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Experiencing Media as Love Letter in Jamaica: 'OnePeople' Documentary Review

Experiencing Media as Love Letter in Jamaica: 'OnePeople' Documentary Review

Posted by Shanelle Weir on August 15, 2014

Media offers the means and material of an imagined community. Growing up a Jah-American, I always connected to Jamaica by rooting for Jamaican athletes during the Olympics. Motion pictures, radio, newspapers and the Internet have provided occasions for Jamaicans and track fans everywhere in diaspora to connect through watching our athletes over the last few days. Everyone comes home to this in-between territory of our collective imagination, to a rectangle of light, sustained by electricity, watching the unfolding projected narrative.

The instant Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce won the 100M Gold in London, I felt the electricity in Half-Way Tree, Kingston as shouts of joy erupted from every shop window and all along the streets. As I cheered on Usain Bolt along with my friends while emailing back-and-forth with my brother, who was back in the United States, I felt myself part of the temporary at-home-ness offered by the media presentation of these events. In homes but most especially in shops and every other kind of public space with a television broadcast, screens magnetized eyes and bodies. Several times at the supermarket I felt a sudden hush in the hustle and bustle only to turn and see a small audience framed in front of a television set to watch our athletes, us. BBC reports showed exuberant Jamaican fans in Brixton (London) and Half-Way Tree (Kingston)-- showing us to each other like on a videophone, allowing us to see and hear our British, American, Canadian and Jamaican countrymen abroad and a yard (What those in the viewing audience unaccustomed to Jamaican English understood from this I couldn't guess.); seeing those swiftly run races, footage of the crowd's reaction and the repetition of these images, connects us--I felt connected-- through the picture.

Motion pictures coming out of Jamaica are not merely reflective though, nor are they transparent windows of content. Film shapes as it frames. But for international viewers perhaps especially the diasporic Jamaican subject, characterized by dislocations, they do convey content as they catalyze an imagined family reunion. 

On Jamaica’s Independence Day this week I joined a global Kingston audience to participate in the country’s golden celebrations at the National Stadium but I began the day reading Dr. Carolyn Cooper's essay "Who is Jamaica?" in The New York Times. There she argues that the nation's 50-year old motto "Out of Many, One People" seems progressive but actually "marginalizes the nation’s black majority by asserting that the idealized face of the Jamaican nation is multiracial." See Read an expanded version of the piece here I re-read a little bit of Dr. Deborah Thomas's Modern Blackness in which she explains how the motto "brackets" blackness, as suggested by the title of her book's introduction "Out of Many, One (Black) People." One motto, many significant critiques.

Not just on Independence, but going back over the week to Emancipation Day on August 1, I reflected on the many meanings of blackness, of freedom, and of independence I passed through as I moved from town to country, neighborhood to neighborhood, household to household during my research visit to Jamaica. I came here to work on my manuscript, “Sounding the Nation: Jamaican Film History, 1900-1972” so I’m asking myself what is cinema? What is cinema in Jamaica?

As an industry and as a cultural site, the movies have long been an essential part of Jamaica's national identity overseas and at home. Music travels through records and CDs obviously but it circulates through and as visual representation such as publicity photos, music videos, concert footage on YouTube and formal feature documentaries. Jamaican music, perhaps the nation’s greatest cultural export, circulates through documentaries such as Roots Rock Reggae (1977), Deep Roots Music  (1983) and the recent Marley (2012). In each of these movies, the process of recording and editing content naturally polishes and softens, working over reality into cinematic truths.

The music industry is the subject of Jamaica’s best-known feature film The Harder They Come (1972). Starring Jimmy Cliff and co-written by Perry Henzell and the playwright Trevor Rhone The Harder They Come is many things. For me, it has always been more than merely a means to export reggae music. Totally new wave Jamaican in its visual language, Henzell’s film examines the conditions and costs of Independence through the protagonist Ivan’s experiences, staging a philosophical debate between him and his friend Pedro (played by the artist Ras Daniel Hartman). An individualist, Ivan seeks fast money through popular culture in contrast to Pedro’s community-oriented Africanity. The film is all about the allure and disillusionment of the music industry for Ivan. But this country-boy-come-to-town is not just an ambitious musician. He is music. Every note in the film is an amazing metaphor of the way Ivan’s music and spirit will endure to the last reel.

Naturally, as OnePeople: The Celebration, co-produced by Henzell’s daughter Justine Henzell, was the official film of Independence 2012, the 50th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence from Britain, I was very curious to see how it represented Jamaica, Jamaicans and Jamaican-ness. But the first thing that hit me when I reached the stadium, after much batta batta with missed calls, children being children, and bangarang over where to park, was the sound in the stadium. Man, Jamaica is a sound system. The speakers and screens were huge as they should be. I loved the sound and the sea of people from Kingston and from foreign, in black, green, and gold, each person cutting a figure more fly than the next.

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