Saturday, January 7, 2012

The First Rasta [2010]

MPAA (unrated)  Time-Out Chicago (3 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing -

Time-Out Chicago Review

One of the joys of following films is that one occasionally runs into documentaries like this one, The First Rasta (written and co-directed by Helene Lee along with Christophe Farnarier based on the Helene Lee's book by the same name) about Leonard Howell (1898-1981) the founder of the Rastafarian movement in Jamaica and beyond.  It was picked-up by Facets Multimedia here in Chicago, itself a real gem for movie lovers.

As I would imagine most Americans who've lived in or near big cities, I've run into the occasional Rastafari during the course of my life with his/her distinctive hair and colorful garb.  Most music lovers would also know of a link (of some sort) between Raggae music (popularized by Bob Marley) and the Rastafarian movement but perhaps little else.  The joy of finding and watching a film like this is that it gives the viewer in a relatively short space of time a context and an appreciation of what Rastafarianism has been about.

Leonard Howell was born into a fairly successful black family in Jamaica, nonetheless found himself getting into trouble with the authorities fairly early in life and as a result he was forced off the island to find work in Panama.  From there he became a seaman working on any number of the transport ships that were plying the seas at the time.  The documentary points out very nicely that these ships were "the agents of globalization at the time" and that they transported "not only cargo but also ideas."  Working on these ships were often the disenfranchised of the world of the time (as well as anarchists and bolsheviks) and from Kiel/Hamburg to Odessa/St. Petersburg sailors became the triggers of Revolution. (I honestly, never had made that connection before).

Among the places that Howell spent a good deal of time in during his travels was New York and thus the black culture of Harlem of the time as well as its various Afrocentric movements.  Being Jamaican in origin, Anglican (Christian) birth, he also had contact with the Indian (Hindu/Muslim) diaspora in Jamaica.  Finally after the rise of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia to the Ethiopian throne (the Ethiopian kings tracing their lineage back to the Biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba), Leonard Howell became the founder of the Rastafari movement which venerated Haile Selassie I (Ras meaning "Head" or "Duke" in Ethiopian and Tafari being Haile Selassie I's title before becoming Emperor) as Jesus incarnate for black people.

I honestly never knew of the connection between Ethiopia and the Rastarfarian movement though the colors that I've seen Rastafaris wearing over the years now make immediate sense to me as they are the colors of the Ethiopian flag.  Then Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia some years afterwards takes on an even more tragic dimension:  Ethiopia was a country that Africans and their descendants around the glove were coming to see as having a special significance and now it was suddenly and tragically brought low by the caprice of two-bit European despot, who governed, actually, from all places ... Rome (of Biblical significance as well).

In any case, Leonard Howell, founded basically a Hindu/Gandhi-style Ashram called Pinnacle in the hinterlands of Jamaica as the first Rastafarian community venerating Haile Selassie I as Jesus incarnate in this world along the lines of the occasional incarnation of a God in Hindu belief.  The ethic of the Pinnacle community was simple and self-sufficient living, perhaps made easier by smoking lots and lots of pot, but actually having ideals very similar to those espoused by M.G. Gandhi at the time.  Indeed, Bob Marley's song "Don't Worry, Be Happy" gains a whole new meaning in a messianic 'God is indeed among us' context.

I loved this documentary!  No I would not encourage "smoking lots and lots of pot" :-) as a means of arriving at happiness as this would obviously go against my own religion's teachings :-).  However thanks to this documentary, I honestly "get" Rastafarianism in a way that I never would have understood it before.  And I certainly understand / sympathize with the African diaspora's need at the time for hope and an affirmation that Africans like _all people_ are loved by God.

Previously, Spike Lee's film Malcolm X about the life of Malcolm X popularized understanding of the origins of the Black Muslim movement in the United States, which asked basically the same question: Why would blacks want to venerate a Christian God if popular (white) Christianity of the time would cast black people (and really all people "of color") as by definition inferior to them?  I think that most reasonable people would get it: Either God is the God of all, or God isn't really worthy of being called God, or at minimum each race therefore has a right to search and venerate its own God. (But I would insist that of those "racial gods," none of them IMHO would be worthy of wasting time worshiping).

Helene Lee's The First Rasta helps one understand the origins and philosophy/theology of Rastafarianism in this context as well: If the Christian God is presented as somehow being "the white people's God" then there has to be a God for black people as well.

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  1. "Don't Worry, Be Happy" is American Bobby McFerrin (, not Bob Marley. Examples of Marley songs that address his Rastafarianism directly are "Chant Down Babylon," "Jah Live," "Natty Dread," "Rastaman Chant," and "Rastaman Vibration."

    "Don't Worry, Be Happy" isn't really what you're going for here.

  2. Hi Dave, thanks! ;-). Still it's a nice song but your examples even by title make the point much better. Again thanks!

  3. And folks, every one of the above songs can be found on youtube to say nothing of / itunes ...