On Friday, March 15. the film “Better Mus’ Come” opened in select theaters across the nation. It follows the life of a young man seemingly trapped in gang warfare and political violence in 1970s Jamaica, a very time the nation’s history. Starring Sheldon Shepherd as Ricky, and directed by Storm Saulter, ‘Better Must Come’ is being praised by critics as a great achievement in Jamaican cinema and is yet another high-quality offering from AaFFRM (African American Film Festival Release Movement).
From the time Ricky makes his entrance ‘Better Mus’ Come” begins telling a great story based on historical fact. I had the chance to speak with director Storm Saulter and actor Sheldon Shepherd regarding the events surrounding the film, how the Jamaican government initially perceived the film, the legacy of political unrest in Jamaica and much more.
“What happened in Jamaica in the 1970s. The legacy of it we’re still living with today,” said Storm regarding the events that inspired this film. “Essentially, we were on the front lines of the Cold War. There were two political parties, one leaning more to the left, and one leaning more to the right. Then the larger superpowers, whether it’s the U.S. or so-called communist countries of Cuba, and Russia, were dealing with the relationships with the ruling party. Because of this, political violence and intimidation were employed in order to win the vote.
That boiled down to young men in various communities being organized into gangs and being armed with weapons to go shoot and kill other young men, and other people from other communities, to control votes and practice a form of garrison politics. The legacy of which we’re still living with today with gang warfare issues. “
The media produced by the Jamaican tourism industry that many Americans have been seeing for the past 25 years would lead all to believe everything was fine in Jamaica, if those advertisements are to be taken at face value. But those who are serial news hounds have always known otherwise.
Despite the beautiful people and places that exist on the island, it is actually a simmering pot of conflicting ideologies Stuart says it is this fact that led him to direct “Better Mus’ Come”. It is an attempt at tracing Jamaica’s current problems to their source.
“Understand what happened in 2010 with the Dudas Coke extradition (extradited to the United States on cocaine smuggling and arms dealing charges) and state of emergency is a similar issue we keep having to deal with year after year, decade after decade,” he continued. “In order to better understand where we’re at you have to analyze where this formula is coming from. So, that’s why you have to back to the source and make a film about that.
“It’s really about the pursuit of happiness. I love to use that because I love that quotation. Life is like you’re chasing. You’re always on the grind to be happy. Sometimes, you don’t realize it until it’s too late. You have to centralize yourself,” said actor Sheldon Shepherd when asked of his take on the central theme of “Better Mus’ Come”.
“Nothing is new. You can only improve upon the wheel, seen? Every society deals with poverty, every society deals with politics and it all started from when we came here as slaves. Independence is a farce. We don’t have nothing. You bring me up, I have nothing, and you give me a church, you give a God, and you give me a set of laws and say ‘All right, you go run things now.”
“After years of being mislead, after years of mis-education, after years of oppression how am I supposed to find my way in the darkness even if you give me a flashlight? Metaphorically speaking. So, no matter where you go, you have tribal wars with people setting blacks against each other.
We’re the minority, in quotations. It’s a long story if I go Africa, but ‘Better Mus’ Come’ deals with it directly and indirectly. There is a riddle within the title ‘Better Mus’ Come’. One may ask ‘How does better come?’ I’ve never seen a film like this, one that just pinpoints the problem.”
Though the events of the film take place over 35 years ago, there is still much animosity and pain among the Jamaican populous regarding those tumultuous affairs. I asked Storm Salter whether the Jamaican authorities gave him any problems during the filming of “Better Mus’ Come.”
“My job on this planet is to tell stories that are relevant to my people and to my culture. I feel that this is a most relevant story that needs to be told. It’s self-analysis. I’m going to make that movie,” said Stuart. “That’s the type of filmmaker I am. I’m going to tell a story that needs to telling.
In addition to entertainment, if you can make stories that have a relevance beyond that towards improving society or at least starting the conversation that is a worth cause. Good must conquer evil, and I don’t fear Babylon, you know? They’re there, and I know they’re dangerous, but I feel protection on another level.
They were spying on our set. There were all kinds of things going on. They didn’t know what was going. They thought we were telling a story about Edward Seaga or Michael Manley. A type of tell all about those people. No, this is about a young man in this time, how he would have found himself, where we are as a society, and how we move beyond that. Giving a face to the faceless.”
“Better Mus’ Come” is being released by the African American Film Festival Movement, or AaFFRM for short. They’re responsible for release such quality works as “Middle of Nowhere”, and “Restless City” among others. I asked how he became affiliated with AaFFRM and why he chose to take that distribution route.
“We were screening at Lincoln Center Film Society last year, and there I heard of AaFFRM. Then, AaFFRM released ‘Restless City’ starring Nicole Sky Grey, who also stars in ‘Better Mus’ Come’. That film really brought AaFFRM into my foresight because I thought, ‘Ok, that was a great film and if they are making films like this then I need to pay attention.’ I think they really respect the content and they recognize its importance.”
As stated earlier in this article, “Better Mus’ Come” opened in theaters on March 15th and is getting rave reviews. But the bottom line is always about the bottom dollar.
“It started off in New York and L.A. It’s in New York at the AMC Empire Times Square, and in L.A. at the downtown Independence. The goal here is to put as many people in the seats as possible. There comes a time when art and business combine with media. Now, we need the numbers. Then, the theater manager will look at the numbers and decide if they’re going to keep us. Regarding why? Why not? If they are the type of distributor that can put us in Times Square, why not? I respect AaFFRM to the maximum.”
With so much political charge action, ‘Better Mus’ Come’ is sure to remind some of one of the darkest moments in Jamaica since its independence. I asked Storm whether he felt there was any danger in that.
“The first time we showed the opening scene was at a festival we used to have called Flashpoint, and the opening is a political rally attack scene, and we showed the segment before an election,” he explained. “Some people, not all of the people because most of them were enthralled. But some people could not handle the political scene. Other people got up and stomped out. While others said ‘Why not make the flags blue or pink or something like that? It cuts too close to reality.’ I’m like ‘It’s too close to reality? What’re you talking about? This is reality.’ There were issues all the time, but film making is problem solving. Shooting ‘Better Mus’ Come’ was definitely one of the high points of my life. That’s my natural state of being, when I’m on a set and manifesting my ideas. It’s like flying. I want people to step away from this film with a sense of discovery, like a ‘ah-huh’ moment.”
There have been many ‘ah-huh’ moments gleaned from the various struggles fought by members of the African Diaspora from all over the world, some of which resulted can still be heard in music today.
“In the 1970s, when all these reggae songs were being played all over the world about oppression, fighting against tribal warfare and such, they were talking about things that were happening right outside their front door in Kingston. I want that to be apart of the discovery as well. All this music that you know and love, that’s how it was birthed. That was the positive that was forced from the negative.”