The Harder They Come Review: A Reggae Classic at 50

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The Harder They Come: Jamaica’s First Feature Film

In 2022, Jamaica celebrates the 60th anniversary of its independence from the British Empire, and it also marks an important milestone in the country’s national cinema. Fifty years ago, Jamaica released its very first feature film, “The Harder They Come.” Directed, co-written, and produced by Perry Henzell, this film quickly became a sensation in its home country and made waves internationally, thanks to a re-release for its anniversary. “The Harder They Come” remains a significant and brilliant film that beautifully captures the struggles of the Jamaican people, accompanied by one of the best soundtracks of all time.

A Story of Hope and Struggle

The film tells the story of Ivanhoe Martin, portrayed by reggae singer Jimmy Cliff. After the death of his grandmother, Ivanhoe travels to Kingston in search of a better life. His dreams of finding employment and becoming a musician are met with challenges and exploitation. When offered a meager payment for his song by a record executive, Ivanhoe gets drawn into a world of crime and drug trafficking. “The Harder They Come” draws inspiration from the real-life Jamaican outlaw, ‘Rhyging,’ and presents Ivanhoe’s journey through distinct stages, illustrating the harsh realities faced by the underclasses.

A Nuanced Portrayal of Jamaica

What sets “The Harder They Come” apart is its nuanced portrayal of Jamaica. The film showcases the country beyond the typical tourist images, providing a more naturalistic representation. It portrays a city filled with people playing dominoes, visiting pinball arcades, and attending screenings at local cinemas. Unemployment and the struggle to earn money are prevalent themes, reflecting the authentic lived experiences of Jamaican society. The film’s success in Jamaica can be attributed to the relatability of its characters, who speak Jamaican Patois, resonating with the audience on a deeper level.

An Authentic and Engaging Filmmaking Approach

The filmmaking approach adopted by Perry Henzell and his team lends an air of spontaneity to “The Harder They Come.” One of the cinematographers, Franklyn St. Juste, admitted to not knowing what would happen from one scene to the next, adding an element of unpredictability. The cast comprises notable Jamaican figures, including reggae legend Prince Buster and renowned actor Carl Bradshaw. However, it is Jimmy Cliff’s portrayal of Ivanhoe that truly shines, capturing the rebellious spirit of the character flawlessly.

The Legendary Soundtrack

One cannot discuss “The Harder They Come” without mentioning its legendary soundtrack. Jimmy Cliff wrote and performed six songs for the film, solidifying its authenticity and delivering messages of defiance. The opening song, “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” serves as a beacon of optimism, contrasting with Ivanhoe’s experiences in Kingston. The title song, “The Harder They Come,” became a reggae anthem that echoed the film’s narrative. With contributions from The Melodians, Toots and the Maytals, and The Slickers, the soundtrack rightfully earned its place as one of the greatest albums of all time.


After 50 years since its release, “The Harder They Come” remains a brilliant film. It not only boasts a captivating storyline and exceptional performances but also paints an authentic picture of poverty, corruption, and crime in Kingston. Perry Henzell’s decision to create a faithful representation of Jamaica, resonating with Jamaican audiences rather than catering solely to tourist expectations, resulted in a deglamourized yet hopeful portrayal. Despite the hardships faced by the characters, there is a belief that things will eventually improve, perfectly captured in Ivanhoe’s own words: “So as sure as the sun will shine; I’m gonna get my share now, what’s mine; And then the harder they come; The harder they fall, one and all.”


1. What is the significance of “The Harder They Come” in Jamaican cinema?

“The Harder They Come” holds the distinction of being Jamaica’s first feature film. It not only achieved immense success within the country but also garnered international recognition, making it a significant milestone in Jamaican cinema.

2. Who were some of the notable figures involved in the film?

The film featured talented individuals who left an indelible mark on Jamaican culture. Reggae legend Jimmy Cliff portrayed the main character, Ivanhoe, while renowned actors Carl Bradshaw and Ras Daniel Heartman played his drug-dealing friends. Additionally, Prince Buster and Leslie Kong made notable contributions to the film.

3. How did the soundtrack contribute to the film’s success?

The soundtrack of “The Harder They Come” played a crucial role in its popularity. Jimmy Cliff wrote and performed six songs, including the iconic title track. Together with other reggae artists featured on the album, the soundtrack became a musical masterpiece and an embodiment of authenticity.

4. What themes does “The Harder They Come” explore?

The film delves into themes of poverty, corruption, exploitation, and the struggles faced by the underprivileged in Jamaican society. It sheds light on the control exerted by those in power and the impact it has on the aspirations and dreams of individuals like Ivanhoe.

5. How does “The Harder They Come” continue to resonate with audiences today?

“The Harder They Come” remains relevant due to its honest depiction of societal issues that persist beyond Jamaica. The film’s universal themes of hope, resilience, and the pursuit of dreams continue to touch audiences, allowing them to connect with the struggles faced by the characters.

Experience the brilliance of “The Harder They Come” as it celebrates its 50th anniversary with a re-release, reminding us of its enduring impact on both Jamaican cinema and the cultural landscape.