When I sat in the packed-to-capacity ImageNation screening of “Better Mus’ Come” (a film by Storm Saulter), I hoped for a kind of catharsis. I welcomed some perspective on events during my childhood in Jamaica that had been filtered to me through textbooks and my parents’ hindsight.
What I got was a visually stunning, well-crafted, and honest attempt at exploring the impact of tribal and Cold War politics on Jamaicans in the 1970s, which all too often took the form of violence.
During that time, and into the 1980s, my friends and I were busy becoming ‘Jamericans.’ Plucked from our birthplace and plopped into those Caribbean microcosms exploding around New York City, we matured with a sort of dual identity, as all immigrant children do. At home, we ate Jamaican food and packed barrels to the brim with canned goods, clothing, toiletries, you-name-it, to send to relatives in Jamaica. Out there, in ‘foreign,’ we attended schools where our funny enunciation elicited giggles and dredged up stereotypes our parents didn’t know existed.
We also endured our families’ ambivalence about our assimilation. Admonishments often began, “If you were back home, you wouldn’t do (fill in the blank),” and ended with the lament, “When you bring up your children in this country, you see?” So, why were we in this country? There was either vague talk of “opportunities” or passionate arguments—usually among men—about “politics.”
The America that I knew intimately, as a rule, collapsed any peoples with brown skin and tightly curled hair into one category: Black. So Jamaican tribalism didn’t register with my reality. “JLP” and “PNP” were nothing more than letters in the alphabet to me. Yet, they carried deep emotional resonance for friends and family from my neck of the global neighborhood. “Better Mus’ Come” bravely and compassionately explores a moment neatly locked away in the collective psyche of many Jamaicans, particularly those who left the country during this tumultuous time. It examines the dark side of power struggles between the JLP and PNP, Jamaica’s two main political parties, as well as the global politics that were simultaneously playing out on the island.
But at the heart of the film is story about love. And heartbreak.
We watch a passionate relationship bloom between Ricky (Sheldon Shepherd), a JLP hired gun, and Kemala (Nicole Grey), a country girl living in a PNP garrison. We also see how the broader love of family and community drives Ricky to make tough choices on his path toward manhood in a life that has been defined by limitation. And we are heartbroken by the socio-political cycles that repeatedly end in bloodshed.
The film’s superb cinematography exports the viewer right into myriad manifestations of urban primacy in Jamaica. The characters in the film are complex and well developed, exuding a chemistry that jumps off the screen. And the dialogue deftly conveys the colloquialisms and mood of the 1970s.
The only thing missing for me in “Better Mus’ Come” was an even wider lens through which to analyze the political strife and violence underpinning the film’s central love story. That there is tribalism in Jamaica, a post-colonial society, is abundantly clear. What may be nebulous for those unfamiliar with Jamaican history is the ‘why,’ beyond the basic drives of greed and power present in any developing nation with scarce resources. Why?
Perhaps one film is not enough to truly examine these issues, but it is important to me that they be examined. Jamaica is not a wantonly violent place. Neither are Jamaican people intrinsically violent.
Getting to the root causes—the real historical causes—of such violence, in addition to the symptoms we see portrayed in the film, is where greater understanding and true healing lie.
Better mus’ come, indeed. See this film.
-- Written by Keisha Gaye Anderson
Born in Kingston, Jamaica and raised in Rosedale, Queens Keisha Gaye Anderson is a published journalist, story teller and poet. A Syracuse University graduate, she has written and produced for television (NHK, CBS, A&E, the Hallmark Channel, History Channel and MTV). Her articles have been published in Psychology Today, Black Enterprise, Teen People, Honey, and Upscale. She also published a poetry chapbook Circle Unbroken, and has performed as a spoken word artist at a number of venues, including Bowery Poetry Club, Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Perch Cafe, and The Knitting Factory. Her poems have been featured and published in numerous literary journals and events nationwide. Click here to learn more.