Fri | Jun 2, 2023

Carolyn Cooper | Justine Henzell artfully producing culture

Published:Sunday | April 9, 2023 | 12:49 AM

Justine Henzell excels at working behind the scenes. She really does not enjoy the limelight. By the way, the original ‘limelight’ is no longer in use. It has been replaced by the electric arc spotlight. The word’s meaning is now purely symbolic. According to the website, “In the early 1800’s, theater stages were lit by heating a cylinder of the mineral called lime – the result was an intensely bright white light. The word limelight came to have its figurative meaning of ‘at the center of attention’ in 1877.”

I know Justine will not be amused to see her name in the spotlight of my headline. Too bad for her! I simply must big her up for the brilliant work she continues to do as one of Jamaica’s premier curators of our culture. Among her many, many credits is the entertaining documentary film, One People – the Celebration, which marked the 50th anniversary of Independence. Justine co-directed the film with Dionne Walker. There were several collaborating directors, including Stephanie Black, Lukkee Chong, Chris Browne and Damali Little White. The executive producer was Kevin Macdonald and Justine and Zachary Harding were co-producers.

The cast of the film was diverse. Dianne Abbott, Monty Alexander, Harry Belafonte, Stacey-Ann Chin, Una Clarke, Donnette Cooper, Beverley Manley Duncan, Louis Farrakhan, Malcolm Gladwell, Carolyn Gomes, Ainsley Henriques, Andrew Holness, Rita Marley, Jaunel McKenzie, Sean Paul, Colin Powell, Donald Quarrie, Jack Scorpio, Edward Seaga and Romain Virgo are just some of those featured in the film. Asked about their favourite Jamaican food, most participants said ackee and saltfish. Rundown and jerk were also “flavourites”. That’s such a clever word, coined by an elderly respondent.

Elephant Man’s answer was pure poetry: “Yeow, yu have a ting name – when yu going to Mandeville – di roast yam. When yu roast di yam an yu cut it in two. Oh God! Weh mi kerchief deh? Mi mout a run. When yu cut di yam in two, yu got di Chiffon butter. Yu got di Chiffon, an den yu just paste di Chiffon like, yu just paint it. An when yu paint it, yu lock di yam. Den yu got di roast saltfish now. And den now, on yu journey, before you move, yu have to get a nice bottle of lemonade or carrot juice, with yu ice inna a different cup.”


Last year, Justine expertly managed events celebrating the 50th anniversary of Jamaica’s first feature film, The Harder They Come, produced and directed by her visionary father Perry. He co-wrote the script with the distinguished Jamaican dramatist Trevor Rhone. Barbadian historian and poet Kamau Brathwaite highlighted the film’s revolutionary power in his book, History of the Voice:

“At the premier, the traditional ‘order of service’ was reversed. Instead of the elite, moving (complimentary) into the Carib Cinema watched by the poor and admiring multitude, the multitude took over – the car park, the steps, the barred gates, the magical lantern itself – and demanded that they see what they had wrought.”

In a USA Today article, “50 years later, ‘The Harder They Come’ remains a touchstone moment for Jamaica and reggae,” published in February 2022, Marco della Cava and Rasha Ali report that:

“In the late 1960s, a white Jamaican movie producer had a decision to make.

The late Perry Henzell wanted to tell a story about his country that would put a big spotlight, not on the lush tourist image of the island but rather on the tough lives endured by many of its Black inhabitants.”

Ali and della Cava quote Justine: “‘Right then, my father had to choose, was this a movie for Jamaicans or a movie for the rest of the world? . . . My father decided it was for Jamaicans, and then he didn’t focus on anything but that.’”

Perry’s decision to make the movie for Jamaicans guaranteed its authenticity. That is precisely why it became a cult movie for the rest of the world. The Harder They Come told the riveting story of Ivanhoe Martin’s epic struggle to escape poverty and make it as a recording artiste. Like so many talented singers, Rhygin Ivan, played by Jimmy Cliff, was the victim of an exploitative recording music industry. The soundtrack of the movie featured reggae artistes like Toots and the Maytals and Jimmy Cliff himself who did become stars, despite all the roadblocks. In 2021, the Library of Congress selected the soundtrack album for preservation in the National Recording Registry, based on its cultural, historical and aesthetic significance.


Justine has also been the producer of the Calabash International Literary Festival from its inception in 2001. She has skilfully managed the challenges of funding the festival, entry to which remains free of charge. Over the years, there have been many generous supporters from the private and public sectors; as well as individual donors. Audible, a subsidiary of Amazon, is a welcome new sponsor.

One of the highlights of this year’s festival will be the 50th anniversary tribute reading of Michael Thelwell’s novel, The Harder They Come, largely based on the film. Thelwell brilliantly creates the story of Ivan’s childhood, filling in the spaces in the film. Ivan becomes more than a leggo beast in the jungle of Kingston. Him come from somewhere.

Last Tuesday, at the launch of the 2023 staging of Calabash, Justine was in her element. Not quite in the limelight, but certainly not backstage! As she announced the lineup, you could hear her passion and pride in what Calabash has accomplished. This festival made for Jamaicans has become a global brand. Much like The Harder They Come!

- Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a teacher of English language and literature and a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to and