regarding the impact of Westerns on Jamaican gang culture — including Coke and his Shower Posse. While she noted the popularity of 1969’s The Wild Bunch, Gunst took the timeline back a decade further to the 1950s cultural peak of American movie Westerns, and an early Peckinpah film in particular:

Laurie Gunst: “You can go back to Randolph Scott, you know, Ride The High Country. Jamaicans have always loved Westerns, as have Americans, and the gunslinger ethos of ‘maybe he’s not a bad guy, maybe he’s a good guy who’s just run afoul of the law for whatever reason (and has to go up against the police or the sheriff or whatever)’ is a very moving thing to Jamaicans and any country who sees its people outfoxed, outmanned, outgunned by law enforcement. They have, in fact, often been Robin Hood heroes to the people. So, that thread runs straight through. In the ’60s and ’70s, you got Spaghetti Westerns with Clint Eastwood, Sergio Leone movies, and it took a darker turn, where it wasn’t necessarily the “white hat” who got framed by the bad guys. Now, it was the bad guy. And that was running parallel to what Jamaicans were seeing in their own lives, as far as the bad guys really had become the Robin Hood heroes in the ghettos. So, when you have movies like High Plains Drifter or A Fist Full of Dollars, all of that sort of stuff where there was sort of a dark avenger — even if you look at playful things, like 1969′s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, you’re still looking at a culture that has begun to see the bad guy as the good guy. So, when that begins to echo the reality of Jamaica’s life, when the bad guys are really the politicians who were supposed to be the legal guys — and the real good guys, the benefactors of the ghettos, the Robin Hood poor, who are robbing from the rich and dispensing some of their bounty in the downtown neighborhoods, those are viewed as the bad guys by the establishment. But guess what? The rank and file sees them as real heroes. So, why “posse,” instead of “gang?” Because if you’re echoing that sheriff’s posse idea, and you’re really identifying with being a good guy, even though you’re an outlaw, it turns it on its head to call it a posse. And Jamaicans love inverting things. I mean that’s a big thrill, to take what everybody else thinks is the paradigm, and instead to turn it on its head. So, rather than affiliate with gangs, which has a negative connotation. The posse was kind of the good guys — the sheriff’s posse.”

Gunst recalled a first-hand experience with a Jamaican cinema audience’s sympathies for an on-screen villain:

Gunst: “Going to a movie in Jamaica is quite an experience. People talk to the screen. They yell at the actors. I mean, they’re right there in the movie, so it’s very immediate. They don’t observe that sort of cinema decorum we do. I saw New Jack City,  the scene where the Rasta guy gets his brains blown out in front of Graham Court — and I saw that in Kingston, and of course everybody there totally identified with the Rasta drug dealer that the American murdered in order to prove that it was his turf now. The Jamaicans were not happy at seeing a dreadlocks gunned down in front of the apartment house in Harlem.”

Gunst also related a personal story to me about her first viewing of The Harder They Come, and meeting Jimmy Cliff:

Gunst: “It was a funny story, because we knew a wonderful filmmaker by the name of George Butler, who was a friend of the family. He did the movie Pumping Iron with Arnold Schwarzenegger. George grew up in Jamaica, and I think he helped back The Harder They Come. He was involved with it in some way. Then, the night it premiered in Cambridge in 1972, he called me. I was busy doing something else that night, and I never really thought about Jamaica. You know, Jamaica was not on my radar in 1972. He said, ‘I hope you will come and see this film. I had something to do with the making of it, and it stars Jimmy Cliff and it’s called The Harder They Come.’ I just remember thinking, “Jamaica? I’m not interested in Jamaica, George.” Prophetic utterances, you know. I wasn’t into reggae. I’d never heard reggae music. And the first time I saw the movie, of course, I was absolutely captivated. So, Jamaica got to me by slow degrees.

My favorite story about the title, by the way, happened years later when I was in Wyoming. This wonderful old cowpoke friend came over to the house, and I had the video of the film on my coffee table. He looked at the title and he said, “Oh, The Harder They Come… you into porn flicks?” Well, I just thought, “Oh my God.” My two worlds, you know, Wyoming and Jamaica.

[Cliff] came to a party at my apartment in Cambridge in 1979, and he had given a concert in Boston that night, and it was just one of the most amazing events that I think I had ever hosted. I never believed that he would actually come, but that actually goes back to the dreadlock thing, because I asked him that night why he never had dreads. His response was so beautiful and so classically Cliff. He threw back his head, and he laughed, and he said, “Daughta, me dreads so long, ye can’t even see them. They’re invisible.” Which was so true, because he was such an amazing human being that he didn’t need to worry about styles and dreads and whatever. Then after he laughed, he got serious and he said, “You must check for the dread in the heart, and not for locks on the head.” I never forgot that, because in my time I’ve certainly known many, many people who might not have worn dreadlocks, but they certainly wore dreads in their heart — and he’s one of them, no doubt about it.

Everybody at this party was, you know, snorting coke left and right. It was 1979, and it was Harvard, and that was what a lot of people were doing. And he was the first person I ever saw who refused cocaine, and it was quite something. And when I asked him why, he said, “My voice. I have to protect my voice.” Of course, he’s also a very committed Muslim — and as we know, Muslims do not do drugs. So, I think that was the larger reason, but he was so gentle about it. You know, he wasn’t judgmental. He didn’t make other people in the room who were all snorting coke feel whatever. He just very politely declined himself, and I thought that was very impressive.

I’ll never forget hearing, oh, about ten years ago, Perry Henzell came and spoke. It might have even been 2002, and it was the 30th anniversary of The Harder They Come. We screened the film, and someone in the audience said, “It must have been quite something to have made a movie that changed the face of Caribbean cinema,” and Perry laughed. He said, “It didn’t change the face of anything, my man. You know, it was a flash in the pan. It was one film. It didn’t change a thing. There’s never been another movie looking at ghetto life as The Harder They Come did.” And he was absolutely right, and he didn’t say it in a mean way. He just said, ‘I wish it had changed Caribbean cinema, but it didn’t.'”

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