Despite Reggae Month 2021 being kept on servers and streaming sites due to the global pandemic, Jamaica’s long and storied history continues on in film unabashedly.

The country’s theme of “Come Ketch de Riddim Virtually,” presented by the Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment, and Sport, gives natives, residents, and those abroad a chance to celebrate their roots and educate the masses as well.

Jamaica is globally known as the Reggae mecca of the world, a must-see travel and tourism destination, and home to some of the tastiest eats of the Western Hemisphere. With the focus of Reggae Month 2021 on “edutainment,” we present 14 films that go beyond the view of Jamaica as simply a place to get away and center the contributions Jamaican people have given to the world.

1. The Upsetter: The Life and Music of Lee Scratch Perry (2008)

Starring: Lee “Scratch” Perry, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh

Directed By: Ethan Higbee & Adam Bhala Lough

An iconic look at one of the most vital influences on the music of Bob Marley, The Clash, and The Beastie Boys — The Upsetter is a must-add watch to any true cinephile’s queue. Narrated by Academy Award winner Benicio Del Toro, this film chronicles the innovative architect behind The Black Ark and dub music pioneer. The Upsetter will hook viewers as it showcases the birth and growth of reggae. 

2. The Harder They Come (1972)

Starring: Jimmy Cliff

Directed By: Perry Henzell

A classic staple in Jamaican cinema if there ever was one, The Harder They Come is said to have “brought reggae to the world.” One would be hard to argue with that when you have such a captivating character as Jimmy Cliff. The beautiful visuals captured by Perry Henzell and cinematographers Peter Jessop, David McDonald, and Franklyn St. Juste reached international acclaim, making this one of the most important films from the Caribbean that you should watch with loved ones in your pod.

3. Sprinter (2018)

Starring: Usain Bolt, Lorraine Touissant, David Alan Grier

Directed By: Storm Saulter

A sports drama that mirrored the life of Olympic icon Usain Bolt, Sprinter revolved around an athlete going through family issues. Dale Elliott plays Akeem Sharp, a teen burdened by an unstable father and an unruly older brother, who hopes that track-and-field can reunite him with his mother. A harrowing film that boasts Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith as executive producers, this film also won awards for Best Narrative Feature and the Audience Award at the 2018 American Black Film Festival.

4. The Story of Lovers Rock (2011)

Starring: Dennis Bovell, Paulette Harris-German, Janet Kay 

Directed By: Menelik Shabazz

If you’ve been loving Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series, then you already know how much Lovers Rock meant to would-be raggas and certified Rastas. The romantic reggae genre is a uniquely Black British sound, and The Story of Lovers Rock is told by those who lived and developed those legendary sound clashes. With Dennis Bovell, Janet Kay, and more transporting us back to the late ‘70s and ‘80s, we are witnesses to riots, racial tension, and biases that could do little to mute the sound systems of these big chune creators.

5. Made in Jamaica (2006)

Starring: Capleton, Brick and Lace, Stephen “Cat” Coore

Directed By: Jérôme Laperrousaz

Jérôme Laperrousaz’s documentary about Jamaica’s music dives beneath the surface to give an unfiltered look at some of the country’s most dynamic reggae and Dancehall artists. Made in Jamaica was a huge ting when it hit the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival, as the live performances and confessional tales by Capleton, Brick and Lace, and more, made this film critically acclaimed for all the right reasons. If you’ve never been to downtown Kingston, Made in Jamaica will give you a tour like never before.

6. Klash (1995)

Starring: Giancarlo Esposito, Jasmine Guy

Directed By: Bill Parker

Flowers must be given to Giancarlo Esposito and Jasmine Guy for their venture into the world of Jamaican gangsterism and Dancehall culture. Bill Parker’s 1995 feature film is often overlooked in many lists, but there is a cheekiness to Klash, reflected in the duo’s performance as an American photographer (Esposito) and a gangster in a gown (Guy). The movie also features performances by reggae legends Ninja Man, Mad Cobra, and Shabba Ranks. Despite Jasmine Guy’s chaka-chaka accent, this is one to watch for those who enjoy good vibes on screen.

7. Champion Sound (2010)

Starring: Count Spinner, King Baggy HI FI, Black Crusader

Directed By: The Heritage Lottery Fund

From the 1950s to the 1990s, the sound system has been the end-all, be-all when it comes to the growth of reggae music anywhere. In 2010’s Champion Sound, the documentary zones in on the beginnings of the culcha in the U.K. Featuring some of the all-time greatest tunes and groundbreaking interviews with pioneers like JB International, Jad Baddis, El Paso, and the aforementioned stars above, Champion Sound is told by the founders for the generations of sound controllers who’ve arrived since.

8. Rockers (1978)

Starring: Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace, Monica Craig, Richard “Dirty Harry” Hall

Directed By: Theodoros Bafaloukos

Originally intended to be a documentary, the style and sounds of Rockers blossomed into a full-length feature and showed reggae culture at its peak. Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace was authentically himself in front of Theodoros Bafaloukos’ camera and caught many important moments in then-real-time. From including Kiddus I’s recording of “Graduation In Zion” to bringing audiences into the hallowed hallways of Harry J Studios, where roots reggae artists like Bob Marley cut dub plates, Rockers is great and should be at the top of your Watch Party playlist.

9. Marley (2012)

Starring: Bob Marley, Ziggy Marley, Rita Marley

Directed By: Kevin Macdonald

Containing the life and musical career of Bob Marley on celluloid is a rare treat, given the maestro’s story and impact on world music. Made with the support of the Marley family, this documentary by Kevin Macdonald features rare and intimate moments that endeared Marley to a legion of music and cannabis lovers. Beautifully shot and filled to the brim with jewels of knowledge, Marley is the definitive account of the Jamaican global icon, with an immersive dive into his roots and timeless music.

10. Holding On To Jah (2011)

Starring: Prince Allah, Lascelle “Wiss” Bulgin, Watty Burnett

Directed By: Roger Landon Hall

What’s a celebration of Reggae Month without a project about Rastafarian culcha? Holding On To Jah is a fascinating look into the origin of roots reggae and how the Rasta impacted the genre. In alignment with Marley, the Roger Landon Hall-directed project is important in its own right, mainly thanks to the color and commentary from a range of well-known Rastas. Holding On To Jah is a film that is must-see for anyone who wants to dig beneath the surface and learn all they can about Rastafarianism.

11. The Mighty Quinn (1989)

Starring: Denzel Washington, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Robert Townsend

Directed By: Carl Schnekel

Is it time to go back into Denzel Washington’s IMDb and celebrate some of his lesser known films? I say yes. Filmed in Jamaica by Carl Schnekel, The Mighty Quinn was Washington’s first feature (before Glory) and found him as a police chief investigating the murder of a millionaire. The picture is a great chance to see the young star before his major turn and enjoy a thrilling tale of island intrigue.

12. Beats of the Heart: Roots Rock Reggae (1977)

Starring: Abafana, The Mahotella Queens, Johnny Clegg

Directed By: Chris Austin, Jeremy Marre

This pick examines the pivotal role reggae—also known as world music—had on the lives of Black South Africans while under the oppressive rule of apartheid. Chris Austin and Jeremy Marre capture the elements, the artists, and the events that led into a jaw drop-inducing documentary called Beats of the Heart. From being in the room as Paul Simon first lays eyes on Ladysmith Black Mambazo to hearing The Abyssinians wow the crowd with their music—Beats of the Heart is not one to sleep on.

13. Stepping Razor: Red X (1992)

Starring: Peter Tosh, Andrea Davis, Edward “Bigs” Allen

Directed By: Nicholas Campbell

The tragic story of Peter Tosh and the events of that fall night in 1987 still are talked about in lore on the Jamaican island. Tosh, a core member of the band the Wailers, now established as a successful solo artist is memorialized by friends and family who mourn his murder during a home invasion. Nicholas Campbell captures the raw emotion in Stepping Razor: Red X, exploring the life, prophecies, and political activism of the late, great Jamaican folk hero. Watch this one to learn Tosh’s inner thoughts through rare concert footage and interviews with close friends and associates.

14. Dancehall Queen (1997)

Starring: Audrey Reid, Carl Davis, Paul Campbell

Directed By: Rick Elgood, Don Letts

Energetic, emotive, and indicative of an artistry rooted in Dancehall culcha, Rick Elgood & Don Letts’ film was unusual and enchanting in an engaging way. Audrey Reid stars as Marcia, a street vendor and single mother who becomes a Dancehall Queen, and pits her enemies against each other. It received limited theatrical distribution when it first came out in 1997, but since then major film festivals and the love from the Black community have evolved Dancehall Queen into cult-classic status. An entertaining movie that offers a mash-up soundtrack and a trip through some of the scintillating sights of the vibrant island.

Kevin L. Clark is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer/screenwriter and curates ESSENCE’s The Playlist. Follow him @KevitoClark.

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