The Harder They Come
Oak Street Cinema,
Friday through Sunday
ANOTHER "GRITTY" EXPOSE of dangerous minds in a blackboard jungle, 187 uses real-world statistics to corroborate what amounts to a cinematic revenge fantasy. "One in nine teachers has been attacked at school," we're told---although the odds of this sort of vigilante melodrama actually happening are more like one in a million. Cast in the Glenn Ford/Michelle Pfeiffer role, Samuel L. Jackson plays a well-intentioned Bed-Stuy science teacher who, after being stabbed nearly to death by a gang-banger he'd flunked, gives some L.A. hoods a lesson in payback modeled on a scene from The Deer Hunter. (Maybe film studies has a place in high-school curriculums after all!) But despite its trip-hop soundtrack and rap-lingo moniker ("187" is police-code for homicide), this film actually seems geared toward educating adults, its specious claims to authenticity clinched in the closing credits: "A teacher wrote this movie."
Indeed--and a moron directed it. Ostensibly atoning for his Waterworld, auteur Kevin Reynolds has gone slumming here, albeit nobly. His main purpose is to equate a predominantly black and Latino public school with a vision of hell, where barely individuated teen gangstas shoot each other without provocation; where one illiterate ruffian (Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez) wears the words "FUCK YOU" on his knuckles; and where a teacher must get used to being addressed by a student as follows: "You's a crazy nigga, G."
Understandably, Jackson's brow-beaten Mr. Garfield has trouble seeing eye-to-eye with these kids, to the extent that shots from his point of view are presented out of focus (or perhaps that's the filmmaker's way of acknowledging that his perspective is fuzzy). Still, the teacher does earn the respect of Rita (Karina Arroyave), a good student whom he invites to his house for private lessons, whereupon she takes her clothes off. "I just wanted to thank you," she says. Him: "Maybe we better meet in the library from now on."
Although he's no Kevin Costner, Mr. Garfield is something of a Robin Hood. It takes no time for him and a Pfeiffer-esque blonde teacher (Kelly Rowan) to go from smiles in the hall to a candlelight dinner with slow-dancing and spilled wine, while he quotes pointedly from Thomas Wolfe's God's Lonely Man. Call 187 the high-school teacher's Taxi Driver: A workaholic loner, sickened by his clientele, resolves to clean the filth off the streets, while an unattainable blonde gets a faint hint of his funny ideas. On the other hand, the loner in 187 is black (no racial subtext here, OK?), and performs his vigilante acts offscreen. Apparently, to show Mr. G. with blood on his hands would risk obscuring this film's serious moral dilemma: whether a fucked-up school system and a teen-age bad element give a good teacher the right to pull a 187.
Alternately told from the gangsta's POV, The Harder They Come (1972) is a kind of Jamaican anti-capitalist blaxploitation film whose age-old outlaw narrative broke star Jimmy Cliff (and its soundtrack, and reggae as a whole) to a worldwide audience. That's just one of the many conscious ironies driving this near-Marxist critique of how folk-heroic crime sagas get bought and sold, usually at the expense of those who can't afford entertainment. Where 187 has zilch to say about the context of its kids' bad behavior, Harder is relentless in showing the wide range of limited options available to Ivan (Cliff), a country boy and aspiring pop star who arrives in the Kingston slums surrounded by American billboards and other mixed messages. In church, a literal Bible-thumper rants about "damnation"; on the radio, "Johnny Too Bad" packs heat; at the movies, a spaghetti western thrills its audience with fight-the-power gunplay; and in the streets, the ganja trade promises escape but mainly corrupts or placates. As Ivan's record "The Harder They Come" predates, inspires, and then benefits from the artist's own thug life (while his producers get rich), this script could easily be re-shot as The Tupac Shakur Story.
Packed with indelible images and potent subtexts (and great songs), Harder isn't just another bridge between Godard and MTV, or an embryonic vehicle for the soundtrack tie-in. As Jonathan Rosenbaum mentions in Midnight Movies, the film's Kingston premiere inspired an audience of more than 6,000 to forcibly occupy the theater (and, in so doing, to block Cliff from getting anywhere near the screening). The movie was later banned by the Jamaican government for glorifying crime, although by then it had already helped to turn the tide against the country's conservative Labour Party.
In the film itself, however, images of radical action aren't so heroic. By the time Cliff's cop-killer has proven that you can get it if you really want--cruising through a golf course in a white convertible, posing with his guns drawn for "celebrity" photos--he's doomed. On the other hand, as the song goes, he'd rather be "a dead man in my grave than a puppet or a slave"--and so, in a way, he does succeed.
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