The first time I saw “The Harder They Come,” I was mesmerized.
I was barely thirteen and living in Barbados in the late 1970’s. My friend Ian and I snuck into a movie theater.
There he was — Jimmy Cliff. He looked like the rebels we looked up to around our way, but at the same time he carried on a tradition founded by anti-hero mythology. Built by names like Brando, Dean and Eastwood, he gave us a pure depiction of Rude Boy culture, buried like geek-buzz-bomb in the middle of a rock steady narrative.
In a scene where Cliff’s character is at the movies watching a Western, a man is pinned down under fire by a group of red-hooded men. When the fate of the hero looks in peril, a young patron screams: “The hero can’t dead till the last reel!” The hero then wheels out a massive, Gatling gun and mows down his attackers. It wasn’t until later that I found out that this was the original Django.
The western had a profound effect on Rude Boy culture in Jamaica. A fascinating read is Laurie Gunst’s book “Born Fi’ Dead: A Journey Through The Jamaican Posse Underworld.” In Gunst’s book, she explains that, like Americans, Jamaicans loved Westerns. Starting from Randolph Scott and going all the way back to the darker times of the 1960’s Spaghetti Western, the emphasis was always on the anti-hero—the guy who walked the line of good and bad; a Robin hood. Back in those days of political upheaval on the island, anti-heroes made sense because police and politicians were crooked and the man who stood up against the establishment was a hero.
Django has been redone many times, but to me the best was always the bad-ass, Frank Nero original. Now Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is here and once again this old, wanna-be, rude boy settles in to be wowed. Surprisingly, I am.
Not by the skill of The Q2 (Quincy Jones is still Q1–that’s a given.) It’s the depth of the cinematic experience. Watching “Django Unchained,” I felt the same way I felt when I first watched “The Harder They Come.” This feeling is the jones I chase when I go to the movies; to get lost in the moment. Those moments are rare these days, though the Summer of the Geek proved that with some love, you can make even the “Incredible Hulk” compelling. No one has done that for a Western since “Unforgiven.”
Jamie Foxx as a western hero would not have popped into my mind at first, but collaborating with Tarantino gave this talented actor some freedom. This artistic freedom becomes apparent the moment Django (Foxx) is liberated by the amazing Christoph Waltz in the beginning scene as slave traders are interrupted from their night trip by a seemingly innocuous german dentist. After a fatal confrontation with the captors, a deal is made between Dr. King Schultz (Waltz) and Django (Foxx) and the freed slave tosses off his shackles and ratty cloak with a cathartic release. Foxx then coils his springs for his eventual full release. I could go on about cameos (Nero himself makes an appearance) and random roles given to actors who would be working more if Hollywood wasn’t so damn content with itself. Don Johnson as plantation owner “Big Daddy” is genius. Leonardo DiCaprio and Quentin’s avatar Samuel Jackson box on camera in a ballet that conveys the most complex dysfunctional relationship between a fatherly house slave and his foppish Master in a way that we’ve never seen before on film.
The thing is, it’s Foxx who carries everything on his shoulders. The entire story unravels if we don’t believe him. I was brought back to the day I was watching that patron scene in “The Harder They Come” and realized that, though many a black man has been in a Western, this was possibly the first true Spaghetti Western starring a black man.
I know that claim all too well: “When are you people going to look beyond race? You got a black president.” Yes, it is important in the tapestry of this great country. But like Jamaicans, we Americans love Westerns. We love the anti-hero because in tough times he speaks for us.
I have ran into too many a brother and sister who strongly protest the use of the N-word by a white director who seems too ready to use it. I don’t know. There is a probably a debate there. The word bounces around like a trapped bee to the ears, however considering we are talking pre-Civil War, it actually may have been held back a tiny bit. That said, if you’re going to attack the film, see it first. All history in this country, good, bad or indifferent– is ours. This is not a slave film. And although the DNA of Grind House classics like “Mandingo” and “Drum” are peppered throughout, this is a western from a black man’s experience — a slave who becomes a hero.
And the hero can’t dead till the last reel.