RE: MARLEY: Definite collection of Bob Marley's Life
Directed by Kevin MacDonald
|Marley’s son Ziggy who approved of the film being made, when asked what message he thought people should take from the film said “I don’t think there’s a specific message. I want people to feel an emotional connection to Bob, a human connection as a friend, as family.” So with this in mind I begin my critique of the documentary 'Marley' which once and for all promised to reveal to us the real ‘Bob Marley’.‘The most personal Bob film any one will ever see. You will cry and smile’ we were told.|
|The documentary begins with us being taken to Cape Coast slave dungeon in West Africa - Ghana (a horrific place that I have visited), where kidnapped Africans were held before being taken across the turbulent seas of the Atlantic ocean onto the Caribbean and Americas. We are told that in this country alone the population was decimated by the loss of sixty million lives to the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade in Africans. We then walk towards ‘the door of no return’, and emerge onto the stage with Bob Marley yelling ‘Jah Rastafari!’ as the atmosphere is charged with the repatriation song Exodus. Powerful! This hopefully would set the stage for the viewer to understand how Africa through Rastafarianism fuelled the music of Bob the revolutionary African Rasta man.|
This is the first scene used by the directors to create emotional affinity between Bob and the viewer i.e. he was stolen property (no one wants to be stolen property). But unfortunately that is as far as the historical context of Africa’s link with Jamaica goes.
From the stage we travel to the stunning countryside of St Ann’s Jamaica, Bob’s birthplace. It is a world shrouded in deep and spiritual mysticism – rich in African spiritual traditions with a wisdom that would colour much of Bob’s music and understanding of the world throughout his life; especially given that his Grandfather Omeriah was a spiritual healer who shared some of his knowledge with his grandson.
The film captures the mystic feeling of St Ann’s very well (through striking cinematography of the landscape) that eerie feeling of ‘other worldly’ presence and also the poverty of the region. This was a world still reeling from the legacies of slavery where Blacks could not hold high social positions like policemen and bankers. For the most part they would do labour intensive jobs, working mainly in agriculture. It is in this caste system based on racial subjugation that beliefs of white superiority or having white blood or features was seen as a blessing whilst blackness was seen as inferior. This is the first context that the film misses out on, this world which shaped Bob’s world. We are not given a chance to understand or engage with this world - we bypass it. However, using interviews with Neville ‘Bunny’ Livingstone aka Bunny Wailer and Bob’s cousin ‘Sledgo’ Peart we are taken into another world - Bob’s immediate surroundings, the home on the hill that he was born in, the school he went to, and the family that allegedly ‘rejected’ him. Yet this world is secondary and not the primary world that we need to understand if we are to form a connection with Bob the boy and the man that he became. A world shaped by the legacy of the British colonial experience which he often addressed in his music.
|Within the first ten minutes of the film we are informed that Bob, the product of a sixty plus year old colonial civil servant, and a sixteen year old country girl was rejected by his Black family for being the son of a white man. This is the second point made to help us “connect emotionally” to Bob as many people can re-count stories of rejection from loved ones in their childhood, and perhaps this draws us closer to Bob.|
The legacy of slavery has indeed left deep scars of racial inferiority in its victims. If indeed Bob did feel rejected because he was mixed-race, it should be looked at within this wider context and also along with the possibility that the family may have been angry that their sixteen year old daughter was impregnated by a much older man (as often happened to Black women during slavery). To verify the validity of Bunny Wailers statement that Bob Marley had allegedly been rejected by his family, perhaps it would have been more appropriate if Bob’s mother, Cedella Booker and Aunt Amy were asked to expand upon the assertion that he was rejected by the family, or was it just Bunny’s perception! But it is afforded no discussion in the film and therefore paints a rather distorted picture. Cousin Peart tells us that their grandmother Yaya (Katherine Malcolm) called Bob a 'German boy,' yet this is something Jamaicans are known to do, call people names according to physical features or character traits – it does not mean that she rejected him because he was half-white. For example, if you are born with one eye in Jamaica and many other parts of the Caribbean like Barbados, it is very likely that you will always be referred to not by your birth name but as ‘one eye’.
When asked by the interviewer if Bob was teased as a child Bunny Wailer informs us that he was “more than teased, he was rejected. His uncles," he continues "made him work twice as hard because of his skin colour." In a previous documentary (Rebel Music, 2000) Wailer tells us “I wouldn’t say Bob wasn’t wanted as such, he was more on the side.”
This is not to say that Bob did not feel out of place at times but whether he felt he was rejected (particularly by his Black family) because of his skin colour is questionable. Certainly it has been said by his school teacher ‘Miss Bushay’ ‘that some of the children could get jealous of Bob if given more attention than them because he was red (lighter in skin tone),’ and maybe he got picked on, but Bob never ever mentioned this in any of his interviews that I am aware of. Miss Bushay also tells us that although Bob was shy he was a very popular boy with many friends. In fact the discrimination he faced is best explained by Jamaican author Kente Mwilima:
In interviews the only rejection Bob spoke of was from his father. On one occasion Bob’s father took him to Kingston under the pretence that he would live with him and be schooled, but instead Norval Marley left his son in a poor downtown neighbourhood in Kingston, (promising to return but he never did), to work as an errand boy, unknown to his worried mother who came to his rescue. Of his country upbringing we hear Bob speak positively about his experiences. He also spoke of how his grandfather Yaya’s husband was someone who really cared for him. His uncle Clarence Malcolm a famous Jamaican guitarist in the 1940s also spent some time teaching him how to play the guitar. My point is that the interview did not provide an alternative or wider look at his relationships with other family members and how they treated him.
To paint a Jamaica in people’s mind’s in which darker skinned Blacks are somehow ‘racist’ against lighter skin Blacks is to display a lack of understanding of what racism really means and how colour works in the Caribbean – the idea is laughable. Light skinned Blacks and Whites are at the top of the pecking order across the Caribbean with dark skinned Blacks at the bottom of the social order. That is how the system was set up and how it is maintained to this very day. The current epidemic of skin bleaching (darker skin men and women wanting to be lighter in Jamaica), would not exist if the racist concept of Blacks as inferior did not exist. Rastafarians sought to enable Blacks to overcome their self-hatred and embrace all things African, and many of Bob’s songs attest to this.
On Nobody’s Side
After we get a glimpse of Bob the boy, we meet Bob the man. This is another “point of connection” when Bob says in the film “my father is a white, and my mother black, now them call me half-caste or whatever. Well me don’t deh pon nobody’s side. Me don’t deh pon the Black man’s side or the white man’s side. Me deh pon God’s side. The man who create me who cause me to come from Black and White” This was an interview taken whilst he was playing football at his home (Hope Street, Kingston), and there is no context as to what the interviewee asked to prompt Bob’s response. This paints a picture of a more neutral Bob that may make it easier for white audiences to relate to him.
Bob’s above statement can be explained as follows:
For Rastafarians to work to elevate the masses of Africans out of oppression is to be on the side of God. In that sense it does not stop people from caring about humanity whilst working to unify and uplift one's race. It is in this context that Bob’s statement “I am on the side of God” should be understood, but in the film it is misrepresented to give us a politically racially neutral Bob – which he never was.
The famous Marcus Mosiah Garvey a Jamaican African Nationalist and one of Bob’s heroes advocated strongly for ‘race first’; yet also spoke about the brotherhood of man and justice. Bob sings:
A picture of Marcus Garvey can often be seen in the backdrop; of Bob’s performances. Remember now the aim of the documentary according to the director is to see why Bob reaches so many people and is so popular with so many people, he also wants us to connect emotionally to Bob. So it is being suggested that Bob reaches so many people because he saw no colour!
Bob and Poverty
So far we have several aspects of Bob’s life that enable us to ‘emotionally connect’ to him: he was stolen property, he was allegedly rejected by the black side of his family, his father was absent, and he (Bob) apparently saw no colour. The fourth theme used to connect us emotionally to Bob was the poverty that he grew up in.
From the green countryside of St Ann’s we travel to the slums of Kingston; an area where slaves were once taken, which as a result Bob informs us “carries a heavy vibration”. We are introduced to Black men, women and children living in utter poverty; a poverty that was caused by British colonialism.
The songs ‘High Tide, Low Tide’ and ‘Trench Town Rock’, conveys the idea that Bob was indeed in pain as a child. Families often went to bed hungry; and children played together with no shoes on their feet. Families were torn apart because one or both parents had to travel overseas seeking employment, creating further pain for children as they sometimes felt abandoned. This is ‘concrete jungle where the living is hardest’; people are bound in the captivity of poverty, mental enslavement, these were a disposed people, unwanted, unloved, uncared for and forgotten by the very establishment who once used their bodies and minds to amass great wealth for themselves.
We also see Bob travelling to America, but what we do not learn about are the experiences he encountered whilst there which helped to shape his growing consciousness. It is in America that Bob encountered racism in its most extreme form – physical violence. He became acquainted with the Black struggle and saw the oppression of his people, and the marches and demonstrations against injustice. However, all that we get to see on the documentary is the jobs he did, his love of music and ‘illegally’ growing ganja.
The 1960s, and 70s were times of great social upheaval and political organisation in many parts of the Black world (America, Caribbean, Africa and Britain etc). The frustration of the people often times met the establishment (in the form of police) on the streets. People were taking action and demanding justice and equality. There was also a great support for the independence struggles of Black countries across the Black world along with an exchange of ideas and strategies. These were years of growing awareness amongst many Black youths across the world, which had been fuelled by people like Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Leonard Howell, Walter Rodney and Malcolm X whose books were widely read. In an interview Bob once said of Angela Davies, that she was his type of woman - she was strong and intelligent. This is a testimony to his identification with the struggles of African America and his connection with the Black power movement in America.
For many youths in Jamaica music became a way to escape the poverty and it is covered very well in the film. But what we are not told is why exactly Bob, along with Bunny and Peter who were becoming hot local acts, threw away their suits and combs and became Rastafarians; money was there to be made, it was a ticket out of poverty, why did they feel the need to change and dash away their chances for the limelight? We are told in the documentary that Bob who was ‘allegedly’ often made to feel like an ‘outcast’ for being half-white met Mortimer Planner which ‘automatically gave him acceptance’ says Danny Simms (even though by this stage he was well accepted on the Jamaican music scene). In the film Bob himself informs us that when he came to Kingston at the age of 17-18, he met other people who thought like him i.e. other Rastafarians, he mentions nothing of becoming a Rasta because he felt rejected, or turning towards Rastafarianism because he found his real father in Selassie. Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry tells us that the ska music which Bob had been performing was about ‘dancing and drinking beer’ it ‘wasn’t spiritual music,’ and ‘reggae music was about spirituality’. But this is still not enough to inform us on why they (Bob, Peter and Bunny) made the switch. This section of the film does not address the intrinsic reason as to why Bob became a Rastafarian, or Bunny or Peter for that matter and therefore misses out the most crucial part to understanding Bob as an artist.
|The poverty and sense of captivity experienced by many in Jamaica forced some to search for answers in alternative paradigms. You get fed up of looking at the sky through holes in your roofs; you wonder why the sunshine that shines so brightly and hot in the day does not bring the same warmth and richness into your life. Bob was one of hundreds of youths embracing Rastafarianism, he like other Jamaican men and women of his age were seeking truth and self-knowledge. They were seeking to find their true cultural identity, to know who they were, where they came from, to understand why society rejected and despised them, and to discover why opportunities in society were limited for them.|
Truth seeking questions were also being asked including those long sought after questions by philosophers like ‘was the bible telling the truth?’, ‘who is God’?, ‘were the schools teaching the truth?’ and ‘why wasn’t Black history being taught?’ It was Rastafarianism that provided them with the answers that equipped them to fight the ‘Babylon System’ of oppression, deception, falsehood, mental and spiritual enslavement. It was Rastafarianism that got them to use reggae music as a weapon to channel their frustrations and liberate the people. It was far more than just living in ‘peace’, ‘love’ and ‘unity’ and seeking happiness, as we are told in the film, although an important aspect of Rasta philosophy.
The Rasta narrative is what is lacking, and what is depicted in the film does not give the whole picture, after all it was Rastafarianism that gave us the Bob we have now come to know. It is in finding his African identity through Rastafarianism that Bob found himself. One would think that the ideological teachings, revolutionary nature and livity of Rastafarians would have been dealt with more comprehensively, and from the voice of an experienced Rastafarian. Bunny Wailer, Rita Marley or even Mutabaruka would have been the best to address this, yet instead we hear from Cindy Brakespeare - a former beauty contestant.
The other theme used to ‘emotionally connect’ us to Bob is the idea of ‘one love’, a concept that has been used over and over again to sell Bob as a ‘one love - one world’ artiste. Thirty minutes into the film we are told that Bob found his true father in Selassie says Neville Garrick (film consultant) and that he no longer saw himself as half white or half black, it was just ‘one love’ says Rita Marley. Viewing audiences can easily connect with the idea of ‘universal love’ amongst all people, but was that what Bob’s music was about? Was he trying to be everything for everyone? Was Bob’s music influenced by the experience that he was ‘allegedly’ rejected by both black and white society?
The rejection message is once again conveyed in the film, but this time by I Three singer - Judy Mowatt. She tells us that because he was rejected by his white family “I think that what happened to him, that rejection that is why he was able to reach the world, and I think there are so many people out there that are hurting, so many people out there that have felt what I have been through and I have a message that can bring change and transformation.” As a young Rastafarian Ms Mowatt travelled the world with Bob and The Wailers, singing backing vocals as part of the I-Threes. Today she is a devout Christian and gospel singer now immersed in the world of the church which in Jamaica shuns all things Rastafarian. Having turned away from her former faith it may indeed have influenced her answer i.e. it downplays that Bob sought to spread the message of Rastafari. This is not to suggest that Bob was against multi-racial unity or that he did not care about the plight of other people in the world. But it was not ‘one love’ or ‘a sense of rejection’ that made Bob a Rastafarian, or drove his music, or even gave him a sense of mission; it was the entire ideology of Rastafarianism that captivated his heart.
It is amazing and indeed inspiring that Bob’s music reached and touched so many people, and shows the genius and power of his musical gift. Using music he sang to bring peace and love amongst Jamaicans. For example the song ‘one love’ (made in 1965 originally titled ‘All in All’) was made to bring the warring factions on the streets of Kingston together as one. What was the uniting factor? 'One love, one heart, one aim, one destiny' as Marcus Garvey before him had preached. Later on in his career he also wanted to do the same for Africans and African Americans which was all part of the Rasta ideology to unite the worldwide Black family. That is why Africans could relate so easily to the song ‘War’ initially a speech by Emperor Haile Selassie addressed to the United Nations. Bob used it to spread the message of Selassie his spiritual leader. It was a message that said Bob and other African freedom fighters were prepared for war against Babylonian oppression if that is what it took to bring about freedom.
“my (Bob) music comes from the inspiration of his majesty (Haile Sellassie)”
In his life Bob had several relationships from which he had fathered at least eleven children. Rita played an intrinsic part in his life from approximately 1964 until his death. He had proposed to Rita and they married in 1966, his mother has often spoken of Bob’s love for her. However in the documentary his love for Rita in the early days of their relationship is downplayed even though he wrote several love songs for her including ‘Stir It Up’. On the other hand his relationship with Cindy Brakespeare which spanned approx two years is given greater credibility. Although we are aware that he was never faithful to any woman it is never acknowledged that he cheated on Cindy on numerous occasions, becoming a father of two children in the process.
Bob had so many women in his life who could have been interviewed. Women like Nancy Burke and Diane Dobson his lawyer who both appeared in the film but no mention was made of their sexual intimacy with Bob. However, we do get to meet for the first time Pat Williams mother of his son Robert Marley, addressed not as ‘girlfriend’ but as ‘baby mother’.
We also do not get to understand the more intimate relationship that he had with Princess Pascalene from Gabon. Note that her status was not even titled; instead we hear that her father was a dictator, a statement which served to detract from her status. It was Pascalene's presence in Bob’s life that finally ended his relationship with Cindy. It is with Princess Pascalene that he had his last serious relationship.
The Death of An Icon
Lastly but not least, we arrive at the most emotionally charged part of the film. This is a very sad moment in the documentary as Bob’s career is about to go to another level, everyone can identify with that feeling of ‘success’. To get to that moment and then not be able to fully grasp it can be painful. And this is what finally ‘connects’ us to Bob, that vulnerability that we fear the most; the unknown over which we have no control.
The year is 1981; Bobs days are numbered, he and Cindy are no longer in a relationship having separated in 1979. It would have been interesting at this point in the film to have heard from Princess Pascalene as she was more present in his life at that time, and also was with him in his final days. But then the director by this stage has already set the tone through Neville Garrick that she was more interested in Bob than he in her, making nothing of their relationship. Also as Rita and his mother were his main caretakers it would have been more attention grabbing in my opinion to have heard more from Rita especially leading up to the final moments just before Bob passed. She had just left the hospital room to get Bob some carrot juice and upon her return he had passed away, as explained in her book. Rita could have also given some insight as to what she saw happening around Bob, as it is known that things were done to him that she and others were upset with. She also believed that Bob was becoming sidetracked from his mission by other people’s demands and the pressures upon him.
Bob like his family and entourage suspected foul play i.e. that he was being poisoned. I think it was important for the viewing audience to at least be informed that not only was he hurting and in great pain from his illness but that he believed he had been targeted. Chris Blackwell in earlier interviews said that he had been approached by the CIA who told him that they had Bob under surveillance. They believed that through his (Bob’s) growing influence he had the power to cause destabilisation to the government of Jamaica.
So as we near the end of the film somewhat drained and maybe feeling in some sort of emotional pain that Bob has died, you may even have even shed a tear or two as my friend did - we hear Bob say “I don’t really have no ambition, I just have one ting, I would like to see mankind live together Black, White, Chinese everyone live together, that’s all”. This is again taken out of context of the Rastafarian philosophy and drives home what the director has been trying to convey to us all along that Bob was race neutral. Other interviews with Bob paint an entirely different picture of what he had hoped to achieve, and who he wanted to reach; he also spoke of plans for example to build a studio in Africa and eventually repatriate there.
The overall portrayal of Marley is not the Bob that I grew up with and have come to know more intimately over the years. Bob Marley ‘half-white, rejected because of his colour, poverty stricken, one love messenger come to unite all people’s of the world’ may indeed by a message that Kevin McDonald wants to sell us, and one that the Marley family might embrace but the fact remains that people have yet to be shown who the true Bob Marley is. The film still has me asking: what is Rastafarian philosophy all about, how did Rastafarian philosophy; vision and worldview truly inspire Bob, and impact upon his music? For as Jamaican author Kente Mwilima writes “Indeed, this area is arguably the most important of all. For without it there would be no Bob Marley in the way he became. He would not have impacted on the world as he has done… The power, nature, feel and tone of his music all stemmed from this…that is Bob Marley the Pan-African /Revolutionary /Rasta man! It was his revolutionary convictions that often determined the tone or pitch of his voice and/or the approach of his singing. The righteous anger often contained in his voice, his stage postures… His reflective moods and anticipation of Armageddon stems from being a Rasta… Recall that Marley (along with many others) both on stage and in the studio was not a mere performer, but a man at war, fighting against injustice and the oppression of Black people around the world. Such would not be becoming of a crooner or mere singer of love or dance songs.”
It is dangerous and damaging to assume that the oppression and racism faced by many across this world is one that can be solved with ‘One Love’; at best it is politically naive and at worst deceptive. For Bob’s message and actions show us clearly that it takes effort to eradicate injustice and if films continue to portray Bob as ‘a one love, one world’ artiste then they are only adding to the injustice that Bob fought so hard to fight against; rather than truly identifying what he stood for and highlighting what we can learn from him in our attempts to continue to work to bring about truth, justice and rights. It is also a blatant denial of the reality of the world that we live in and how the legacies of colonisation and neo-colonisation still live with us today.
For those who have studied the man, his music, and the philosophy of Rastafarians, we know exactly who Bob is, and this is the man that perhaps western film makers are reluctant to portray; a man who channelled his musical talent towards the African liberation struggle to paraphrase Bob ‘if my life is just for me alone then I don’t want it, my life is for the people.’ The Marley film is not the definite story of Bob Marley; it is digestible yes, but truthful or accurate? Not from my perspective. How are the younger generations going to learn about revolutionary figures like Bob Marley and be inspired by their mission if they are not told the truth?
The film also did not present much new material, 95% of the film footage has been seen in other films – over and over again. Perhaps Bob’s story would be best told by film directors such as Spike Lee, Haile Gerima, and Owen 'Alik Shahadah, who would easily understand and identify with the story and struggles of Bob Marley and do it far more justice than has been done in the Marley film.
Today Bob Marley is still the most visible representation of Rastafarianism and African Liberation worldwide, and no amount of editing, sanitising, white washing, de-Africanising can change this, and I do believe that Bob would not want that either. I am sure if you check Bob’s music catalogue he has a song somewhere for such attempts and if I may be bold enough to make a suggestion, I think it goes something like this:
(Could You Be Loved) If you would like to learn more about Bob Marley you may want to start with Ghanaian-Jamaican author, Kwame Dawes: ‘Bob Marley (Lyrical Genius)’.