Review: Marley – Kevin Macdonald

Robert “Bob” Nesta Marley is remembered for his poetic anti-establishment music which touched the world bit by bit. Yet at the core of what Bob Marley embodied for the world, as eloquently noted by one of the interviewees in Kevin Macdonald’s documentary, is that he represented hybridity:

“Black and white. PNP and JLP. Uptown, downtown.”

Born right up in the hills in the village of Nine Mile, Jamaica, Bob Marley was son to a white Englishman and a black Jamaican woman. As MacDonald leads us chronologically through Marley’s life, beginning with his tin shack home in Trench Town, the discussions revolve around Marley’s outcast, half-cast status.

Telling the story of his early years are a number of subtitled interviews with Marley’s cousins, whose Jamaican patois is so strong that MacDonald had to have a translator with him. One man, standing with a beer bottle at the side of a lean-to bar, enthusiastically and rhythmically bats the air in imitation of a rumba box – a Caribbean instrument used by Marley and the Wailers in their childhood years.

By the age of eighteen, Marley had moved to Kingston, committed himself to Rastafarianism and consequently vowed never to brush or cut his hair. The Rastafari movement’s political beliefs concern one love and equality, and as such reject mainstream politics. Marley had friends on both sides of a Jamaica in which the division between the People’s National Party (PNP) and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) was burning ever deeper. But despite calls from both sides for his allegiance, all the burning and looting of Jamaica, and being wounded in a gunshot attack, Marley refused to side.

What is remarkable about Marley is not just his survival in a gang shooting, but that as his success reverberated across the world, he maintained his downtown roots. Upon moving uptown in America, Marley said in interview, “I’m bringin’ deh ghetto uptown.” Images of Marley’s large suburban house in an extremely wealthy neighbourhood contrasts to the opening shot of his tin shack. What Macdonald really homes in on though is interspliced footage of crowds of Rastas playing football in the small space of the front yard, just the same as if they were running barefoot in the dusty landscape of Jamaica: the impression that freedom is a state of mind permeates throughout.

The film’s representation of Marley is by no means a monolithic good or bad, but encompasses the love and resentment felt by those around him, telling of his attributes but equally of his flaws. The film itself balances in tone between the celebration of liberation and unity, and the sadness and heartache of struggle and oppression: the very core of Marley’s music.

The promotional advertising poster for Marley (2012)

It may be said that Marley itself will be subsumed under the iconic umbrella image of Bob Marley, but its amalgamation reinforces the significance of the unity of a whole host of oppositions embodied by one man and one image.


Marley, dir. Kevin Macdonald (2012, USA/UK)


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