The 2018 film Yardie, directed by Idris Elba and based on Victor Headley’s novel of the same title, starts with the main character, Dennis, standing stoically in a brightly lit field as his girlfriend and daughter play with each other. Then, a cut — to Dennis shooting a former friend who is responsible for his beloved brother’s death. As the scene ends, the viewer hears Dennis’ voice in narration: “When I was a boy, I always believed I’d go with the righteous, and not the damned. But sometimes a man has to choose his own path.”
Like many other Jamaican films, the 1980s-set Yardie explores the sociopolitical and economic fallout of the country’s colonial history. Since its relatively recent independence — the island was only liberated from British rule in 1962 — Jamaica has grappled with poverty in the ghettos of Kingston, “rude boy” culture evolving into gangs, and political parties manipulating poor youth into fighting proxy wars.
Even as Jamaican cinema attempts to speak truth to such realities, it relies on reductive and often violent portrayals of Jamaican men. Yardie’s Dennis is just the latest version of a now-common archetype: an emotionally burdened man at a crossroads of violence and responsibility. Vengeance pulls him one way, his family, or lover, the other. Will he succumb to Babylon and become a gunslinging gangster, or find enlightenment on a peaceful path?
It makes for a compelling narrative arc, but it also feeds into another long standing problem plaguing Jamaica: a patriarchal, parochial social structure that has resulted in repressive, even violent attitudes toward women and the LGBTQ+ community. Is there more Jamaican cinema could do to explore those issues?
In a recent essay examining Jamaican film, scholar Emiel Martens explains that the appeal of Kingston’s underworld “seems to lie in the exotic combination of poverty and criminality, on the one hand, and creativity and musicality, on the other.” That tone was set in 1972, with Jamaica’s first major feature film. The Harder They Come starred reggae artist Jimmy Cliff as Ivan, a struggling Kingston musician who becomes a drug outlaw. In the end, finally Ivan achieves success with a hit song — while fleeing from, and ultimately getting killed by, police. While the film represented a breakthrough for the country’s movie industry, it also depicted Ivan shooting a woman whom he has just slept with for betraying him. Ivan’s path — honest aspirations that crumble before financial hardship, being steered into crime by an unscrupulous producer, and the resulting notoriety bringing him both fame and death — created a blueprint for all Jamaican cinema to come. Again and again, male protagonists would find themselves torn between the evil allure of Babylon and the liberatory potential of Rastafarian ideals.
Nearly 40 years after The Harder They Come but set in the same decade, Better Mus’ Come in 2010, follows Ricky, a single father and gang leader, as his crew struggles to earn enough money for day to day existence. Grieving his wife’s death, he is duty bound three ways: breadwinner for his family, ringleader for his friends, defender of his new lover. Such pressures lead Ricky and his friends to take jobs as hired security for a local political party, only to be murdered by the government in the 1978 Green Bay Massacre. Yet, while the movie casts Ricky as a dark hero, he succumbs to darker forces, assaulting his lover when she tries to steer him away from violence, and abandoning his son during a police raid in his Kingston neighborhood.
The trend continues throughout most of Jamaica’s culturally significant films. Shottas in 2002, follows two best friends, Biggs and Wayne, who go from witnessing a murder in their Kingston neighborhood as children to becoming high-ranking drug dealers in Miami. Biggs (Ky-Mani Marley) almost turns away from the outlaw lifestyle, but is stopped when a rival crew storms his house. The climactic shoot-out kills Biggs’ lover, still in her nightwear — but it’s avenging the murder of Wayne (Spragga Benz) that becomes Biggs’ abiding mission.
Like Yardie, Babylon focuses on Jamaican sound system culture in 1980s London, but the 1981 film explores the racism of the time more explicitly. Blue is a young adult trying to make money with his friends to make music in the sound system scene, but throughout the film, he and his friends are harassed by racist Londoners, and even brutally arrested by police. In the arrest’s aftermath, Blue violently lashes out at a lover instead of confiding in her like an adult. After he seeks guidance from a local Rasta, there’s hope that Blue can survive Babylon peacefully, but no luck: he eventually kills a white racist before rushing off to a sound system show. The film ends with the London police rushing into the show and towards the camera. Babylon is inescapable — for the viewer and for Blue.
Even when women are present in Jamaican cinema, they seldom escape the violence of the patriarchy. They are either sexual objects, damsels in distress, or incapable of protecting other women around them. Dancehall Queen in 1997, follows Marcia, a poor single mother struggling for financial autonomy. She is supported by Larry, a rich man who is sexually abusive towards her daughter, and threatened by Priest, a local criminal with designs on Marcia. Although we want to root for Marcia, she resorts to pressuring and guilting her daughter to give in to Larry’s advances, so the family can have some semblance of financial security.
Although filmmakers like Shottas director Cess Silvera aim to humanize their characters, the gendered violence of their movies prevent the very same characters from finding alternative solutions to their poverty and pain. Other forms of Jamaican media fall into the same trap; many dancehall artists espouse religious piety in one song and violence in another. As a 2010 essay in Jamaica’s Gleaner pointed out, “it could be a reflection of what artists are experiencing in their communities, wherein violence and the church peacefully coexist in volatile inner-city areas. And there is no concerted and consistent confrontation of the religious establishment with merchants of death.”
That tension is nothing new — and those “merchants of death” have often arrived in the form of government intervention, domestic and abroad. In the 1970s, not only did Jamaican political parties recruit gang leaders to enforce partisan loyalty in Kingston’s neighborhoods, but the U.S. government intervened both economically and politically in Jamaica. Debt policies with IMF and World Trade Bank, as well as visits from U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who in 1975 attempted to encourage Prime Minister Michael Manley to sever ties with Cuba. In Jamaican cinema, as in too many real-life cases, masculinity shores up that corruption; Jamaican men stole, sold drugs, and manipulated others under an economy that failed, jailed, and sometimes even supported their endeavors.
The violence has come home to roost in many ways. A 2018 UN Women report estimated that at least 25% of Jamaican women have experienced domestic violence. Jamaica’s dancehall scene has been condemned as “murder music” for its overt calls to violence against LGBTQ+ people. Despite some progress on that front, violence continues; in 2017, Dexter Pottinger, the host of that year’s Jamaica Pride Parade, was brutally murdered in his home.
Although Jamaican cinema is often brave for representing the poverty and violence of its communities, it also too often fails to depict these other realities — or to imagine a Jamaica that has overcome misogynist and homophobic violence. There are exceptions, thankfully: filmmaker Rodney Evans, who is from a Jamaican family, has explored black and queer histories in films, even winning a Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize for Brother to Brother in 2004.
Much work remains, though. Someday organizations like the Jamaican Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG) can finally be celebrated, and not ignored. Queer Jamaicans may no longer be fired from their jobs, denied marriage, be forced to live in gutters like “gully queens,” or become political exiles. Perhaps they can even find a home with Rastafarians, who can accept them into their communities when their families may not. Maybe then, “Babylon” will mean more than just the evils of Western society — it will include the social ills and violence that Jamaica has finally wrestled free from.