There are some films that mesmerize like a slowly burning fire. The embers, glowing shades of red, gold and orange, mixed with smoky black, pop and explode unexpectedly, and the sparks keep the onlooker from getting too close. That is exactly the feeling that is evoked in the new film by Storm Saulter called Better Mus' Come. Taking place in Jamaica of the late 1970's. this film illustrates a less celebrated aspect of the island - that of political strife, poverty and latent violence. For those willing to venture outside the confines of the sandy beach resorts, the reality of this part of the island are readily seen; the long lasting effects of a troubled colonial and political history still evident. During this period of history, Jamaica was like flotsam, adrift between the dueling philosophies of Socialism, in the form of The People's National Party, led by Michael Manley, and the more Western leaning, Jamaican Labour Party, led by Edward Seaga. The two factions employed rival gangs to enforce and sway their influence, with escalating brutality as the primary means of persuasion.
It is within this mix that we come to meet the character, "Ricky", played with apt tension and urgency by newcomer, Sheldon Shepherd. As the leader of one of these groups of street-toughs, Ricky must navigate the dangerous, tightly carved boundaries of his neighborhood, while maintaining the control and respect of his subordinates. He is unrivaled, as he's called in the local parlance, "Ranking", but questioned, as his priorities and motives become increasingly complex. Interviewed for public radio, prior to the film's screening in Philadelphia, Shepherd, a band leader in real life, states, "I'm a musician that plays no instruments - I play words". He employs this same style in this role that he seemed to be made for, careful and deliberate in his dialogue, he offers just the right mix of charisma, resolve and leadership to direct a gang. He is equally adept at wooing the beguiling "Kemela", played by Sky Nicole Grey, for whom he must traverse rough terrain in his pursuits.
There are enough plot points and conventions that alone would make this film an enjoyable outing; romance, deception, intrigue, violence - all Hollywood staples. However, Hollywood has never produced a film quite like this. Saulter, a trained cinematographer who worked his way through the ranks and toils of indie films and music videos in New York and Los Angeles, set out to create the first period piece set in his native Jamaica, using Jamaican actors and crew. As there was little infrastructure for such an undertaking, most of his cast was picked from local residents, his small crew was trained during the process, wardrobe was borrowed or recreated, firearms, stunts and special effects were made or acquired as they went along. It's hard to overstate what a task this was, and what an accomplishment they achieved. Informed by Jamaican movies of the seventies, such as Rockers, which provide a big creative and structural influence, this assemblage of talent deftly recreated the look and feel of the moment, as well as conveying with uncanny accuracy the swagger, carriage and patois of the rudeboys of those days. This is, quite simply, a masterful achievement that in no way relies on cliché or stereotype.
Written, directed and shot by Saulter, his motivation was to maintain accuracy and integrity in telling a little known story, ending with the days leading up to The Green Bay Massacre. He explains that the very music that the world came to know and love, reggae such as that performed by Bob Marley, Jacob Miller and Burning Spear, is a music of rebellion, revolution, struggle and redemption. This music was recorded during this very time, amongst the streets where these conflicts took place, by people who were affected directly by it; a fact that has largely been lost to most of the listeners today. This period of internecine warfare, played out in crowded shanties of impoverished people, created a culture and landscape both desolate and tender, painful and sweet. Much like this film. It is unsettling because it is, at once bright and vibrant, with a languid pace and musical soundscape that is often abruptly interrupted by the violence that causes Kemela to ask, "Why is it so easy to die for nothing?" The resolve of this island's inhabitants belies this notion, making the film's title as apt then as it is now.
Better Mus' Come opens one-week engagements Friday in NY at AMC Loews at 42nd Street and in LA at The Downtown Independent