This “authorised” cine-biography of reggae-deity Bob Marley begins on the shores of Ghana where we see the “door of no return” through which slaves were marched before their imperial masters set sail for the West Indies, and then America beyond.
It’s a brave move from director Kevin MacDonald – immediately placing Marley’s revolutionary message of “one love” within the context of an Afro-Caribbean movement still struggling to overcome a brutal colonial past. Within seconds, we’re thrown into the midst of a performance of Exodus. “Exodus! Movement of Jah People,” Marley bellows out to his followers, his fist high in the air, his dreads swinging and waving like a Rastafarian Medusa. Within two minutes of the two-and-a-half hour film, MacDonald has laid his cards on the table; Marley is a study of exile and belonging, of one’s obligations to family, state and race and, most importantly, to one’s sense of self. “Man is a universe within himself.”
A bit like Asif Kapadia’s Senna, this is a brilliantly structured archival-mosaic. MacDonald was given full access to the Marley family’s archival trove, which he intercuts with present-day establishing shots and intimate, occasionally contradictory interviews. We see the shack in the mountainous heart of Jamaica where Robert Nesta Marley was born, the shanty home in Trench town on the outskirts of Kingston that “carries a heavy vibration.” We see him clean-cut and suited in the first known pictures, before the trademark joint appears hanging at an impossible angle from his mouth. “This is my identity,” he said in a rare interview, proffering his dreads to the camera.
Marley had a truly remarkable life; uniting his country the day after an assassination attempt (during which he dragged the socialist Michael Manley on stage to publicly embrace the conservative leader Edward Seaga); playing football with his Wailers against a National Front five-a-side team in Battersea Park; performing at the Zimbabwean independence rally with Bob Mugabe and Prince Charles in lieu.
But MacDonald, to his credit, hasn’t bowed to the legions that worship Marley unquestionably. Marley married young and had eleven children to seven different women, but he wasn’t much interested in the sacrifices of being a father or partner; the social idyll of “one love” he pushes in his music doesn’t seem to apply to the multiples of women in his life. His children here describe him as an aloof, hard and often absent father. In one interview, he’s asked whether his music of equality and fairness has made him rich. “What is rich?” he responds, immediately defensive. Marley pivots the questions in a way reminiscent of the politicians his philosophy seems so set against.
It’s a film devoted to a man who, somehow, remains removed, with his true thoughts, concerns, fears and frustrations just out of reach. “In this bright future you can’t forget your past,” he sings, but Trench Town was never going to hold him forever.
Marley is released in UK cinemas today.
Text: Tom Seymour