Christian Niedan’s History Storytellers — Part Four: The Remixer

by: Christian Niedan

The fourth 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 violence in the Jamaican community through an interview with Jamaican filmmaker Storm Saulter…

The waters of time inevitably dilute memories of even the most shocking events. Sometimes, it takes a movie of historical fiction to draw viewers minds back to facts of a past portrayed on screen. Such is the case with Jamaican filmmaker Storm Saulter’s debut, Better Mus’ Come, which is set in late-1970s Kingston, Jamaica during a turbulent period of warfare between street gangs (or “posses”), loyal to the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the People’s National Party (PNP). Factional violence culminated in what became remembered as the “Green Bay Massacre,” in which five men loyal to the JLP were killed by members of the Jamaica Defense Force.

I first learned about the Green Bay Massacre while reading Laurie Gunst’s 1995 memoir/history of Jamaica, Born Fi’ Dead: A Journey Through the Jamaican Posse Underworld. After speaking with Gunst for a January 2011 interview published on my film website, Camera In The Sun, I researched films centered around the 1970’s gangland era she chronicled. I saw that Better Mus’ Come had been released the previous October, and so I reached out to Saulter for an interview, and published it a few weeks after Gunst’s. During our conversation, Saulter discussed various aspects of Better Mus’ Come, and he explained the choice to tell his film’s story of its era in Jamaican history from the perspective of the posses:

Storm Saulter: “A lot of films come out of Jamaica, whether they’re good or bad, quality-wise — a lot of them focus on the “badman” element. In Jamaican culture, it’s very big on holding up the badman in a high place of respect, just generally. And I felt like, even though there are so many badman films that have come out, it’s like no one really put it in the correct context. It’s all about celebrating the badman like he’s a hero. And I really wanted to put it in a context of, no, we’re not just born like bad people. Jamaicans aren’t just born badasses and dangerous. We were made this way and it’s become a part of our society. I wanted to go back a bit more to the roots of why we are the way we are, and how that culture of gangsters got ingrained into our society. You know, before the politics started to really introduce it, we weren’t a particularly violent society. We were always very creative culturally, musically, and arts and all of that. But the whole violent element was very much pushed. The real guns firing was pushed by the political thing, and the real guns coming into the country was pushed by the political thing, and I kind of wanted to express that. Because, in a way, it’s dancehall music. It’s all about being bad for being bad sake. Being a gangster’s a virtue. Being willing to kill somebody is a virtue. I wanted to approach that subject from a different angle, put it in a certain context, and do it more justice than I felt it was being done. And it is on everybody’s mind too. Crime in this society’s on everybody’s mind.”

No more so than in May of 2010, when a Jamaican army and police raid into the West Kingston stronghold of “Shower Posse” leader Christopher “Dudus” Coke (who was arrested, and then extradited to the United States) made international news. By the time of the raid, Kingston gang members had a decades-long history of dwelling in housing projects conceived and constructed by the JLP and PNP as political garrisons to ensure loyalty. In return, these gang members were armed with guns to do battle with rivals. The most notorious of these strongholds was the JLP-loyal Tivoli Gardens, once lorded over by Coke. His leadership title of “don” reflected a crime culture whose power structures took influence from American mafia hierarchy, and whose gunslinging posses idolized the badman elements of violent Western film lore. The days-long 2010 raid proved to be the bloodiest period of Coke’s tenure in Tivoli Gardens, with the ensuing gunfight claiming seventy lives, and plunging West Kingston into a state of emergency. Though Coke survived and was captured, Prime Minister Bruce Golding received heavy criticism for his opposition to Coke’s extradition, and would eventually resign his office in September 2011. I asked Saulter if the coincidental timing of the Tivoli Gardens raid helped his Jamaican audience connect with Better Mus’ Come’s Green Bay storyline:

Saulter: “A lot of people don’t know about Green Bay. You know what most people know? The tune, ‘Green Bay Killing A Murder.’ That’s kind of a classic tune. So, if you grow up in Jamaica, you would have heard it around the place. It’s the type of tune, like, it’s kind of odd. So, it sticks with you. When I ran into Green Bay again in literature, I was like, ‘Oh, this is what that song is talking about.’ And that is for most people (especially the generation that weren’t around then) their biggest link to the Green Bay Massacre, is that song. Which is an interesting thing, because they do not teach Green Bay in school. If you want to find out about Green Bay, you have to research it. You might have to go to the Gleaner archives, something like that. Every once in a while there might be a newspaper article that comes out that mentions it, but there’s no real study. And it’s convenient for the government, because when something like the invasion of Tivoli happens (and that type of thing happens often), you think that it’s like a new phenomenon. You think it’s a new type of situation and there’s no reference point. I think Tivoli was just an evolution of what happened in Green Bay. Green Bay was a much smaller situation than what happened in Tivoli, whereas you had some gangsters that were empowered by the government to be gangsters, and to be violent and dangerous. Then, when they started getting in too much trouble, for whatever reason, you turn from their patron into their executioner. That happened at Green Bay, and obviously that happened in a large extent for this year. Of course, we didn’t know this was gonna happen when we’re making a film, but it was just poignant that the cycle just continues and continues.”

Saulter also compared Better Mus’ Come‘s portrayal of the Green Bay Massacre to the actual event:

Saulter: “The numbers of guys that went out there, the numbers of vehicles that went out there weren’t exactly the same, because we tailored it to the characters in the film. But, other than that, they were quite similar. There was an infiltrator into a group of guys in a certain neighborhood. The group of guys in the neighborhood were given some trouble, and the trouble related to a construction site that was very important. They were basically shutting down the site because they couldn’t get jobs because they were Laborites. And they also were getting in trouble attacking a political rally, and all type of things. So, there was an infiltrator sent in. I mean, we pretty much cut it very close. It was like being there, without saying, ‘This is Green Bay.’ It’s like, we have a guy playing a character, we don’t say he’s Michael Manley — but when you watch it, you don’t really have to ask who he is. And it’s interesting because it gave us some creative freedom. But at the same time, you watch it and you go, ‘Shit, that did happen.’ You know, it wasn’t twisted to any major degree. There’s a scene where they firebomb a tenement yard and stand outside the tenement yard, and when the people run out, they just shoot them up. That happened, and it happened recently too in Jamaica. But there’s a very famous fire similar to that back in the day, back in the ’70s, the Orangeville Fire. So, it was very close to Green Bay, it was inspired by that, and we kind of stepped back and just wove our characters into that reality. So, we basically took all these scenes and these situations that actually happened, that I read about in newspapers and in interviewing people and so on, and we created characters that were the type of guys that would have been in the situation at the time, and we wove them through all these real situations.”

Saulter’s research for the film also shattered preconceived notions he had about the political sources and street-level extent of posse violence in Kingston during the late ‘70s:

Saulter: “I always had a romantic idea about what the ’70s and maybe the ’60s were like, and I felt like maybe I should have been born around that time because it just seemed like a fair amount of freedom and movement, and less just gentrified world. So, I was kind of already fascinated with the era in a certain way. But I didn’t really come to acknowledge what really took place in the politics until I got into reading about the Cold War. Laurie Gunst’s book [Born Fi’ Dead] actually was a key piece of research for me. Once I came upon that, I was interested in [the era], I started to research it in the Gleaner archives as much as I could, and then also read [Gunst’s] book. And her book was a good in-point for then knowing what to look for in the archives.”

Finally, as in my interview with Gunst, I asked Saulter’s opinion about the influence of Old West outlaw films upon ‘70s Jamaican posse culture:

Saulter: “Jamaican culture, we’re like the ultimate remixers. How would I say it? We’re very show off-y, but it’s just a part of our culture. It’s not a bad thing. I mean, Jamaicans are very good at taking in something that’s popular and excitable, and giving it a Jamaican spin, and regurgitating it. We do it with music all the time. The Harder They Come was a good clue into that. You know, they literally sat there and watched a Spaghetti Western, and then got the gun, and then started imagining themselves as a Spaghetti Western. A lot of people are fans of that stuff, but not everybody gets an opportunity to become the real cowboy. I think certain elements seized on the opportunity, because it was kind of in our nature to be like, ‘Oh, you wanna be a cowboy? Well, here, be a cowboy. There’s your enemy over the next street.’ You know, it was encouraged in a way. So, my thoughts on it is just that it’s part of our cultural intake. We take in everything that’s kind of cool and interesting and fresh, remix it within our society, and then spit it back out. And I think those films have a big influence that just rubbed off in a way. When there was encouragement to be a gangster, then there was a point of reference to make your gangsterous deeds seem more heroic.”

 

Author’s Note (Update): In June 2018, Saulter’s latest feature film, Sprinter won Best Narrative Feature, Best Director and the Audience Award at the American Black Film Festival in Miami. In September 2018, Arcade Fire released the Saulter-directed video for a remixed version of their song “Peter Pan” from 2017 album, Everything Now. In an interview published on LargeUp.com, Saulter described how he crafted his six minute musical screen story:

Saulter: “’Peter Pan’ is a universally known tale of an adventurous boy in a magical land. I kept that in mind, but did not want to be literal about the story. The aim was to create a lo-fi teenage dancehall fairytale, with Peter Pan dancing on top of the concrete jungle. The visual was not written to music, and I wasn’t necessarily thinking about this story before this project, but for some time I’ve definitely wanted to create something whimsical within a raw dancehall space.”

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