The First Rasta Review

AKA: Le Premier Rasta
Genre: Historical Documentary
Year Released: 2010
Distributor: ArtMattan
Origin: France/Jamaica/Mauritius
Running Time: 86 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: 13+
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Aluku Liba, A Rasta Story, Rastamentary, Hate Crimes In the Heartland, Made in Jamaica, The Journey of the Lion
Notes:
-This was part of a 2-disc set called Rastas & Maroons with Aluku Liba. They are unrelated films part of the same set.

-Discussion of religion and religious concepts will be mentioned in this review.
Fun Facts:
-Helene Lee is a French filmmaker, journalist, and music critic. She actually married a Rasta named Joseph Lee. This documentary is an adaptation of her book of the same name.

-Language Bonus: The name Rastafari is a hybrid between “Ras” and “Tafari”. Ras means duke or prince in various Ethiopian Semitic languages. Tafari is actually the former emperor Haile Selassie I’s real first name (He was born Tafari Makonnen before ascending the throne) and it means “He who inspires awe.” in Amharic, one of the major official languages in Ethiopia.

-Famous practitioners of Rastafarianism besides Bob Marley would be Buju Banton, hardcore band Bad Brains, Benjamin Zephaniah, and Snoop Dog was a former adherent during his Snoop Lion period (anyone remember that being a thing?).

-Leonard Howell founded the Pinnacle Community in Sligoville, Jamaica. There was some symbolism because the town was founded by a British anti-slavery activist Rev. James Phillippo and Howell’s movement has anti-slavery/anti-colonialism connotations.

-Film Buff Bonus: Battleship Potemkin is played in the archive footage about the Soviet Union montage when Leonard Howell traveled there after WWI.

2021 might be the year of ArtMattan when it comes to Iridium Eye. This distributor is like how Film Movement was when I was starting out on this blog. The concept of ArtMattan is very fascinating as I didn’t know any Black-owned film companies that license movies from all over the diaspora. I was unsure at first with some missteps like Haramuya and Faraw!, but when this company brings out quality movies and documentaries, then they really deliver. The Caribbean received a lot of attention from the various movies I reviewed from them. It’s been a while since I watched anything from Jamaica. This example involves the founder of Rastafarianism. People have heard of the word most likely due to Bob Marley. The first time I heard the term “Rasta” was in passing during the movie Cool Runnings when I was a kid. That’s the movie with the Jamaican bobsled team for those who forgot (Feel the rhythm! Feel the rhyme!). This time we learn about the religion and the person who founded it.

Is everything going to be alright with this documentary? That Marley reference was warranted.

The First Rasta refers to Leonard “Gong” Percival Howell. He lived from 1898 to 1981. This particular person grew up in an Anglican household in rural Clarendan Parish, Jamaica and eventually traveled to multiple countries. Howell served in the US military and lived in Panama as well as New York City. He met up with noted Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey while also being influenced by so many other philosophers in his travels. Unfortunately, he got deported from New York City and went back to his home country. He started preaching and believed that the newly crowned (at the time in 1933) Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I was the “Lion of Judah” and messiah according to his interpretation of the Bible. Howell starts his own community of Rastafarians in a small mountain town where the people were self-sufficient. They were harassed by the authorities and politicians while accusing them of sedition. This documentary involves archived footage, interviews from surviving members of the former Pinnacle community, and current practitioners of the faith.

While documentaries and movies involving religion as a concept aren’t new to me, I will say that this was a learning experience about the history of this particular movement. I remember reading a few things about Rastafarianism when I was younger, hearing it mentioned in a couple of online videos, and I believe this was mentioned briefly when I reviewed the cricket documentary Fire In Babylon (I do know Bunny Wailer is a Rasta though), but hearing these stories from current practitioners did give this a new dynamic. It was fascinating hearing about the former members of the Pinnacle community doing for self with gardening, education, and even building their own homes in rural Jamaica. Some of them sing and have drum circles with different mini-performances sprinkled in. I didn’t even know about some of the music being reactions to the sociopolitical climate at the time especially with ska music. Sure, I knew it was invented in the Caribbean, but I didn’t realize that it had some anti-colonial implications and reggae was technically a “harder” form of that music from a message standpoint. So does this mean that a bunch of the 2nd or 3rd wave ska bands (the latter having more of a punk rock edge) be forms of cultural appropriation in hindsight? The stories were fascinating with how Leonard Howell was considered some kind of mega-traitor especially since Jamaica was still under British colonial rule with white politicians and police terrorizing them. He even got charged with sedition even though he didn’t do anything violent. Come on, it’s not like Leonard Howell and his Rasta commune stormed the capitol, assaulted or murdered cops, threatened to kill politicians, smearing poop around a building, or breaking in the place. Boy do those accusations look flimsier and even more racist in hindsight. Anyway, the production had a good mix of images with the landscapes, interviews, mini-concerts, archived footage, and newspaper transition scenes during major historical events. There’s even a paint-type of font used for the names and for little poetic phrases in different parts of the movie. It was also fascinating seeing some of the influences of the religion not just with the Abrahamic faiths or Pan-Africanism, but also Indian religions (Hinduism, Sikhism, Theravada Buddhism, etc.). There was a good amount of people who were alive during his heyday as well as younger members who still follow his teachings. One scene that did hit home was Howells’s son taking pictures of his destroyed childhood home in Pinnacle where he goes through the ruins while mentioning which rooms were in it. It really shows the tragedy and double standards going on just because of some people wanting to be self-reliant in a community.

The First Rasta isn’t a perfect documentary. The visuals do get hit with some pixelation here and there. While there were insightful stories, I felt that they could’ve gone more in detail talking about the doctrines of this religion. They mention some of the origins and basic beliefs which is fine, but I think they could’ve expanded on these things while still covering the history of Leonard Powell’s life. I did wonder about some of the religious influences like when the interviewed that Indian-Jamaican man Ajai Mansingh noting that some of the prayers in the Rasta tradition involved distorted Hindi words and the spiritual traditions paralleled Krishna, Buddha, and Rama. I did like the balance with the interviewees, and it did make me wonder if there was some cultural appropriation against the Indian culture and someone like Howell should really know better given his race. Haile Selassie I being an indirect figurehead was an odd choice. I don’t want to be that guy, but that emperor wasn’t a Rasta. He was an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian (a pre-colonial sect dating back to the 4th century) and didn’t believe he was the Lion of Judah or any kind of messianic figure. Yes, he did buy a piece of land in Shashamane for the Rasta community if they wanted to move to Ethiopia, but he was not a divine figure, saying nothing about him dying in 1975. The ending was a bit confusing with the majority white ska/reggae band playing at the end. I get what they were trying to do with Howell influencing ska and reggae music, but the band wasn’t introduced earlier which felt very random right before the end credits. Since Rastafarianism plays a major role, there’s sadly one stereotype that is shown and that is the usage of ganja. I know that marijuana is considered a sacrament in that belief system and I did like how they brought up the racial double standards of Black people being subjected to the weed raids instead of the Indians living in Jamaica (I don’t even smoke anything and even I thought it was bogus), but the imagery doesn’t help. One piece of dialogue I had an issue with was one Jamaican person talking about how non-Black groups became interested in that religion like John Lennon, Indians, and he says “China man” being interested. I don’t know if it’s a Jamaican patois/Creole thing, but the wording was very problematic.

This was an interesting documentary even though I’m not a Rasta. The stories of this community wanting to do for self was inspiring and I did sympathize when I heard about the rampant discrimination they faced even though they weren’t violent. The music was good and the production was creative without being distracting. However, I did take issues with some historical and doctrinal omissions as well as the open display of ganja which could add to the “weed smoking Jamaicans” portfolio (Yes, even certain Jamaican-Americans should know better than to say that). The First Rasta had a decent mix of history and educational aspects, but I would be lying if I said I was fully enthralled.

Adjustable Point Scores:
-Add 1-2 points if you like learning about Jamaican history.
-Subtract 1-3 points if religious concepts make you uncomfortable.

Pros:
-Creative visual production
-Insightful stories about self-reliance
-Good soundtrack

Cons:
-Some lacking parts of history and doctrinal beliefs
-Parts could involve cultural appropriation in hindsight
-The scenes and mention of ganja could play up negative stereotypes of Jamaicans much less Black people

Final Score: 7/10 points

Content Advisory: The First Rasta is fine for teens and up. There’s mention of warfare, executions, colonization, and racially motivated police brutality. Only one case of profanity is used. People do smoke cigarettes and there’s even some marijuana shown on camera as some of the Rastas talk about ganja as a sacrament as well as the community being subjected to drug raids unlike their Indian compatriots who did the same thing.

-Curtis Monroe

All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. The First Rasta is property of ArtMattan. The poster is from ArtMattan and is property of ArtMattan.

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