Leonard Howell was the first Rasta

Reggae music is for many people synonymous with the teachings of Rastafari and Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, crowned Ras Tafari in November 1930. If you dig a little deeper in this philosophy you’ll find Jamaican Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), an important figure in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement as well as for the ideas behind Rastafari.

French film maker and director Hélène Lee has however dug way deep in the Rasta movement and made a documentary about a well-travelled Jamaican preacher called Leonard Percival Howell (1898-1981), contemporary with Marcus Garvey and perhaps the most important figure behind the creation and rise of the Rasta movement in Jamaica.

The First Rasta follows in the footsteps in Leonard Howell and contains interviews with his family, academics, co-workers, musicians, politicians and ordinary people.

In his late teen Leonard Howell boards a boat in Jamaica and travels the world. Upon his return to his home island after almost 20 years he has lots of ideas and criticizes the western way of living. He is regarded by the authorities as a revolutionary and refuses to pay taxes to King George VI of the United Kingdom and is in 1933 arrested for treason and blasphemy.

He’s jailed, ridiculed and treated as insane, but manages to establish the first Rasta community in 1939. In Pinnacle, as the community is called, the first ideas concerning Rasta are formulated.

Pinnacle is isolated from the rest of society and frowned upon by the authorities. The camp is raided several times before it is finally shut down in 1959. The Rasta followers start to spread all over Jamaica and many settles down in the Kingston ghetto areas, and contrary to what the authorities wanted the movement starts to gain followers, where some of the most well-known ones are Burning Spear and Bob Marley.

This is a well-researched documentary that goes beyond the mere obvious – marijuana, reggae and dreadlocks. Hélène Lee manages to present a movement and a complex person with inspiration ranging from spirituality and black awareness to communism.

Even though the Rasta’s lives were made difficult in the early years, the movement and the ideas behind Rastafari have spread all over the world, and have had a strong and positive impact on many people lives. And all of this thanks to a man regarded as a threat to society.

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