Friday, March 22, 2013

Better Mus' Come

Better Mus' Come
seen @ AMC Empire 25, New York, NY

So what, if anything, does Jamaica, Queens and JAMAICA Jamaica have in common? Not a whole lot, based on what I know of the latter. There is a visible Caribbean presence here; for example, in Queens and Brooklyn there are privately-owned commuter vans that supplement the city buses and are cheaper (though not by much), and many of them are run by Caribbeans. On the rare occasions I use one of them, I always hear reggae music playing in the van's CD player. Also, cricket matches are a common sight in some of the neighborhood parks on the weekends in the warmer months. (I've tried, but I cannot figure that game out from looking at it. If baseball really was inspired by cricket, I don't see how.)

I don't like living in Jamaica, Queens. It's becoming more dangerous lately, everyone is similar if not the same, it's too far away from the things I care about, and there's little in the way of variety. While parts of it are mildly aesthetically pleasing, it doesn't compare to other places I've been to and I could easily do without it. I've never been to the real Jamaica, though, like I said, I imagine there's very little in the way of comparison.

Most people tend to think of Jamaica in terms of the three Bs: beaches, Bob (Marley) and blunts (and also, I suppose, bobsledding). Indeed, even as a kid I remember those "Come Back to Jamaica" TV ads that enticingly paint the island nation as a tropical paradise that's just waiting for you Yankees to come visit and spend your money. And I have no doubt that Jamaica does quite well in the tourism industry. However, it's also a country with a long history of poverty and political strife, and part of that history is on display in Better Mus' Come, the latest film distributed by the black film festival collective AFFRM.

Better deals with the turbulent 1970s, when Jamaica was torn apart by conflict between the pro-Castro incumbents, the People's National Party, and the opposition, the Jamaica Labour Party. The film opens with a political rally, led by the PNP's Michael Manley, disrupted by a firebombing by JLP supporters, and throughout the film, the differences between the two parties lead to everything from police harassment to fighting in the streets.

Roger Guenveur Smith as Michael Manley

The movie focuses on a JLP man, Ricky, a single father struggling to make a living, yet gets drawn deeper into the fighting, despite his best intentions to make life easier for his son. Naturally, he also meets a girl and falls in love with her along the way, further complicating things.

This was my first foray into Jamaican cinema since watching The Harder They Come way back when I was in video retail. In a Q-and-A at the Empire after the film, director Storm Saulter, along with stars Sheldon Shepherd and Nicole Grey (who was also in Restless City) made plain that even if they may lack some of the resources that their American counterparts do, Jamaican cinema is on the rise. Still, I found myself unprepared for certain aspects of the culture as seen in Better...

...for example, the local dialect. Like Harder, Better is subtitled. Watching this movie was different from watching something in, say, French or Russian or Japanese because the Jamaican dialect sounds almost like English, but not quite, and as a result I found myself wanting to watch it without the subtitles and thinking there must be something wrong with me because I couldn't fully understand the actors - and I kept thinking I should! It was an odd feeling, especially when there were times when they clearly switched back and forth from accented English (without subtitles) to a much thicker patois which truly sounded like another language, hence the subtitles.

Better is a powerful movie that takes you straight into the heart of the conflict that ravaged Jamaica in the 70s. Shepherd clearly has the movie-star-idol looks, and he carries the film well. Storm (as he is credited, sans last name) not only directed and co-wrote the film, he edited it and was his own director of photography, and his camera takes us through not only the shanties of Kingston but the coastlines and the breathtaking landscapes. We see the beauty and the ugliness side-by-side. (In the Q-and-A he mentioned that the shanties look little different today than they did in the 70s, so from that perspective at least, maintaining the period look wasn't hard.) If Better is indicative of the current wave of Jamaican cinema, then hopefully more films like this will reach our shores soon.

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