Holding on to Jah: The Genesis of a Revolution
Directed by Roger Landon Hall
Reggae music and the religious sect of Rastafarianism have been bound up together for so long as to be inseparable for many North Americans, with the late Bob Marley standing in as a convenient exemplar for both. But the music and the religion have distinct roots, and the way they arose and ultimately grew together is the subject of Holding on to Jah, a new documentary by Roger Landon Hall. It is a fairly fascinating story, one that merits a more thorough and compelling telling than it gets here.
Hall calls on a truly staggering list of roots reggae titans to serve as talking heads for his film: Pablo Moses, Joseph Hill of Culture, all three members of the Congos, Ras Michael, Sugar Minott, the list goes on. And as they talk, they tell the story of Jamaica—the slaughter and enslavement of its indigenous people by Europeans; the importation of African slaves and the successful resistance of the Maroons; the revolutionary career of Jamaica’s own Marcus Garvey; the country’s independence from England in 1962; and the galvanizing visit of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I to the island in 1966. By the time of Selassie’s visit, a quasi-Christian sect had emerged that believed the Bible prophesied Selassie as a messiah for the downtrodden black masses. When Jamaican ska and rocksteady evolved into heartbeat-paced reggae in the late 1960s, the Rastafarian movement found its ideal musical expression.
All of this is told exclusively via talking heads (with American reggae expert Roger Steffens the lone non-Rasta) and b-roll footage, both archival images and contemporary scenes. And while gleaning the tale from the mouths of Rastafarians themselves is a worthy idea (Moses, in particular, offers a host of valuable commentary), providing no narration or outside perspective (other than Steffens) leaves gaps in the narrative, and men talking for 96 minutes makes for somewhat tedious viewing. Virtually no reggae performance footage, few glimpses into Rastafarian life or rites, just talking and b-roll. Holding on to Jah is a valuable document, but unlikely to tempt anyone but the faithful.