PAUL BRUNICK reviews The First Rasta, the story of Rastafarian Movement founder Leonard Howell, for The New York Times.
Riffing on an unlikely nexus of black radicalism and white college students, the satirical newspaper The Onion once ran an item headlined “Bob Marley Rises From Grave to Free Frat Boys From Bonds of Oppression.”
By popularizing reggae internationally, Marley became the global ambassador for Rastafarians, a Jamaican spiritual movement formed from the union of black nationalism and messianic Christianity. Yet the wide circulation of Rasta iconography — not to mention ceremonial clouds of ganja smoke — has stripped it of its original context and political content. “The First Rasta,” a documentary by the French journalist Hélène Lee, attempts to correct this cultural amnesia.
The film retraces the life of Leonard Howell, one of the movement’s founders, who died in 1981. Born into a successful Jamaican family, Mr. Howell traveled the world as a sailor, zigzagging to the Panama Canal, Leninist Russia and Renaissance-era Harlem. Drawing inspiration from the black nationalism of Marcus Garvey and the biblical prophesies in Revelation, he returned to Jamaica as an anti-colonial agitator and soon after declared Haile Selassie I, the ascendant emperor of Ethiopia, to be the second coming of Christ.
The Rastafarian movement’s internal contradictions go beyond its first-world reappropriation: it contains elements of theology and ideology while attempting to transcend both; it wavers between direct political engagement and a retreat into communitarian isolation; and it tries to reconcile black nationalism with an embrace of all colors and creeds (Marley’s “One Love”). The movement defies definition and thus invites it.
And yeah, the music is pretty good.
For the original report go to http://movies.nytimes.com/2011/11/30/movies/the-first-rasta-directed-by-helene-lee-review.html