What Are Jamaican Films Without Jamaican Culture And Language?
In 2017, an accomplished American Hollywood producer Joel Zwick told a group of Jamaican filmmakers that they should only use English in their movies because the use of Patois makes it a foreign film.
He said, “If the world can’t understand what you are saying and you then have to use subtitles, which most people don’t like to read, then it becomes a foreign movie. Jamaica should not be producing foreign-language films as an English-speaking country. There is no reason to tell your stories in anything other than English as the English-speaking world is vast.”
He further stated: “When we write in Patois, we are locking out a whole set of people who want to understand.”
Those comments proved to be short-sighted and deeply colonial. People are enjoying foreign films and people are reading subtitles. It enables greater comprehension.
The irony was; he was encouraging filmmakers to “think global” while reducing the prestigious art of filmmaking to the prejudices of English speakers. He also made the ill-informed assumption that all Jamaican stories may be told in the Queen’s language and keep their authenticity.
On the surface, it may seem as if Joel was right because since then, there have been only about 5 films released with a Jamaican cast or by a Jamaican Filmmaker that made it to Netflix or got an international theatrical release.
Filmmaking around the world happens in a range of economic, social, and cultural contexts. Jamaica’s own film industry started just over 100 years ago but still lacks the economic confidence to attract investors.
Like any other product made for distribution, films are targeting a specific demographic in a specific market. The new crop of creators are making their films, songs, stories, and even the cultural fashion with unique Jamaican flavors. That is similar to the major companies who exploit the culture from time to time for festive edge. The only differentiation. in success is they have the financial backing. It is a fallacious assumption to project to up and comers that their indigenous language is useless in the creative process.
Jamaica’s language It is part of the cultural capital.
Zwick’s statements are similar sentiments made by lawyers, politicians, and some producers that authentic Dancehall does not have a place in larger music markets.
Beenie Man in answering whether the music fails to sell because there’s a language barrier said on the World Music Views podcast,
“Then why Sean Paul sells so much?”
It was only recently that Many Black American filmmakers despite their achievements started to see inclusion in the award shows. There were were told in the past by Hollywood executives that ‘black films’, i.e. films with black actors as the lead characters would not make any money because nobody wanted to watch a film with black people.
“Every time there’s a success, it gets swept under the rug,” says Jeff Clanagan, president of Lionsgate’s Codeblack Films, which primarily produces films with African American casts. “It’s almost like there’s an asterisk on it. They chalk it off as an anomaly.” (La Times 2017)
For Jamaica, that anomaly is The Harder at hey Come staring a relatively unknown actor Jimmy Cliff over 40 years ago. There are countless other such stories to be told from Jamaica. Many of the brilliant black films were denied prestigious peer to peer awards even when they had superior talent. This was the sentiment behind the Oscar So White campaign lead by Will and Jada Pinkett Smith.
Black actors lamented how had to play the back burner known as the “chitlin circuit” with their films and other productions until Tyler Perry decided to write, produce and direct his own movies and broke box-office numbers with his cash cow character Madea.
The bigger movie houses, record labels and streaming platforms may try to create imaginary ceilings that “films and music, done in the Jamaican Patois language is not sellable” but they would be forgetting their own history. Some of the early filmmakers in Hollywood, the likes of Mayer, Cohen, Selznick, and Thalberg, headed west to form Hollywood at a time when the entertainment business was regarded as disreputable. They often went to extreme lengths in their quest for social respectability.
Jamaican creators have gone to the same extreme lengths since the 1960s to show their abilities beyond language, but have not received the same respect for the impact of our films, stories, culture, music and language.
Add to that a Jamaican creative must work twice as hard and invest twice as much to import equipment in order to compete with others who have the infrastructure, education, creative tools and other resources at their fingertips.
Creators are not beggars
Platform services like Netflix are doing a disservice to the global film industry by not looking to Jamaica for directors, actors, and producers of content. Caribbean people are said not to buy music but they stream movies because the region is one of Netflix’s fastest-growing since 2018. It is only right that more representation is included on their platform. Additionally, global audiences are judging films based on how they connect to the story. Narcos has been the greatest example of this with its Spanish subtitles and a story that connects two continents.
There are many untold stories in Dancehall culture, stories about Miss Lou and all the national heroes that are yet to be immortalized. They need a budget for production, marketing, and distribution.
If Jamaican films are proscribed from entering the real corridors of gentility in global music and film status, then the movies, fashion, music, and stories told in the Jamaican language offer an ingenious option. Jamaicans can simply create a new industry, one where we would not only be admitted but would also govern.
To shame the Jamaican language, stories, movies, and music and at the same time exploit it for commercial appeasement is the systematic downplaying of the island’s cultural relevance to the global markets. This is why Justin Bieber could boldly say that he credits “island music” and not the Jamaican influence for inspiring his hit reggae-dancehall song Sorry.
Replacing the Jamaican content and context justifies the exclusion of Jamaican talent on the global entertainment scene in films, music, fashion, and culture.
We shouldn’t have to look outside when the resources are already here. Jamaican investors should come together with the filmmakers, video directors, music makers, storytellers, and creative agencies to be less like Stephen Spielberg and more like Steve Jobs. The global perception of the country depends on it. We must be innovative and express ourselves in an authentic manner as we code-switch to break down imaginary walls. Code-switching doesn’t require creators to change their natural language, it is the use of nuances and codes in different languages to communicate more effectively to a wider audience. This is totally different from language exclusion in film making as suggested by Joel Zwick. This unique ability to move from one language’s nuance and cadence to another but showcasing authentic emotion has been used by several musicians in the past.
Cham explained in an interview. with me that it’s the difference between saying “Tell em” and “Tell Dem”. The platinum-selling artist said this allowed him to meet new audiences halfway and they came halfway to meet him with the way he expressed himself.
The backbone of the music industry is great songwriting just as the backbone of the film industry is great scriptwriting. So we must start from a comfortable place of scriptwriting and develop the film industry outward.
All our energies should now be focused on developing our humanity through scripts and making films, music, fashion, and telling stories using our rich history and cultural values.
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