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Depiction of Plurality in Caribbean Films

Updated: Jul 21, 2020

What is the Plural Society? According to J.S. Furnivall (1948), a Plural Society is one in which different elements, such as racial or cultural groups, coexist within one over-all political and economic environment without mingling or fusing in order aspects of their everyday lives. These social groups are in a large degree isolated from each other and only meet in the market place where they interact for economic transactions.

Furnivall associated the creation of plural societies with colonization. He claimed that the arrival of colonist and their efforts to bring different ethnic groups under one political environment resulted in the transformation of colonies into Plural societies. M.G. Smith revised Furnivall’s conception of Pluralism and suggested its application to the study of Caribbean societies. He takes the position that the basic Institutional system forms an integral whole. A population that shares such a system tends to be a closed socio-cultural unit. When society contains two or more populations with distinct institutional systems, it is culturally and socially pluralistic. The groups within such a society form separate cultural sections. The Plurality that exists in the Caribbean is a result of the plantation society. When slavery has abolished a plurality emerged with the arrival of indentured servants from India, China and Portugal. The resultant was a diverse land peopled by culturally distinct groups scattered throughout the islands.

The Caribbean society today bears the legacy of colonial oppression, exploitation, and marginalization, however, the plurality on most of these islands is made up of hybrid or Creole society, out of the merger of these multiple cultural groups. Several islands including Barbados and St Vincent and the Grenadines could be considered homogeneous compared to the distinctly plural societies of Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Suriname. This article intends to highlight and discuss the concept of Plural societies as portrayed in Caribbean films. This piece will include analysis of the films Rue cases nègres (1983), Ava and Gabriel (1990), Harder they Come (1972) and Dance Hall Queen (1997) which were all shot and produced in the Caribbean by Caribbean filmmakers.

Title: Rue cases nègres (Black shack ally)

Director: Euzhan Palcy

Country: France, 1983

Running time: 103 minutes


Martinique in the 1930s, slavery has ended but blacks working sugarcane fields are still treated harshly by the white ruling class. In it here we find José living in a small village on the edge of the cane field. Mentored by a wise old man from the village and his grandmother, José manages to wins a partial scholarship to attend high school in Fort-de-France, the capital. With his grandmother by his side, he sets sail for the city, there he will learn to deal with the pressure of racism and oppression, especially with his professor. Who accused of plagiarism, when he writes an essay on the lives of poor blacks. He manages to endure several obstacles and ultimately his grandmother's death, but he as he learns to deal with a future he seems destined to be apart of. As in many other Caribbean islands, the ending of slavery didn’t mean the end of plantation work for black people. Even though they were now free politically, necessities like housing kept them working in the plantations houses. The land they lived on still belonged to their masters and to remain in their homes they had to work the fields for little or no money. In the film "Rue cases nègres" set in colonial period depicts the society of the time. The strong presence of the plantation is still evident. The blacks are seemingly "free,” but nothing has changed, most of them still poor, dependent labourers and the economy is still exploitive and extractive. This is highlighted at the beginning of the film with the use of archival footage that brings across the reality of the situation outsides of the film's narrative.

These introductory clips bring to the positions the audience from and outsiders perspective and they seem to be “tourist-like” images of Martinique in the 1930s, but what they highlight are the differences within the society. We see quite separate worlds for Blacks and Whites. We see the nicely trimmed fences around residential homes juxtaposed next to a thatched house settlement or a village. European designed chapels and streets are compared to the architecture of the poor African settlements. The entire film seems to be based on the idea of a type of plurality that features opposing social and cultural frameworks in a relation to several themes, for instance, a strong reference to the idea of black versus white with mulatto, mixed-race somewhere in between also their is a Europe versus the West Indies conflict and a rural versus urban.

In the village evidence of this oppositional plurality is highlighted by the way Jose’s character is positioned and his relationship with his grandmother compared to that with Mesouse. His Grandmother represents a more indoctrinated black person, a product of one society on the island, she has become tied into the European ways, and her ideology is based on education as defined by the colonial system is whats best for Jose. Her cultural connection with Africa is not lamented on and it seems she does not think much of African tradition and teachings. Mesouse, on the other hand, represents a different cultural society within the village; he is more concerned with African traditions and religion he works within the colonial but his cultural believes are not of this system. Jose who has become a student of these two cultural diversities represents a merger of the two, and ultimately the future of the island, i.e. he is the embodiment of the Creolisation concept.

In his essay, Furnivall noted that in a plural society each of the social groups presents exist as one, they mix but do not combine. Each holds by its own culture and language, its ideas and ways. There can be a plural society, within different sections of the community living side by side, but separately, within the same political-economic or racial lines In the film, this is evident between the white planter class in the countryside and the poor blacks. These two groups hold their cultural practices. In the case of Leopold father, who is a member of the elite white planter class, he imports musical records from Europe to stay connected with his culture Europe. His home is arranged and ornamented in a very Victorian style with a strong sense of order and restriction another feature of colonial European culture. In the village, on the other hand, José’s home is pretty basic, with few cultural signifiers, except for the newspaper clips on the walls which are there so José could practice his reading, everything is minimal and just enough to fulfil the basic needs. Also, we get the sense that José is more a part of the community than he is of his house, and music in this community is more culturally affiliated with Africa, it comes about to help ease the pressures of working in the cane fields and during festive religious-like functions. The two cultures met in school in the form of José and Leopold friendship, however, they weren’t allowed to mix.

Title: The harder they come

Director: Perry Henzell

Country: Jamaica, 1972

Running time: 120mins


A young country boy comes to town, with to hopes becoming a singer, however on arrival he finds out how difficult it is to make it a big city of Kingston. After trying the straight and narrow, he ends up in Jail for participating in a knife fight. But he doesn’t give up on his dream of making a “hit tune.” He gets a chance to make his ‘hit’ but later realizes a dishonest record-company executive is exploiting him. Disappointed he turns his back on the establishment and becomes involved in the marijuana trade. He keeps the police at arm's length by offering them a slice of the action, but ultimately finds himself in the middle of a bloody raid and ends killing several policemen as he made his escape. On hearing this news the two-faced record producer then decides to release Ivan's single "The Harder They Come," elevating the fugitive to the status of a folk hero.

Jamaican poet and social anthropologist M.G. Smith conception of Pluralism took the position that the basic Institutional system of a society forms an integral whole. A population that shares such a system tends to be a closed socio-cultural unit. When society contains two or more populations with distinct institutional systems, it is culturally and socially pluralistic. Smith maintains that this concept not only helps us to avoid the error of analyzing the problems of Pluralism in terms of race relations, but it is also essential for the comparative social study. After the independence from Britain in 1962, the Jamaican government began the difficult task that confronted slavery, colonial societies in the Caribbean, i.e. forging a nation from a population divided by race and colour. At that time, the racial break down of population was 95% of African descent, 3% of Indian descent, 2% European and 1% Chinese. In their efforts to foster socio-cultural union the state’s chosen motto “out of many one people. The original attempt at “imagining” a new Jamaica was led by activists and intellectuals, who were in some way influenced by Frantz Fanon’s writings on the role of the intellectual and of culture in building national identity and national awareness.

The harder they come was one film that attempted to bridge the gap between the different societies that existed in Jamaica. The way the narrative was structured allows the film to speak to a variety of socio-cultural groups as a whole but. As stated by M.G. Smith in his revision of Furnivall’s concept of a plural society was based on the probability that persons would only examine plurality from a racial perspective. The story of Ivan coming to town to fulfil his dream is one that any race or cultural group could understand and identify with. The act of coming to town does not mean moving from a rural space to an urban space, in my opinion, it resonates the same theme of a boy using education to get out of poverty. Ivan’s experience of urban life is punctuated by obstacles that prevented him from accomplishing his dream but instead of giving up, he perceivers and end up inspiring, the entire community (black & white) to fight the economic and political oppression enforced on them. The obstacles Ivan faced on his way to be “successful” could be considered synonymous with the many different obstacles people face on their lives journey. In this film the plurality was one caused by oppression and economics, the “bigger heads” ran the streets and the poor suffered, Ivan’s arrival in town disrupted the two plural societies the existed in the town, and in the long run, inspired the minority group to rebel against oppression. And ultimately frosted a unity among the people.

Title: Ava and Gabriel

Director: Felixde Rooy

Country: Holland/Curacao,1990

Running time: 100mins


The story takes place on the island of Curacao during the 1940s. A Surinam painter Gabriel Goedbloed arrives from Holland after a request made by Father Fidelius, parish priest of St. Anna's. Gabriel’s job is to paint a mural of the Virgin Mary in St. Anna's Church. But as soon as he arrives drama begins to unfold as the clergy and locals are confused by the fact that he is a black painter. He then decides that Mary should be black and chooses a young teacher, Miss Ava Recordina, who is of mixed origin, to be his model for the painting of the Virgin Mary. He then has an affair with the governor’s wife and Ava, which seal his faith; he causes much controversy and eventually falls victim to the colonial power.

The film "Ava and Gabriel" is built on the idea of plurality, the narrative leads the audience deeper and deeper into a world of symbolism. Based on de Rooy’s illustration Curacao in the 1940s was a society struggling with its own identity. The complexity of the plural societies that exist was in this case destructive. The strength of the colonial hold combined with the strong religious presence on the island was to some extent suppressing the other cultures that were trying to reveal themselves. This could be lamented upon by the fact the people worshipped and took part in public religious ceremonies relating to the European based Christian religion that was while that had secret alters to other deities in their houses. It may be the view of some that it was the painter who came and disrupted the society on the island, but in fact, all he did was expose the problems that were there all along. In the scene when the governor came out to the rally their was a conflict about which anthem should be sung, which was a clear indication of plurality.

The fact that one group came out to a national day of celebration with their anthem, means that the people have sorted there identity as yet and the colonial powers are not giving them the chance to do so. The strength of the colonial system on the island could be linked to the fact that Curacao was not subject to an intense slavery experience compared to that of another Caribbean island, hence after it was slavery was abolished the black population, were too few to bring about social reform. Ava represents Creole trying to establish its self amongst the plurality because she belongs to both social opposites present on the island is becomes the subject of much attention. People begin to see her as a basis of their own identity. In the end, the colonial power turns out to be too much to compete with and the slight resistance is defeated and life continues for the people as it were in the beginning.

Title: Dancehall Queen

Director: Dirs. Rick Elwood and Don Letts. Perf.

Country: Jamaica, 1997

Running time: 98mins


Set in contemporary Jamaica a single mother Marcia works as a street vendor to support her two daughters. But her efforts to provide proper education for her eldest daughter do not meet the demand. So she condones financial assist from "Uncle" Larry interns demands repayments of sex with Marcia's teen daughter Tanya. She finds her self in a life-treating situation when her psychotic rude boy name Priest kills her friend. However, she manages to secretly devise a plan to save her self and her children. A sexy costume, a wig and a wicked “dutty wine" is all Marcia uses to deliver her from all her problems. The dance hall has become the focal point of Jamaica in recent years, but how does it serve society. How is it positioned within the context of the Jamaican society? Does it unite or create another level of plurality on the island? In the film Dancehall queen, the idea of the dancehall is worshipped or portrayed as a place where dreams could come true and life could drastically change, to some extent, the way it is depicted in the film implies it could be on par with education or dug trafficking as a mean of bringing about social change for a person.

In modern Jamaica, the dance hall has revolutionized the Jamaican culture so much so thee island and the people have become synonymous with the term dancehall. However, to some extent, the Dance Hall has become the force behind a new plural society that has emerged in Jamaica. Since dance hall is mostly synonymous with youth and urbanized areas it creates a conflict “country” and the elderly who don’t consider themselves apart of this culture are not considered to be apart o dance hall by the wider society.

In the film Dance Hall Queen, the character Marcia played by Audrey Reid was not initially considered part of the dance hall society, she was not allowed in based on her perception of what the dance hall was. It was only when she saw how “normal” the Reigning dance hall queen did she begin to identify with the dance hall culture. She then transformed her self into the likeness of the dance hall, through costume and behaviour that she began to consider her self a part of it. But to remain a part of this new culture, she felt like had to forget her previous identity or hide because she was going against the system of this culture. It was only to the end of the film did she realize that she could be a part of both. This conclusion of the film could be considered synonymous with the Creolisation process, which comes as a result of a plurality.

In concluding, the idea of multiple societies living side is a theme discussed and reflected in the work of several films produced by Caribbean filmmakers. Across the region and at different periods in time several Caribbean films resonate a plurality of cultures. Whether it may have been intentionally embedded or simply an aspect of “Caribbeanesss” that seeps through the narratives, the characteristics of a plural society are evident.

Written by Akley Olton


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