Perry Henzell, 70; his movie ‘The Harder They Come’ brought reggae to the world

Times Staff Writer

Perry Henzell, the Jamaican director whose independent film “The Harder They Come” became a landmark cult hit that introduced reggae music to an international audience in the early 1970s, has died. He was 70.

Henzell, who had battled bone marrow cancer for seven years, died Thursday at his son Jason’s home in St. Elizabeth Parish in Jamaica, said Henzell’s daughter, Justine.

Henzell died a day before the Jamaican premiere of his first feature movie in more than 30 years, “No Place Like Home,” at the Flashpoint Film Festival in Negril.


“The Harder They Come,” which was the first Jamaican-produced feature film, starred reggae star Jimmy Cliff as Ivanhoe “Ivan” Martin, a country boy who heads to Kingston, Jamaica, to seek fame as a singer.

After being taken advantage of by a record producer who pays him only $20 for recording his first song, Martin turns to a life of crime in the world of marijuana dealing and winds up a cop-killing folk hero, whose notoriety ironically sends his record to the top of the Jamaican charts.

The low-budget movie, which Henzell produced, directed and co-wrote, was known as one of the top college campus attractions of its era. It played frequently at midnight shows at theaters across the country, including running a reported six years at a theater in Cambridge, Mass.

The soundtrack album on Island Records, which was released simultaneously with the movie, featured four songs by Cliff, along with songs by Toots and the Maytals, Desmond Dekker and other artists.

As “The Harder They Come” began reaching theaters in 1973, Bob Marley’s breakthrough international album was released by Island Records: “Catch a Fire” by the Wailers (Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer).

“That was an incredible one-two punch that knocked out America for Jamaican music,” said Roger Steffens, a reggae historian and chairman of the Grammy reggae committee.

“In some ways,” Steffens said, “ ‘The Harder They Come’ was even more influential because there were so many different artists featured on the soundtrack of the movie from the rock steady [a slowed-down version of ska] and early reggae eras.”

When “The Harder They Come” premiered at a 1,500-seat theater in Kingston in December 1972, 40,000 Jamaicans showed up.

But distributing “The Harder They Come” was an uphill battle for Henzell, who had spent two years making the film, which is known for its gritty realism in depicting what Henzell called “the harsh reality of Jamaican life.”

“Nobody would take it,” Henzell recalled in a 1995 interview with Variety. “They’d never heard of reggae music, and nobody was interested in black people in Jamaica.”

After initially distributing the movie himself -- in London, he drummed up interest by having 5,000 fliers handed out at bus and subway stops -- Henzell linked up with producer Roger Corman’s company to distribute the film.

But, Steffens said, Corman’s marketing of “The Harder They Come” as a blaxploitation film “failed miserably, so [Henzell] took the distribution back himself.”

In taking prints of the film to Europe, Africa and other parts of the globe, Steffens said, “He’d go to a town and try to suss out what the right theater would be and get to know the manager.

“He said, ‘When my money finally ran out, I’d take the low deals they offered me and four-wall it [rent a theater] a week or two.’ It took him six years to break even.”

In the end, Henzell told Variety in 1995, his Jamaican investors made their money back “10 times over” and he was handsomely rewarded.

Born in Annotto Bay, Jamaica, on March 7, 1936, Henzell grew up on a sugar plantation, where his father was the manager.

At 14, he was sent to a school in England. He briefly attended McGill University in Montreal before launching his career in television in London with a job shifting scenery at the BBC, where he worked his way up to floor manager.

He returned to Jamaica in 1959 and opened his own production company in Kingston, where he spent the 1960s making commercials and several documentaries.

After the success of “The Harder They Come,” Henzell fielded directing offers from Hollywood.

But he turned them down, preferring to retain complete creative control and stick with his brand of filmmaking.

“Nobody understood a damn thing that I was saying about realism,” he told Variety, which reported that he spent eight years raising $1.5 million for his second Jamaica-set feature movie, “No Place Like Home.”

By 1986, according to the Variety story, he had most of it shot and had $500,000 in completion money when the New York lab he was using went out of business and the film’s negative was lost in a transfer of assets to a New Jersey warehouse.

About two years ago, the negative of “No Place Like Home” was discovered.

And in September, after some technical corrections and a final edit, the long-lost movie premiered to a responsive audience at the Toronto Film Festival, with Henzell in attendance.

“He was thrilled,” his daughter said.

Henzell, whose family owns Jake’s, a hotel in Treasure Beach, Jamaica, wrote two Jamaican-set novels: the political story “Power Game” in 1982 and the historical tale “Cane” in 2003.

He also wrote the book and served as production consultant on a musical theater version of “The Harder They Come,” which opened in London in March to critical acclaim and box-office success. It will be remounted in London in January, his daughter said.

In addition to his son and daughter, Henzell is survived by his wife of 41 years, Sally; another daughter, Toni Ann Read; two sisters, Judy Browne and Susan Henzell; and four grandchildren.