From Dr No to the Blue Lagoon, with Club Paradise and The Mighty Quinn in between, Hollywood has long used Jamaica as a tropical backdrop against which tales of international adventure and romance are set. Dig a bit deeper, though, and you’ll find a solid tradition of Jamaican film-making. The island’s best-known and best-loved movie is Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come, which tells the story of Ivan (played by Jimmy Cliff) as he strives to make a better life for himself in Kingston. Pulling no punches in its gritty depiction of life in 1970s Jamaica, it offers a unique window into the life of the “sufferer”, and has rightly become a cult classic. Equally realistic but with a dollop of humour, Smile Orange (1974) features Ringo, a head waiter in a resort hotel, played by Carl Bradshaw, who uses all his guile and wit on tourists to overcome the harsh economic realities of contemporary Jamaica. Unsurprisingly, it still has plenty of relevance today, and is well worth seeking out despite the often poor audio quality.
The man who brought Bob Marley to the attention of the world, Jamaican impresario Chris Blackwell, also had a hand in classic Jamaican films. As well as acting as location scout on Dr No in 1962 and releasing the soundtrack of The Harder They Come on his Island label, he established Island Pictures in 1982 with the production of Countryman, a gorgeous tale woven around a scheme operated by corrupt government officials to discredit their opposition through the framing of two innocent American tourists as CIA gunrunners, and with a killer soundtrack to boot. Island were also behind The Lunatic, adapted by Jamaican author Anthony Winkler from his novel. An engaging, achingly funny mixture of burlesque humour, folklore and satirical comment on the sexual tourism prevalent in Jamaica, it stars Paul Campbell as the insane Aloysius. Campbell also starred in both Dancehall Queen (1997) and Third World Cop (1999), which together defined modern Jamaican cinema. The former tracks the fortunes of Marcia (played by Audrey Reid) as she struggles to support her family by way of being crowned dancehall queen; its underlying themes of incest and the exploitation of women generated plenty of controversy in Jamaica, and it still makes for a gripping watch. Third World Cop, meanwhile, takes the stock characters, action sequences and narrative cliché associated with the modern Hollywood action thriller and fleshes them out with distinctively Jamaican motivations and language, with Campbell playing the truly sinister baddie, Capone.
A Jamaican take on the classic gangster movie, Shottas (2002) mines the same vein of violence, albeit much more graphically, with Kymani Marley and DJ Spragga Benz playing two Kingston boys who take their life of crime from Jamaica to the US. Released in 2005, the sweet and delightful One Love represents a departure from the action genre; producer Sheelagh Farrell deliberately avoided focusing on the drugs-and-guns Jamaica, instead choosing to concentrate on the social tensions created when a pastor’s daughter falls controversially in love with a Rasta musician. Other recent films include Ghetta Life from veteran director (of Third World Cop and Dancehall Queen fame) Chris Browne, and Better Mus Come from emerging film-maker Storm Saulter, both of which revisit the theme of bridging the great divide of warring ghettos and political strife through self-empowerment and star-crossed romance.