Every man gotta right to decide his own destiny

Yesterday evening I went to the Jamaican premiere of Marley, the landmark bio-pic directed by Kevin MacDonald. Emancipation park was packed, and I worried that space would be at a premium, but I ended up sitting on the grass, watching the film with some students from the University of the West Indies. Was it a good film? Yes. The cinematography was beautiful. Capturing the green of the hills of Jamaica is no small feat. There was also a bunch of gloriously crisp colour footage from the early 1960s–stuff I had never seen before.

There were some interesting bits (the origins of the song “Cornerstone”, for instance), but, in general, the documentary told what I know of the story of Bob Marley. When I mentioned that there was nothing new or revelatory in the film, a friend said to me that the stuff most people might hide, Bob Marley didn’t seem to really mind sharing. In the final moments of the film we hear Marley’s voice: “If my life was just fi me,” he says, “mi nuh want it.” So there it was–his childhood, his past, his family, his relationships, his friendships, his children, his music, his music, his music.

It didn’t seem like he was a particularly great father, great husband or great boyfriend, and Cedella Marley, his eldest daughter, didn’t hide those facts. When talking about the days before her father’s death, she lamented that even in those moments, those where she might have wanted to have him to herself, he was for everyone. Perhaps that’s the bargain–he couldn’t give himself to specific people, because his desire to give himself to the whole world got in the way.

I kept thinking of Grant Farred’s great essay on Marley in his book What’s My Name? where he argues that the man’s politics were as important as his melodies and musical virtuosity. He may have not aligned with PNP or JLP, but he did make profound political statements. Marley’s concern in appealing to black audiences, in the face of swaths of white crowds was discussed. And the film’s depiction of the Zimbabwean independence celebrations touched on Marley’s prescient awareness of the need to be careful when designating “real” revolutionaries.

Given the carefully contextualized portrayal of Marley’s Rastafari beliefs and the development of the movement, I wished the film had spent a little time on Marley in Ethiopia. I know, given its already 144 minute running time, that not everything could be included, so it’s hardly a big complaint. The film is as Roger Ebert put it, “a careful and respectful record of an important life”, and I would have to agree.