Friday, 24 July 2015
Postcolonial Cinema: The Harder They Come
Masculinity and postcolonial are already two difficult to explain concepts, putting them together makes for an even more gnarly situation. I deliberately decided to open this series with a discussion as dense as masculinity in a Postcolonial context, though. It's one I'll probably end up returning to. What is Postcolonial in the first place? To even consider Postcolonial we must turn to another “concept” – colonialism, implicit in any discussion on class issues, and of course “imperialism”. I would prefer not to end up chasing phrases here, so a general understanding of imperialism and colonialism as “part of the same idea of a country extending its power and influence through colonisation, use of military force, or other means” works well enough. Finally, the knottier term “masculinity” must be effectively considered if one is to address the construction of the fact of maleness in The Harder They Come as measured against a backdrop of colonialism/imperialism à postcolonialism. A good starting ground is The Oxford English Dictionary’s simple but not unhelpful definition of masculinity as “possession of the qualities traditionally associated with men”.
The way masculinity shows itself across class boundaries is a fascinating idea in itself, to add race issues, regional issues and film to the narrative provides even more room for discussion. In considering the construction of masculinity in The Harder They Come the “hero” at the centre, aspiring singer turned criminal Ivanhoe, is the major (but not complete) focus of the way postcolonial masculinities are constructed. In choosing this film for the first in this series, though, the question is how concepts of colonialism and imperialism shape the masculinity of the film. The Harder They Come is a Caribbean film which is marked as one of the beacons of cinema in the region with a steadfast focus on black culture, but in examining aspects of the masculinity of its protagonist the question persists whether the construction of masculinity within the film adheres to “conventional” postcolonial ideals. Considering the effect of the West on countries which have experienced colonialism, it's obvious that the construction of how to be a man would be a latent effect of the colonisers' relationship with the formerly colonised. So, at what point (if any) our Jamaican hero represent an authentic construction of Caribbean masculinity vs Western ideals of masculinity?
An the conflict arises when one notes than in the film, Rhone and Henzell (writer and director) do not treat criminal Ivan as a villain or essentially unsavoury character. This bears particular significance in considering how the film addresses criminal Ivan when the construction of his postcolonial masculinity is not especially constructive, and of course becomes something of larger consequence when one thinks of how masculinity is portrayed in Black cinema (Caribbean and non Caribbean).
The Harder They Come premiered at Venice Film Festival in 1972. It was a big hit in Jamaica and a modest hit outside, the Jamaican patois requiring subtitles for most non Caribbean audiences. It tells the story of Ivan, a poor jobless hopeful musician who eventually becomes a criminal. A simple plot, and also a familiar one. Its place in the Caribbean cinematic oeuvre (and its easy deftness in delivering its theme) make it more than just another good guy turns bad (or bad-adjacent) film, though. Its popularity and reach does make its ruminations on “masculinity” intriguing. Masculinity, of course, is an almost entirely sociological construction which is not gendered but emanates from social practice which changes when things like race and class enter the equation. Ivan is not specifically significant as a man but as a black, poor, Caribbean man.
One of Ivan’s immediate character crises is his love for the virginal Elsa who is a ward of the village preacher. The symbolism is….not subtle. In an early scene while Ivanhoe has a confrontation with an irate Preacher two of the church women observe, “Preacher is a man of the lord, but he is a man all the same” implicitly suggesting that Preacher has noticed Elsa’s development as a sexual being and the existence of Ivan as a potential foil for him in his quest for her (i.e. Elsa’s) affection. When the two ladies observe that Preacher is “a man all the same” they have unreservedly pointed out one of the (presumed, at least) main aspects of construction of the fact of maleness within the Jamaican society – sexual awareness with a significant attention to a great sexual libido. It is not incidental, that the rejoining words to the observation that “Preacher is a man all the same” is “And the lord said, ‘Go ye forth and multiply’” essentially hitting the nail on the head of the (Jamaican) man’s masculinity being marked in his proclivity, desire and perhaps ability to multiply, i.e. procreate specifically through sexual contact. It is telling that this is one of the few conversations about sex in the film, and one of the two only ones in the first two thirds of the film. The two women here give the impression that sexual appetite is an inherent part of (Jamaican) masculinity and yet, even as we may confer that Preacher has a sexual thirst for Elsa – merely through circumstantial evidence – Ivan as the main protagonist and his relationship with Elsa do not rest on the sexual or the sexualised.
Leading man, Ivan, is a poor Jamaican man with an attraction to the Preacher’s ward Elsa, the attraction is presented as romantic but not aggressively so, or sexually so. When the Preacher finds out that Elsa has given Ivan her key for him to use as a practice space for her reggae he storms into her room and accuses her of fornicating with Ivan. Like the scene with the church women, it is another – more or less – explicit acknowledgement of sexual urge even as there is no corporeal manifestation of said urge. For, in truth, Preacher is wrong and Elsa and Ivan – from the audience’s vantage point, a deliberate effect from the director – have not engaged in any sexual encounter. Pre-criminal Ivan (to be differentiated as being constructed as a male in a different way from criminal Ivan) does not exist as having his masculinity marked by his virility. This is significant in the construction when one considers how traditionally Caribbean men, or more specifically black men, are considered as creatures of maleness. Frantz Fanon considers the way cultural stereotypes are employed where “in the case of the Jew, one thinks of money and its cognates. In that of the Negro [man], one thinks of sex”.
The visible presence of White/European/American bodies in the film is scant but even as the film is populated by black characters there is an indication of some black characters representing qualities not necessarily of whiteness but which suggest Western qualities, or at least Western influences. It is a thorny ground to compare Christianity as a European precept when it has become the most practised religion in the Caribbean, but I think it’s impossible (or imprudent) to ignore ways that Christian missionaries were complicit in the destruction of native humanity. Perry Henzell and writer Trevor Rhone seem to be consciously evoking this paradigm by on employing the Christian Preacher as one of the first antagonists to the plight of our antihero protagonist Ivan. Here, the church is not presented as a warm, wholesome sanctuary for the persecuted (although the indication that parentless Elsa is his ward may suggest some goodness in religion, albeit marginally) but as a foil for Jamaican youth presenting, then, intrinsic Jamaican culture – the reggae music Ivan sings and practices – as being in direct conflict with European inspired Christian songs. Even if one is unwilling to attach the moniker of villain or at least quasi-villain to the Preacher, and thus the church, in the film it is significant to consider that binary where the Jamaican created reggae music is played (and then has Ivan tossed out of the church) a few moments after the scene with the Christian church choir. One genre was developed autonomously by the persons of the post colonial era (Jamaica gained independence in 1962, 11 years before the film was released) and one is a holdover from things brought during colonial days.
What this comparison points out, then, is a version of Frantz’s point about the white father-in-law and his black son-in-law but make some changes to the binary where the black/white features become replaced with a colonised/post-colonised characteristic. In the scene where Preacher aggressively accuses Elsa of fornicating with Ivan, culminating in her being cast out from his house, despite his black maleness Preacher is embodying the characteristics of the coloniser in that he is the mouthpiece for the colonial influenced Christianity and an individual firmly against the post colonial traits of Ivan’s reggae music, and his intrinsic Jamaican youth features. As a black male he is subsisting to white masculinities by presuming a young black male is indomitably connected with his libido. On finding out that Elsa has given the key to church to Ivan to practice Preacher immediately from this fact of anger to an accusation of Elsa having given her body (i.e. sexually) to Ivan. As the guardian to Elsa with Christian views inherited from the West, Preacher’s fear of Elsa/Ivan relationship is immediately rooted in the concept of Ivan’s power over Elsa being sexual in nature. For Preacher, Ivan’s entire being as a man is immediately marked by something sexual. It is a conscious decision by the film’s director and writer, then, to NOT have Ivan engage in any heavily sexualised behaviour until his descent to the dark side which marks a different type of masculinity than pre-criminal Ivan.
After Ivan has made his complete descent into criminality the first completely explicit indication of sex in the film is presented where in a scene with the girlfriend of Jose (a rival) she tells to him during intercourse “you’re a bad man”. It is one of the few utterances in the film where the “man” directed at calling someone is not attached as pleasantry (as in the colloquial “Hey, man.”) but “man” in the sense of being not only mane but evoking masculine qualities – specifically that of sexual virility. It seems a conscious decision by the director to only have explicit sexual content (not only kissing, but actual sexual contact while in bed, suggested nudity etc) to happen when Ivan has become changed by his criminal activities. Curiously, too, it is notable that the sexual interaction occurs not with Elsa (the de facto female “lead”) but with an incidental female character which implicitly suggests more archaic concepts of masculinity where the prototypical male prefers to stay married to a virtuous woman but satisfies his sexual desires with an incidental female figure (commenting on the female gender roles of the Madonna and the Whore). There is no definitive acknowledgement giving, but there is an indication that Ivan is merely fulfilling the typified image of a promiscuous “rude boy” by engaging in the sexual encounter with this woman – creating a scenario where the construction of his masculinity derives not from intrinsic elements but posturing for image sake.
It is important to remember that masculinity is tied to the fact of gender and that gender though emanating from body concepts (i.e. woman vs man) is separate from basic understandings of male female in that masculinity is not synonymous with maleness. Addressed earlier, gender roles then – such as masculinity – are derived from context. In trying to address how postcolonial masculinities – especially black masculinities are formed – there is unsurprisingly little empirical data available for perusal. Theorists Morrell and Stewart speaking on black male culture have an intriguing anecdote, though, noting how various aspects of “masculinity” surface as reactions to stimuli. Something akin to a ‘cool pose’. Presumptively the word “cool pose” immediately suggests something learned and not intrinsic since the etymology of the actual word “pose” per The Oxford English Dictionary means “assume a particular position in order to be photographed, drawn etc.” as well as “to pretend to be” and most significantly “behave affectedly in order to impress others”.
Masculinity, in its gendered role, is somewhat dependant on affecting a specific type of behaviour since as Connell notes the “essential” attributes of masculinity are not intrinsic to the majority of men, so there becomes a scenario where these masculinities are adopted for image. This point bears importance because in the form of Ivan and his “cool” pose Henzell and Rhone employ a savvy use of foreshadowing which is also a prime example of us seeing Ivan’s masculinity being constructed before our eyes. Early in the film Ivan and company (a company of men, cheering) watch a screening of the western Django soon after arriving in Kingston. It being a western, it is no surprise that the scene we happen upon is a shootout where title character Django (Franco Nero) coolly observes a group of men advancing to kill him. There is little tension here, though since, as Ivan’s companion says, “Hero can’t die ‘til last reel”. Django, outnumbered, kills all the men and the camera cuts to Ivan who is watching entranced. It might seem an innocuous moment, but I proffer that this is one of the emphatically important moments in carving the persona Ivan adopts as he drifts into crime. Film is a visual medium allowing the filmmaker for subtler nuances than literature, making it both effective in that way and the potential to miss it larger, too. Someone familiar with Django and other such spaghetti westerns would notice that as he gains notoriety Ivan’s mode of walking begins to bear resemblance to the swaggering stride of outlaw heroes (paradoxical, and yet not inaccurate) like Django. Django’s stride is never shown within the film, but it is an allusion Henzell is sure to have expected his audience to be aware considering that in the early seventies spaghetti westerns were still de rigueur.
Why I believe the influence of Django (an American film) in the question of postcolonial presentation of Ivan’s masculinity is significant is a – potentially – contentious argument about the relationship between colonialism and postcolonialism. I do not think it is an unfair stretch to consider how globalisation and its impact on world trade where the developed countries are unequally superior to the developing ones might be seen as a descendant of colonisation. The Italian Western Django would gain popularity and pop-culture importance in Jamaican due to globalisation more than colonisation, in theory, but the influence of the Western world and their image on the Caribbean is still of particular significance in considering how Ivan’s persona is created.
The fact that in the cases of both his sexual activity and his physical behaviour are derived from perceived notions of masculinity which Ivan does not have at the film’s beginning (he is neither walking with the deportment of a Django or having sex with random women) endorses the fact that unlike maleness, masculinity is not an immediately attributed thing which is intrinsic but instead is a feature of qualities which are learned from observation and part of a persona used by males to fit in. Further, the fact that in the features of masculinities attributed to him (as in Preacher considering early Ivan to be a sex fiend or criminal Ivan defining his persona on the white actor in Django) are in the case of his demeanour learned from a foreign film or in the case of the sexuality endorsing the stereotypical view of the black men’s adeptness at sexual activity The Harder They Come’s place as a beacon of postcolonial cinema becomes potentially troublesome. Even as Ivan descends into the formulaic image of what black masculinities are perceived at encompassing (complete with mirroring their persona from white men) the film does not condemn him as it closes instead holding him up as something of a hero gone awry and in some ways a rebel for the Caribbean people to rally around. This, then, forces the audience to consider to what extent overly conventional concepts of black masculinities are considered as accurate and acceptable by Caribbean standards. Even if pre-criminal Ivan does not embody the stereotypical masculinities which the criminal Ivan does it is the vigilante Ivan who is representative of the film’s dénouement which presents us with a challenging situation where the masculinity of our would-be hero is constructed using concepts which are not considered constructive to the postcolonial movement, yet the film itself is regarded as a beacon in postcolonial expression. It is foolish to presume that the film’s representation of Ivan the criminal is endorsement of Ivan the criminal, but The Harder They Come's ambiguous rumination of its would-be-heroic-protagonistic is a provocative start to this series on representation of Postcolonial characters on film.
A/N: I hope to turn this into a forthnightly series, looking at a film in a Postcolonial context once every two weeks. Next on the agenda? Apocalypse Now.
(No, they won't all be as long as this article, but this is a reworking of an originally (much) longer academic essay.