Perry Henzell, a filmmaker whose reggae classic “The Harder They Come” introduced Jamaican pop culture to a global audience, died Nov. 28 of cancer in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica. He was 70.
Born in Port Maria, Jamaica, to an Antiguan father and Trinidadian mother, Henzell attended McGill University in Montreal and worked in advertising before turning to filmmaking back home in Jamaica in the early 1970s.
After producing over 200 commercials for local TV, Henzell directed and produced the landmark “The Harder They Come,” Jamaica’s first full-length feature film. Shot on a shoestring budget with a fully Jamaican cast and crew, it became an international success, winning a best young cinema award at the 1973 Venice Film Festival.
The film, which stars Jimmy Cliff, was based on the life of Ivanhoe “Rhyghin” Martin, a notorious outlaw who terrorized sections of west Kingston before being gunned down by the Jamaican police in 1948.
To screenwriter Michael Thomas, a friend of Henzell who co-wrote Caribbean cult classic “Countryman” (1982) and covered Jamaica for Rolling Stone magazine in the 1970s, “The Harder They Come” was “the Caribbean ‘Battle of Algiers.’ It stars Cliff as the kid from the country with dreams of stardom, who drifts into town, gets into trouble and dies in a shootout with the cops. It puts the myth of the rude boy on the screen in a brash and turbulent potboiler that introduced the rest of the world to reggae and Rasta and defined a generation. This was before Bob Marley had locks.”
Henzell’s death came one day before the Jamaican premiere of his second feature, “No Place Like Home,” set for the Flashpoint Film Festival in the resort town of Negril. Henzell shot the movie in the 1970s but production troubles kept it from reaching theaters until this year.
In 1982, Henzell published his first novel, “Power Game,” a political thriller set in the Caribbean. He wrote another novel, “Cane,” about the Jamaican plantocracy he was born into.
Earlier this year, a stage show of “The Harder They Come” with Henzell’s involvement ran for a tryout at London’s Stratford East theater and proved a success. It transfers to London’s West End next year. “He had a truly original and incredible mind. He could sit silently thinking for hours staring out into the garden from his armchair. He could see straight through to the heart of a problem, verbalize it in a simple way that anybody could understand and bring the simple solution to the fore. He often said: It’s too simple, they don’t understand,” said Sally Henzell, his wife of 41 years, who runs Jakes Hotel in Treasure Beach, Jamaica.
Henzell is also survived by three children and four grandchildren.