The Flattening of Bob Marley’s Radicalism

The biopic One Love continues a long tradition of downplaying the late reggae star’s lifelong commitment to the liberation of Black people.
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Most casual pop-culture observers know a few basic facts about the late icon Bob Marley: He was a devout Rastafarian, he fathered 11 children with a number of women, he appreciated marijuana, and he tuned the world’s ears to the beat of reggae music, often with songs that called for peace, love, and unity. What isn’t so commonly acknowledged is the radicalism of his struggle for his fellow Jamaicans’ liberation and the music he made that indicted the Jamaican government and the sects of society that suppressed Black people’s pursuit of self-actualization. The singer’s life and music were shaped by the political upheaval around him, yet his image has often been softened into a digestible symbol of social deviance to college-age people. Bob Marley: One Love, a new biopic chronicling the artist’s rise to international stardom, participates in that flattening, leaving out crucial context about Jamaica’s dire situation and pushing the nuances of Marley’s journey to the background in the interest of making him into a singular, deitylike figure.

The film is set between 1976 and 1978, a crucial stretch of Marley’s life in which his music had become so powerful a tool in helping mobilize oppressed Jamaicans that an attempt was made on his life, causing him to relocate to England. One Love shows us Marley (played by British actor Kingsley Ben-Adir); his wife, Rita (Lashana Lynch); and his manager, Don Taylor (Anthony Welsh), being shot by suspected henchmen linked to the right-wing Jamaican Labor Party, days before the 1976 “Smile Jamaica” concert at which Marley was scheduled to perform. That event was conceived as an attempt to quell tensions between the democratic socialist People’s National Party, the JLP, and the semi-autonomous gangs affiliated with these parties. But the film never explains the root causes behind those tensions, or how Marley got caught up in it.

Michael Manley, the PNP’s charismatic leader, had been elected prime minister of Jamaica in 1972, propelled by support from the country’s overwhelmingly Black underclass. He spoke of democratic socialism and unionizing as a means to ensure more rights and opportunities for the oppressed and a way to end Jamaica’s economic dependence on American and British governments. Soon after, the press falsely accused Manley of being a communist, and under Henry Kissinger’s leadership, the CIA allegedly began efforts to destabilize Manley’s government by importing weapons into Jamaica, leading to a spike in violence and jeopardizing the country’s crucial tourism industry. The economy severely suffered as a result. By this time, reggae music’s direct link to the realities and desires of most Jamaicans had given it political power. Manley himself recognized this — which is why, in 1976, he moved up the date of an upcoming election to just ten days after the PNP government-organized Smile Jamaica, knowing that Marley’s presence there would ultimately appear as an endorsement of the party, even if that wasn’t the singer’s intention.

The PNP was effectively using the reggae star for its own political ends, while assailants allegedly affiliated with the JLP set out to kill him. Bob Marley: One Love acknowledges this context only in passing, when Rita tells her husband before the shooting that he is being manipulated. The omission underlines the most frustrating failure of this film, which is that it never devotes the necessary space to the world from which Marley sprouted. The country’s tense political climate, high levels of Black poverty (from 1960 to 1969, Jamaica’s unemployment rate escalated from 13.5 percent to 17 percent), and the fact that it had been under British rule until Marley was 17 are all key factors in who he ended up becoming.

Even Marley’s Rasta faith is handled in a confusingly delicate manner. After he’s shot, we see him seeking guidance from an unnamed spiritual leader played by Ricky Chaplin, who is clearly depicting the late Mortimer Planno, a revered leader in the Rasta community who mentored the singer from his teens into adulthood. In this rendering, Mortimer mostly speaks in parables about the overall power of the faith and the messages the Almighty is sending by allowing the singer to survive an attempt on his life — a maddening skimming over of a belief system and code of ethics that Marley dedicated his life and work to spreading and legitimizing. “When they used to see Rasta, it was shoot first, ask questions later,” the fictional Bob explains to his son in the beginning of the film without elaborating on why. Rastafarianism, a faith first shaped in the early 20th century and rooted in anti-colonialism, was once punishable by death because it subverted European Christian ideals and because Jamaica’s government feared it could inspire justified dissent. It took the Pan-Africanist teachings of Marcus Garvey (who prophesied the rise of a Black king in Africa) and the preachings of Leonard Howell (regarded by many as the first Rasta), and it combined them with aspects of the Hindu practices brought to the island by indentured Indian workers in the late 19th century. Early Rastafarianism designated Ethiopia’s emperor Haile Selassie I as the reincarnation of Jesus Christ and the rightful messiah for Black people, rather than the white version they’d been raised to exalt. When Selassie I appears in the film on a horse in a burning field to rescue Marley as a child, however, the image’s impact is lost because the burden is on the audience to piece it all together.

To its credit, One Love fares better when music is being made, and Ben-Adir captures Marley’s gift for orchestrating musicians during a session, his electricity while performing, and his mannerisms — though the majority of the songs we hear are the “peace, love, and unity” types (“Jammin,” “Turn Your Lights Down Low,” “Three Little Birds”) rather than the artist’s more outwardly political songs like “Burnin and Lootin,” “War,” and “Africa Unite.” The film gives a day-in-the-life feel to scenes where Marley and his support, the Wailers and the I-Threes, are shown at work. They consult with one another about set lists, discuss what’s happening in the world, and workshop artwork for album covers. These scenes suggest that everything created in those years was a genuine extension of Marley’s Rasta lifestyle and that his art’s authenticity is what connected with people well beyond the borders of his tiny home island.

The film frames Marley’s time in England after his assassination attempt as the catalyst for his shift to global stardom, though in reality he already had a sizable fanbase there. It also avoids dwelling on the ways that Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, the man labeled as Marley’s discoverer, wanted to market the reggae singer as a Black rock star in the vein of Bob Dylan to soften his image to white fans. The film hints at that dynamic during a scene in which Blackwell brings in a representative from an American label to meet with Marley and his art director, Neville Garrick (played by Sheldon Shepherd). They discuss the Exodus album artwork, for which Garrick has designed a typeface which references Amharic script, honoring Selassie and Africa as a North Star. The label rep doesn’t grasp the significance and urges instead for a straightforward photo of Marley. Decisions like these are what began the process of oversimplifying Marley’s image even before he passed away.

The truth is that Bob Marley’s power had already rested in his ability to make the complicated simple, which is why he had a non-Jamaican audience. He took the political turmoil of his country and the persecution Rastas faced and recontextualized them using well-known stories and scriptures from the Old Testament, turning them into beautiful poetry that was open to interpretation. His conviction made it so people could apply his real struggle for liberation to their personal lives while it also signaled a shared experience to oppressed people across the world. It’s a paradox that made the flattening of his radicalism possible, a tradition the film furthers in its depiction of Marley. It’s not that he wasn’t a magnetic, fun-loving guy who smoked weed and had an acute focus on peace for all as an attainable goal, as he appears in the film. It’s that he also believed the way to reach that destination was to dismantle the systems that thrive on assigning Black (and other oppressed) people to the underclass.

Considering the atrocities that currently persist in places like Palestine, Congo, Sudan, and Tigray, a more intentional effort to show Marley’s commitment to using his voice as a tool for active resistance against the exploitation of Black people and other oppressed people would have been apt for One Love. Even when the film depicts Marley’s insistence on playing a show in Africa, it never gets around to showing us how he used his voice to actively aid Zimbabwe’s 15-year struggle for independence and used his own money to travel there for a show celebrating its liberation in 1980. At almost every chance to give context for his radicalism, One Love breezes over it with title cards and archival footage. But showing the fullness of Marley’s beliefs would have spoken to why he was so dynamic. And how the biggest musical stars of today — most of whom haven’t bothered to inconvenience themselves with speaking out against western powers enabling genocide and mass destruction — could learn something from his bravery.

The Flattening of Bob Marley’s Radicalism

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By Lawrence Burney