The role of the Caribbean in the history of film has changed over time with the region’s struggles. In times of struggle, film has given a voice to the people of the Caribbean. This entry looks at the relationship between political events and the development of cinema in the region.
Soon after cinema’s invention in 1895 by the Lumière Brothers, the Caribbean was exposed to film. Given the colonial past of the islands it is not surprising that a special value was placed on the medium since it came from abroad. By the 1940s, American films such as Casablanca, starring Humphrey Bogart, had become regular features in local movie theatres. It appears that island people were interested in following the narratives of foreigners engaged in fictional lives on screen. During this time, the Caribbean was strictly a receiver/ consumer of films from western countries who acted as the predominant producers/ transmitters.
The beauties of the Caribbean islands were first captured on film by early French filmmakers in documentaries featuring the island landscape. This was the beginning of the regions’ relationship with cinema; the area was a resource for foreign producers. Partly as a consequence, foreign production companies began to portray the islands unrealistically. Films were generally about a foreigner’s adventure on the island rather than a realistic portrayal of the lives of the indigenous community. According to Wilson Kennedy: “Since Hollywood’s early days filmmakers have depicted the region as illusionary paradise peopled by dubious natives, ravishing temptresses, and swashbuckling heroes. Themes of black magic and voodoo, gangsters and spies and pirates and villains have recurred in nightmarish proportions over the years.”(Okpewho)
The economic conditions of the Caribbean made it difficult for the development of an indigenous industry capable of competing internationally. Caribbean filmmakers wishing to create a film still today must do so independently, finding investors and funding on their own terms. A film requires an audience in order to be successful. Without major distribution networks, the films produced by these independent filmmakers are not always distributed on a large scale.
The 1970s – 1980s were a time characterized by harsh political and economic conditions yet they witnessed a successful shift in the Caribbean’s position from a consumer to a producer of films. The Harder They Come, directed by Perry Henzell, is notable for being the first full length Caribbean film to gain international acclaim. For Henzell making the film represented a unique opportunity. Speaking about the movie he said: “When I set out to make this film, I could make a film for Jamaica or a film for the rest of the world. I chose to make a film for Jamaica.”
The success of the Jamaican film raised hopes for the start of an indigenous film industry as it began to receive recognition. By depicting Caribbean experience authentically Henzell removed the stereotypical constructions developed from years of the islands’ use as a mere backdrop to the film’s plot. For those involved in the development of Caribbean cinema there was suddenly the hope for the creation of an independent film industry much like Bollywood is to India. It was linked to a growing identity and self-respect. As Lennie Little-White said: “Our children would not forgive us if in twenty years time, all material about ourselves and our region were produced by foreigners.” (Martens)
Artistic production is often used as a vehicle by which people voice their struggles and attempt to reclaim a history. With a growingly independent Caribbean cinema the highly expressive medium became a tool for communicating the experience of displacement and the cultural effects of the slave trade. For example, Euzhan Palzy‘s Sugar Cane Alley (2009) represented the mixing of ideas and identities resulting from colonialism and that developed into a Creole culture palpable today. The film attempts to express an understanding of mixed identity through the story of a little boy growing up in Martinique. The story contains two competing elements, one of the African past and the other of a French future. According to Stuart Hall: “In its merging of the past with the present and the future, the film reveals that cultural identity is not only a matter of ‘being’ but also of ‘becoming’” (in Gazetas 223). Sugar Cane Alley was praised as being the first film of the new cinema of the diaspora, participating in the important role of expressing hybrid identity. The idea of struggle around this hybrid identity is particular prevalent in the Caribbean due to its colonial past.
In addition to addressing issues of identity, Caribbean film conveys a strong connection to the social political currents of the islands following economic decline of the 1980’s, a time of political transition. Films that began to emerge during this time intended to educate the people on the cruelty and history of their exploitation and on current political events. A conference held at the Edinburgh Film Festival of 1986 focused on these new cinematic approaches to cultural politics. The development of Third Cinema signified the repositioning of the Caribbean in the culture of cinema.
In 1968, Argentine filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino wrote “Towards a Third Cinema,” distinguishing between “First Cinema” as the industrial cinema dominated by Hollywood, “Second Cinema” as art or experimental cinema, and “Third Cinema”, the cinema of de-colonisation, a cinema seeking to reveal social inequality and cultural politics. In their film titled The Hour of the Furnaces, Solanas and Getino attacked global imperialism and its effects on culture. Arguably, this highly politicized point of view in cinema was propaganda since, like most politically involved arts, film communicates a direct and clear message to the masses. It was presented as a tool for education, one seeking to inform and raise political consciousness. Directors such as Haitian Raoul Peck and Guadeloupian Christian Lara participated in Caribbean Third Cinema. Many agree that “Latin American film makers [and others] involved in this movement took the following concrete steps: they wrote a declaration, outlined their main principles for filmmaking, established common vocabulary in their writings, and actively promoted a class struggle.”
Raoul Peck directed a series of documentaries that successful expressed socialist ideals during his tenure as minister of culture in Haiti. These documentaries featured him narrating in a voice-over, a technique used to emphasize his political position. His films contain an anti-capitalist message stressing the faults of a market driven by Haitian economy. Christian Lara narrated the political controversies of Antilles in his film Coco La Fleur (1978) that depicted the life of a man who became involved in the election campaign in Guadalupe. In the movie, once the man realizes the strength of voice the campaign offers, he uses it to express the grievances of the people.
The early participation of the Caribbean in world cinema projected many false stereotypes about the region and its inhabitants. The Caribbean’s involvement in film through Third Cinema led to its successful positioning in film culture. The examples I’ve cited demonstrate clearly how film can be used as a cultural and political tool.
Cham, M. B. (1992). Ex-iles: Essays on Caribbean Cinema. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, Inc.
Cham, M. (1995). “Shape and Shaping of Caribbean Cinema” in Cinemas of the Black Diasporta: Diversity, Dependence and Oppositionality, Michael T. Martin, ed. Michigan: Wayne State University Press.
Ekotto, F., & Koh, A. (2009). “Fugitive Filmmaking: Third Cinema & The French Caribbean” in Rethinking Third Cinema: The Role of Anti-Colonial Media and Aesthetics in Postmodernity. Berlin: Lit; New Brunswick, N.J.: Distributed in North America by Transaction Publishers, 173-190.
Gazetas, A. (2008). “Stuart Hall on the Caribbean experience” in An Introduction to World Cinema, 2nd edition. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland.
Kennedy, W. (1996). “On Location,” Caribbean Travel and Life (May-June).
Lackey, J. E. Renegotiating Resistance: African Diaspora Film and the Discourse of Third Cinema. Thesis. Cornell University, 2007. https://dspace.library.cornell.edu/bitstream/1813/7560/1/Final%20Thesis%20for%20Submission.pdf. Accessed April 23, 2015.
Martens, E. (n.d.). “Consuming the Caribbean Cinematically: The Geopolitical Implications of Global Jamaican Imagery”. http://caribbeancreativity.nl/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Article_NHTV_Series.pdf. Accessed April 23, 2015
Okpewho, I., Davies, C. B., & Mazrui, A. A. (1999). “Caribbean Cinema, or Cinema in the Caribbean?” in The African Diaspora: African Origins and New World Identities. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Spaas, L. (2000). “North American and The Caribbean” in Francophone Film: A Struggle for Identity. Manchester; New York : Manchester University Press.