Guest post by Terri Francis.
Jamaica’s history with motion pictures radiates in multiple directions within a broad aesthetic and geographic framework that reflects its transnational and multicultural realities. Such an approach challenges a number of conventions in both film studies and Caribbean studies. The division between nonfiction and fiction films becomes less important if we include the cine-parables of the 1950s Jamaica Film Unit, where non-actors played themselves in elaborate fictional scenarios that were meant to educate the public on issues such as farming and dairying techniques (see an example here).
The emphasis on fiction in film history makes it harder to notice the important work in educational, sponsored, promotional, and activist documentary films. And the assumption, supported by concerns about the politics of perception and knowledge, that the pre-independence era holds little of value in terms of film or of cultural authenticity is understandable but maybe a little misleading.
Before the transformative 1972 film The Harder They Come, there are many surprises in Jamaican film. As author Peter Polack points out, “One of the most costly films for its time at US$1 million was the 1916 drama A Daughter of the Gods that not only saw substantial set construction in Kingston but one of the earliest examples of nudity by actress Annette Kellerman in mainstream cinema.” In Pocomania, American actress Nina Mae McKinney stars as the commanding and disinherited older half-sister of siblings who struggle over control of their parent’s banana farm. After years of estrangement — one sister pursued her education in the United States while the other remained in Jamaica — they must work together and overcome their differences but not before a lot of dramatic confrontation and evocation of spiritual forces by Isabelle (played by McKinney).
Pictured below is a clip of the “Motion Pictures” page for The Daily Gleaner February 24, 1940. Overall it shows the number of theaters in Jamaica’s capital city of Kingston. Note the special category of Country Theaters for venues located in places like Montego Bay, Mandeville, and Brown’s Town. Top right in “Motion Pictures” we see an announcement for Pocomania, the alternative title of The Devil’s Daughter, showing at the Palace Theater at 7:30 and 9 o’clock.
Though Jamaica is the largest English-speaking market south of Hollywood, this country is a kind of minor outpost at the margins of the dream factory’s trade routes and of film scholarship’s well-tread terrains in the European cinema. Yet, because of Jamaica’s position historically as a major market and factory of slavery, it contributed to the social dynamics that mark the current world. Through its popular culture, furthermore, and its reputation as both a holiday locale and a dangerous place, Jamaica is a crucial conduit of cultural exchanges of black representation between the United States and the southern Americas.
We’d be right to be concerned about the politics of perception and knowledge, though, especially in the earlier period of colonial filmmaking. The movie camera, the movie screen, the media environment, structures the way we see the world and shapes the information we get about ourselves and each other. Travelogues, ethnographies, adventure films, newsreels, re-enactments, all kinds of visual lecturing and depicting pictured the colonized world. Familiar but nonetheless critical and necessary questions need to be asked: Who is behind the camera? Whose story is this? Where does this film circulate and among what audiences? If this film was shot on location in Jamaica, was it ever shown there? Who participated? What did Jamaican audiences make of it and who are the Jamaican audiences for the movies?
Jamaica’s story with film dates back to the early days of cinema. From 1891 to 1918, the Edison Manufacturing Company produced films, cameras and projectors. Audiences consumed Edison’s earliest images through the Kinetoscope, a single-viewer apparatus, where one looked through a peephole or window into a cabinet to see the moving image inside. However, by 1896, Edison’s Vitascope successfully projected films for a collective viewership. This change in technology enhanced changes in subject matter that were already in process. Early Kinetoscope films were known as actualities. These were short (one or two minutes in length) often one-shot non-fiction films that showed news events, notable people and places, scenic views, disasters, performances, and other curiosities, and while they were initially popular in the early 1890s, they eventually gave way to narrative comedies and dramas, especially when Edison’s team established the technology for viewing and recording longer films toward the end of the Victorian era.
Edison’s Kinestoscope and Vitascope films included travelogues. In an essay on the Edison Company’s filming in Britain, for instance, Stephen Bottomore writes, “The Edison Company itself had been sending crews all over the world since White and Blechynden’s world tour in the 1890s (and James Ricalton made a similar journey in 1911). The company also undertook filming trips to the Caribbean and Latin America in 1909, and the following year sent drama-producing units to Cuba and across Canada, and in 1912 to Bermuda.” Such trips were not unusual because “[a]t this time there was something of a craze among US film companies for sending units to film in foreign locations: either actuality cameramen to film travelogues, or entire units of actors and technical personnel to make dramatic films. Such ventures included Kalem’s trips to Ireland in 1910 and to the Middle East in 1912.” Finally, he writes, “in late 1909 Edison sent a cameraman to film local scenes in Jamaica, Haiti and South America. On 29 January 1910 J. Searle Dawley’s party set off to Havana, Cuba, and set up a temporary studio there. Dawley also led the Canadian filming trip.”
Edison films shot in the Caribbean are among the earliest images of Black people and sites in the Caribbean were within Edison’s international purview. The following titles were filmed in or around 1903: Native Women Coaling a Ship at St. Thomas, D.W.I. (Edison, 1903); Native Women Washing Clothes at St. Vincent, D.W.I. (Edison, 1903); West Indian Girls in Native Dance (Edison, April 1903); Native Woman Washing a Negro Baby in Nassau, BI (Edison, 1903); and Native Women Washing Clothes at St. Vincent, BWI. At least two early Edison Company films were shot in Jamaica: Railroad Panorama Near Spanish Town, Jamaica (Edison, April, 1903) and Products of the Palm: The Banana and Cocoanut Industries (Edison, 1913). A British crew filmed Barbados, British West Indies (London Evening Mail, 1918) in the late teens. The titles of the Jamaican images suggest that they focused on infrastructure and industry while the others seem more ethnographic, at once quaint, erotic and ordinary.
Edison’s products formed part of film culture in Jamaica, suggesting that at least some segments of the society were not only potential subjects of film but viewers as well. For instance, a 1915 edition of The Daily Gleaner advertises a presentation of Edison’s “wonderful Kinetophone” which was to take place at “The Palace, Jamaica’s Leading Motion Picture Theater.” The Kinetophone was a Kinetoscope with a phonograph cylinder inside the cabinet. What strikes me about the date of this advertisement is how late it is relative to both the invention and popularity of Edison’s instruments in the US. The 1915 advertisement suggests a significant lag in the circulation of film technology and entertainment in the Caribbean, particularly Jamaica in this case – but that the region was nonetheless part of film’s international audience.
Actualities such as Railroad Panorama Near Spanish Town, Jamaica (Edison, April, 1903) and Products of the Palm: The Banana and Cocoanut Industries (Edison, 1913) show land and landscape, industry and industrialization. While it is true that the images are not merely reflective, nor are they transparent windows of content, for today’s audiences, perhaps especially the diasporic Jamaican subject, characterized by dislocations, they do convey content, if only a glimpse into a time and place to which one can connect, where before there was unknowing. Yet, from a critical viewpoint, the actualities picture a mode of seeing this time and place as well as aesthetic and ideological frameworks that attempt to guide the viewer of his or her contemplation of it. Moreover, Edison’s actualities show not only the subject pictured and the ideology of picturing, but the industry of motion pictures in action. The presence of a film crew and the event of a screening imply the presence of the entire institution such as equipment to support recording the images and facilities suitable for viewing them.
In my introduction to “Unexpected Archives: Seeking More Locations of Caribbean Film” I asked, “How to tell the Caribbean cinema story? Which tropes, settings, and plots matter the most? Yet with cultural identity in play, I hoped to think beyond several standard genres of Caribbean film studies in which the feature-length fiction film, the construct of the nation, and the Afro- and anglophone Caribbean figure prominently.” Even if we look outside Hollywood for the non-West’s “own” representations, we find reflexive work that draws upon westerns, gangster films and the French New Wave. The European and American avant-gardes opened up possibilities for new Caribbean cinema.
Perry Henzell’s landmark feature film The Harder They Come (1972) and his novel Power Game (1996) explore tensions between traditional humanist values and the commercial sway of popular culture. In the film, Henzell contrasts tragic outlaw hero Ivan and his Rastafarian friend Pedro, played by the artist Ras Daniel Hartman. While Pedro represented traditional values of slow money, community, and spirituality, Ivan embodied scrappy survivalist energy and a capitalist mentality. He wanted “what’s mine” and went for it with amped guitar and guns blazing. Pedro accompanies Ivan on his dispiriting journey from naïve provincial to disillusioned singer to criminal and a darkly formed folk hero. The film is a philosophical dialogue that contemplates living by the belly versus living by the spirit. It’s celebrated as the first Jamaican film and in many ways it is but its long-lasting power lies in the way Jimmy Cliff’s performance, Franklyn St. Juste’s cinematography and Henzell’s direction capture the aftermath of independence as the deep inequities of late 1960s and early 1970s Jamaican society are unveiled in Ivan’s precarity.
Yet before that is the 1962 film Dr. No! Jamaica is often seen as a marginal location of film history; this positioning parallels its non-status as party space that is vulgar rather than glamorous while it is often seen as politically messy rather than strategically complex. An alternate narrative that repositions the country exists in the literary and cinematic action/intrigue genres. Dr. No (1962) situates Jamaica similarly to Devil’s Daughter (site of Diasporic and Atlantic conflict) but its themes have to do with space technology and white masculinity rather than older religious practices and the paradoxes of fragmented black identities. In this thriller, Jamaica’s capital city Kingston, is connected to London and Washington D.C. via the Central Intelligence Agency and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in a space-related spy thriller. The opening sequences in then newly completed Palisadoes Airport in Kingston, for example, are dominated by white space, gleaming glass and smooth metallic surfaces. Such an introduction doubtless characterizes the coolness of Bond…James Bond but by extension it represents, perhaps against expectation, an orderly urban Jamaican’s point of transit through which passengers criss-cross and flow to international destinations. Jamaica here is urbane but as generically efficient as any modern city of significance.
However, Bond is soon besieged by unidentified assailants and untrustworthy informants; the landscape appears both invitingly and ominously opaque. But Jamaica does not become a quaint, timeless “nowhere.” Instead, Jamaica’s proximity to the United States and Cape Canaveral, where the American Space Program is centered, figures significantly in the plot: Bond is prompted to fly to Kingston when an agent’s communication is abruptly disconnected. There, he uncovers the plot to disrupt the American space program. It seems CIA has detected a radio signal, coming from a location in or around Jamaica, that is threatening plans for a mission into space. Jamaica is seen as not merely picturesque but strategic.
However, Jamaica is probably best known through its music. Reggae emerged in the 1960s as a distinct postcolonial Jamaican music. Both commercial and avant-garde, its circulation reached and influenced artists and audiences in the circum-Atlantic world thanks in part to The Harder They Come and Jimmy Cliff’s performances. This film was released around the same time as Catch a Fire, the debut album of the Wailers, featuring Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. The Harder They Come, its soundtrack and Catch a Fire are all connected through Chris Blackwell’s Island Records (its subsidiary Island Pictures distributed Spike Lee’s 1986 She’s Gotta Have It, so yep, that’s a Jamaican film in a sense) and in the early 1970s they synergistically transformed reggae from Jamaica’s vernacular expression into the country’s most important cultural export and import (the music was recorded abroad and returned). However, Henzell’s and related films Smile Orange (1976) and Rockers (1978) were not merely transmitters or even translators of reggae. Film tends to be seen as a window, transparently opening on to the world. Yet it works rather like a prism, refracting and transforming that which it pictures. Thus the formal aspects of The Harder They Come, such as editing, flashback, use of still photography, integrating fragments of the western Django (1966), and modes of addressing the audience made it a crucial medium of refraction and transformation, internationalizing local sound and expanding reggae’s capacity as philosophy, as ideas for how to be a person, in struggle, in the world.
Jamaican film history encompasses the colonial history of motion pictures, dating back to 1895 and includes foreign as well as local productions and films produced within a Jamaican diaspora for this is the fundamental reality of Jamaican film practice. The meanings of the movies in Jamaica involve efforts to promote Jamaican film industry. Film production in Jamaica is a means to draw capital to the country and to promote Jamaica as brand. Jamaican films, whether international ones or national ones, incorporate a form of the tourist gaze. A film might include or picture the American or European pleasure-seeking traveler as well as a native informant, someone to show the tourist around and introduce them to local people and customs. In many ways, Jamaicans’ films incorporate other or Otherizing views of themselves into their own perspective – The Harder They Come, Smile Orange and Rockers all in different ways negotiate Jamaican imaginative space.
“The tropics,” a set of ideas projected on to and sometimes by Jamaica, occupies a unique imaginary place full of contradictory hellish and Edenic allusions. Nonetheless, Jamaica figures in many films, perhaps unsurprisingly, mostly in ways that belie its historical and cultural complexity (Cocktail and Stella Got Her Groove Back for example). The idea or image of Jamaica can been simplified and sketched into an orderly series of picturesque backdrops, comfortable amenities, a fertile source of raw materials, pleasant sights primarily for purposes of promoting industry and more recently ghetto-adventure narratives set to reggae or dancehall riddims. Regardless of what outsiders have made of it, the films that circulate in Jamaica become their projects of collective conscious/unconscious pain and denial and should be understood in the context of a much larger project of national image-making within Jamaica, of managing and overcoming its defining historical realities of slavery and Emancipation and fugitivity, resistance. Mary Wells’s Kingston Paradise (2013) captures the desire for that “pretty beach sea life” in the story of Rocksy and Rosie.
Jamaican fiction and feature film continues in the 1980s and 1990s:
- Children of Babylon (Lenny Little-White, 1980)
- Countryman (Dickie Jobson, 1982)
- Third World Cop (Chris Browne, 1999)
- Dancehall Queen (Rick Elgood/Suzanne Fenn, 1997)
- Belly (Hype Williams, 1998)
- The Land of Look Behind (Alan Greenberg, 1982)
- Cool Runnings (Jon Turteltaub, 1993)
Watch as much to hear the movie as to see it as the films are music-saturated. They engage the film/dance industry and, incorporating dance and singing, they show how many directors worked in narrative film as well as the music video industry.
In the WhoWhatWhereWhen of Jamaican film, we need to consider the Jamaican films yet to be recovered. There are film negatives in England and the United States, and probably Canada too, at labs or footage libraries. There is a cost of storage and ambivalence toward the movies as a cultural form worth preserving, although the National Library of Jamaica has had a mandate to recover and preserve Jamaican films. Where are today’s filmmakers, Storm Saulter, Nile Saulter, Michelle Serieux, Esther Figueroa, and more archiving their work and where are they considering preserving their legacies? Where will the future heritage of Jamaican films reside?
. Quotations are from Bottomore, Stephen ‘Weather Cloudy – No Sun’ – Filming in Britain for the Edison Company in 1913: From Charles Brabin’s Diary: IV. Filmography of Charles Brabin’s British (and European) Films of 1913 Film History 15:4 (2003) p. 430-435
. The Daily Gleaner January 28, 1915. page 4
. For an existing, model essay that has inspired me by the way it accesses the literariness of Henzell’s film, see Louis Chude-Sokei’s “But I Did Not Shoot the Deputy”: Dubbing the Yankee Frontier. In The Worlding Project: Doing Cultural Studies in the Era of Globalization. Eds. Rob Wilson and Christopher Leigh Connery (Santa Cruz: New Pacific Press, 2007).
Jamaican filmmaker Esther Figueroa’s Fly Me to the Moon will be screened at the IU Cinema on March 24 with Figueroa scheduled to be present. This work-in-progress screening is part of the series Black Sun, White Moon: Exploring Black Cinematic Imaginations of Space. This series was curated by Terri Francis and is sponsored by the Black Film Center/Archive, Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, and IU Cinema.
Three additional Figueroa films will be screened at the IU Libraries Moving Image Archive Screening Room on March 25. Admission is free, but reservations are required and can be made here.
In addition to being the Director of the Black Film Center/Archive, Dr. Terri Francis (U Chicago 2004, English) is an Associate Professor at IU who researches Josephine Baker and Afrosurrealism. Her forthcoming book The Cinematic Josephine Baker excavates how Baker pioneered her defining role in early African American cinema, playing characters she neither authored, in a conventional sense, nor fully controlled, while tracing critical issues of type, image and genre.