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Light Up the Screen: A Guide to Homegrown Jamaican Cult-Classic Films

A roundup of Jamaican cinema gold — films that explore, celebrate, and enlighten the world to the nation’s unique culture in ways that can only be done by the people themselves.

by Mike McPadden

by Mike McPadden

This article is part of MERRY JANE's Jamaica Week, for more on this special series of articles and videos, visit our Editor's Letter here.

While music (rightly) comes immediately to mind when considering Jamaica’s richest artistic exports, the island’s film industry has proven to be a powerhouse of its own.

Given the lush scenery and irresistible spirit of the people, Hollywood has been shooting in Jamaica for decades, utilizing the country’s beauty and allure for spectacles as varied as Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954); the very first James Bond flick, Dr. No (1962); the Brooke Shields teen fantasy The Blue Lagoon (1980); and the all-star romantic comedy, How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998).

But forget Hollywood for now. Jamaica itself has produced a succession of homegrown cult classics that stunned viewers upon first release and continue to beguile admirers and win new fans with the passing of time. These are films about, starring, and often made by Jamaican citizens — motion picture experiences that explore, celebrate, and enlighten the world to the nation’s unique culture in ways that can only be done by the people themselves. 

Ganja, as you might expect, blazes everywhere in these movies. So, too, does the Rastafarian faith. Some of these titles delve into Jamaica’s criminal underworld and/or complicated political situations. All of them highlight and showcase the music of Jamaica, which comes off as omnipresent and vital to life there as the tropical winds themselves. Check out our roster of nine offbeat favorites from the land of the Rasta.

The Harder They Come (1973)
Director: Perry Henzell
Cast: Jimmy Cliff, Janet Bartley, Carl Bradshaw

The Citizen Kane of Jamaica movies, The Harder They Come stars global reggae supernova Jimmy Cliff as Ivan, an impoverished youth from the country who moves to Kingston and gets a job assisting a record producer.

While working, Ivan composes, performs, and records the song “The Harder They Come” for $20. It becomes a smash hit, but the producer refuses to share the profits, forcing the penniless musician to turn to peddling marijuana. During a traffic stop, then, Ivan panics and fatally shoots a policeman.

From there, The Harder They Come evolves fast into a politically powerful crime thriller. Ivan’s status as a high-profile, wanted fugitive skyrockets the sales of his song. After watching the 1966 Spaghetti Western Django, he fantasizes about being an Old West outlaw, and those dreams figure profoundly into the movie’s knockout ending.

Upon hitting theaters, The Harder They Come broke box office records in Jamaica. In the states, it ran briefly on the B-flick circuit before transforming into a midnight movie phenomenon in 1974, running regularly all over America for nearly two decades. The film’s soundtrack proved revolutionary, too, with many observers crediting its songs with breaking reggae music throughout the world. The album continues to sell and, as always, to inspire.  

Smile Orange (1976)
Director: Trevor D. Rhone
Cast: Carl Bradshaw, Glenn Morrison, Stanley Irons

In Smile Orange, native Jamaican movie star Carl Bradshaw teams with writer-director Trevor D. Rhone to sock it to a number of worthy targets. The movie sends up the crass exploitation of the island’s tourist trade, the inherent class divides between urban dwellers and rural residents, and even the nation’s ongoing battle of the sexes. It’s a comedy with a big bite that’s sharp, savvy, and very funny.

Smile Orange is also a spin-off of The Harder They Come, with Bradshaw reprising his role as lovable conman and small-time hustler Ringo. Here, he works at a luxury resort, working every conceivable angle to bilk clueless guests and to rankle desperate-to-impress management-types. Watching Ringo swindle is an intoxicating joy.

Rockers (1978)
Director: Theodoros Bafaloukos
Cast: Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace, Richard “Dirty Harry” Hall, Monica Craig

Lee “Horsemouth” Wallace stars in Rockers as a reggae drummer who produces and sells his own records on a snazzy red motorbike. In the course of his adventures, Horsemouth visits the famous Harry J. Studios and comes across reggae titans on the order of Burning Spear, Gregory Isaacs, Big Youth, Dillinger, and Jacob Miller.

Rockers commenced its life as a documentary on the incandescent ascent of Jamaica’s reggae scene. In the course of the production, however, it morphed into a casual remake of Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 masterwork, Bicycle Thieves (you can guess what happens to Horsemouth’s wheels).

As the finished film stands, Rockers is a brilliant time capsule of the musicians that perform both on-camera and on the movie’s soundtrack album. The record includes tunes by Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, Junior Mervin, The Maytones, Inner Circle, Third World, and Burning Spear.  

Countryman (1982)
Director: Dickie Jobson
Cast: Countryman, Carl Bradshaw, Kristina St. Clair

Countryman plays himself in Countryman — or, more pointedly, a version of himself that gets involved in an action-adventure involving two American plane crash survivors and an evil town boss named Colonel Sinclair (Carl Bradshaw).

In real life, Countryman was a fisherman who dwelled, as he does in the film, on a small island accessible only by boat. The makers of The Harder They Come discovered Countryman and stood back in awe of his wisdom, wit, and remarkable screen presence.

Nearly a decade later, Countryman packed theaters in Jamaica and generated a following worldwide. Island Records produced both the film itself and it’s A-list soundtrack, which boasts numbers by Bob Marley, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Steel Pulse, Wally Badarou, Aswad, Rico, Fabulous 5, and Jah Lion.

The Mighty Quinn (1989)
Director: Carl Schenkel
Cast: Denzel Washington, Robert Townsend, Mimi Rogers

Named for the popular Bob Dylan composition (which gets covered here by Cedella Marley, Sharon Marley Pendergast, and actress Sheryl Lee Ralph), The Mighty Quinn spotlights Denzel Washington as Xavier Quinn. He’s the Chief of a Police on a Caribbean island that greatly resembles Jamaica because, in fact, the movie was filmed in Jamaica.

Robert Townsend co-stars as Maubee. He’s a charming, two-bit scammer who also happens to be the top cop’s best friend. After a big-time resort owner gets decapitated in a hot tub, suspicion falls on Maubee. In the course of clearing his buddy’s name, Quinn exposes a money-laundering scheme that leads all the way to the United States White House.

Despite the heavy plot points, The Mighty Quinn comes loaded with light moments, many provided most amusingly by Townsend. It’s also got a terrific upbeat soundtrack that sports songs by UB40, Arrow, and the Neville Brothers.

Marked for Death (1990)
Director: Dwight H. Little
Cast: Steven Seagal, Basil Wallace, Keith David

Marked for Death stands out among Steven Seagal’s early run of grindhouse limb-snappers because it pits the pony-tailed faux-ninja against his first truly formidable opponent: Basil Wallace as Jamaican crime kingpin Screwface (amazingly, Screwface was the movie’s original title!).  

Seagal plays ex-DEA agent John Hatcher. He teams up in Chicago with his old Army buddy Max (Keith David, who so fantastically dukes it out with Roddy Piper in John Carpenter’s They Live) to contend with a psychotic drug gang called the Jamaican Posse. Screwface controls the gang from overseas.

Hatcher and Max sneak down to Kingston and slip inside Screwface’s mansion, whereupon they unleash hell. The movie makes this list because of Wallace’s mesmerizing, terrifying performance as Screwface. He remains a cult figure among both B-movie fans and reggae enthusiasts alike. And if ever there was a hothead who needed to just get high on his own supply….

Third World Cop (1999)
Director: Chris Browne
Cast: Paul Campbell, Mark Danvers, Audrey Reid

An unsurpassed blockbuster in its native Jamaica, Third World Cop stars Paul Campbell as Capone, a Dirty Harry-esque lawman who plays by his own rules (which he sometimes seems to make up as he goes along) and lives by the motto, “We run things, things don't run we!"

The action kicks off with Capone being stationed in The Dungle, a hardscrabble section of Kingston where he also grew up. Drug-monger Wonie (Carl Bradshaw) runs the Dungle with an iron bong. That is, of course, until Capone shows up, guns blazing, and gets down to business.

While Third World Cop has been criticized in some parts of the world as playing like a standard B-thriller, Jamaican audiences love this movie with a passion. One thing that everyone can agree on, however, is the greatness of Sly and Robbie’s hit soundtrack.

Shottas (2002)
Director: Jacob Wilkinson
Cast: Ky-Mani Marley, Spragga Benz, Paul Campbell

Shottas traces the harrowing lives and crimes of career “gangers” Biggs (reggae performer Ky-Mani Marley) and Wayne (dancehall star Spragga Benz) from their first youthful robbery to their elaborate adventures as extortionists and enforcers in both Jamaica and Florida.

While squeezing money from the rich and powerful, Biggs and Wayne team up with fellow outlaw Mad Max (Third World Cop’s Paul Campbell), and the plot careens into a frenzy that culminates with an electrifying shootout all over the streets of Miami.

Aside from the musicians in the lead parts, also look for DJ Khaled, Wyclef Jean, and Assassin. Ky-Mani Marley and Benz both contribute original material to Shottas' soundtrack, along with Damian Marley, Inner Circle, Nitty Gritty, Bounty Killer, and Pinchers.

Reincarnated (2013)
Director: Andy Capper
Cast: Snoop Lion, Bunny Wailer, Diplo

The VICE-made documentary Reincarnated chronicles hip-hop icon and MERRY JANE proprietor Snoop Dogg’s exploration of Rastafarian culture and Jamaican music, ultimately leading him to both a spiritual conversion and a name change to Snoop Lion.

Reincarnated is far more than just smoke and rhymes, though. The movie traces Snoop’s early life and treats his quest for enlightenment with honor and respect. It never feels forced or awkward, let alone “preachy.” Plus, it showcases Snoop creating brilliantly lit (on every level) reggae alongside the heroic Bunny Wailer.

On top of that, you may think you’ve witnessed Snoop Dogg superhumanly imbibe weed in the past, but there’s nothing like seeing him do so here, in a literal sense, religiously.

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Mike McPadden

Mike McPadden is the author of "Heavy Metal Movies" and the upcoming "Last American Virgins." He writes about movies, music, and crime in Chicago. Twitter @mcbeardo



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