Bob Marley was in his studio, located in Kingston, Jamaica during the winter of 1976. He was wearing a Spartan Health Club T-shirt and worn-out sandals as he finished recording a song called “Smile Jamaica”, which had an oddly cheerful tone. As a reporter for the British rock press, I was visiting to say goodbye but was taken aback by the upbeat nature of the song, which sounded like a tourism advertisement. When I asked Marley why he had chosen such a happy tone, he took a sip of green juice and answered sharply, “Because people in Jamaica are very frustrated.”
Anger is the definition of vex, and the accuracy of his examination would become evident in the following days. Within a span of seven days, four assailants allegedly entered Marley’s residence on Hope Road and shot him.
During a time of turmoil on an island affected by distant conflicts of the Cold War, the two dominant political parties, the JLP (Jamaica Labour Party) and the PNP (People’s National Party), were influenced by their respective gang affiliations and charismatic leaders. The JLP, led by Edward Seaga, was nicknamed “CIAga” due to graffiti in downtown areas, while the PNP, led by LSE graduate Michael Manley, received support from the Soviet Union and Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Despite Bob Marley’s efforts to make his upcoming concert, “Smile Jamaica,” non-partisan, many Jamaicans viewed it as a show of support for Manley. It is speculated that the JLP was behind the gunmen who retaliated.
After surviving and performing a concert two days later, Marley left the island and was uncertain about coming back. During the following two years, while living in London, he rallied the Rastafarian community in Britain and recorded Exodus with his band, the Wailers. The album was later named Time’s album of the century. In 1978, Marley returned to Kingston in triumph to play at the One Love Peace Concert.
I wrote about this time period extensively in my book, “Exodus,” which was published in 2006. The story has now been adapted for the screen in the captivating and well-acted film, “Bob Marley: One Love,” which was originally titled “Exodus.” The talented British actor Kingsley Ben-Adir brings Marley’s character to life for a new generation. His performance is both radiant and full of empathy, and it drives what Ziggy Marley (Marley’s oldest son and co-producer of the film with his sister Cedella) modestly describes as “a brief glimpse into my father’s life.”
There have been multiple changes in the marketing of Bob Marley since he passed away in 1981 due to cancer. His image as a political Rasta was transformed by Dave Robinson, the managing director of Island Records, who came up with the idea for the popular Legend album, which emphasized more uplifting songs. As a result, Marley became known as Cuddly Dread in many parts of the world, inspiring red, green, and gold beer bongs and crocheted caps with woolen dreadlocks. In 2012, Saturday Night Live’s Seth Meyers made fun of my Marley class at New York University, joking that students who were high would miss the morning class. However, Marley was actually a hard worker who was often the last one to leave the studio and the first one on the bus the next day.
The focus of marketing changed once more during the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Universal started presenting him as the revolutionary pan-Africanist that he had always been (a post titled “10 Bob Marley Protest Hits That Remain Powerful Today” was shared on their website). The challenge for the One Love film was to find a way to bring all of these elements together.
The film begins in a peaceful Rasta paradise, with Marley and his friends frolicking on the beach in Bull Bay, Jamaica. They are all laughing and enjoying themselves as they wash their dreadlocks under the powerful waterfalls. Watching the film brought back intense memories and made me feel as if my younger self was right there with them, almost like a chameleon blending into the background.
My own first real-life lessons from Bob came before the point at which the movie begins, when I was a junior press officer for Island Records – then a hip indie label – looking after the Wailers, Burning Spear and Aswad. Already on fire about his music since my recent student days, I wrote press releases projecting the original rude boy as a spiritual firebrand, a poet-revolutionary, who was also a heart-throb à la Che Guevara.
In 1975, Bob and his band had a successful performance at the Lyceum theatre in London. This trip also gave me the opportunity to observe how Marley worked as I accompanied several journalists who were interviewing him. Marley had a humorous and playful personality, often teasing British journalists who showed disrespect for Rastafarian culture by switching from standard English to deep patois. However, he was always attentive, carefully adapting his demeanor and responses to the interviewer. His main goal was to effectively communicate.
During the Smile Jamaica sessions the next year, I had transitioned into a music journalist and my hotel expenses were covered by Virgin’s Front Line reggae label. Marley kindly offered me a place to stay at his communal house in Hope Road, Kingston (now known as the Bob Marley Museum) for a few days. However, my employers at the weekly paper Sounds, required me to return just before the Smile Jamaica concert. As a result, I was unable to attend the rehearsal where Marley, his wife Rita, and his manager Don Taylor were all shot.
Marley was determined to elevate the ghetto to a higher status, despite my teasing about the contrast between living near the prime minister and his previous residence in Trenchtown. He was careful with his words, adding, “It’s important to demonstrate progress to others, even if it’s not material. Freedom of thought is just as crucial.”
In a scene from the film, Marley performs for a group gathered around a campfire, reminiscent of a night when I heard faint noises and went downstairs. Marley sat on a lone metal bed, playing his guitar and singing to a girl on the other end, while more children joined in. We were captivated by the lyrics: “These are the powerful ones who prey on the weaker… Burdened by guilt…” Just a few weeks later, I found myself in a crowd of fans at Basing Street Studios in Notting Hill, London, and suddenly recognized the song playing from the speakers. It dawned on me that Marley had been commenting on the events leading up to his almost fatal attack. The song was titled “Guiltiness.”
In the movie, Marley is seen looking confused at a punk concert in London. This raises the question of whether he actually attended one. This reminded me of the time I got my hands on an early release of The Clash’s debut album and wondered what Marley thought of their cover of Junior Murvin’s reggae song “Police and Thieves”. To my surprise, I came across Marley relaxing with Lee “Scratch” Perry, the producer of Murvin’s original version. I played the song for them and their initial shock turned into surprise and appreciation upon hearing Joe Strummer’s punk vocals. This led to a lengthy discussion about punks being another rebellious group that Marley identified with. He mentioned that he didn’t like the sight of safety pins through the cheek, but admired someone who could endure pain without crying.
When I expressed my excitement for Marley, Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, was pleased and shared with me: “Bob is of great importance to our label – and to me.” In the film One Love, Blackwell is portrayed by James Norton and he now commends the final product, particularly Lashana Lynch’s portrayal of Rita Marley. He also praises director Reinaldo Marcus Green for doing an exceptional job. Initially, Blackwell was not fond of the idea of a film about Bob, as he believed people preferred their own personal connection with him through his music. However, with enough time passing, he is now content with the family’s decision to make the film.
The movie gives off the impression of being an officially-sanctioned creation. A heartwarming scene depicts Rita teaching Bob about the Rasta belief of “I and I”: the idea that the community is more important than the individual. However, this theme is not consistently portrayed throughout the film, as it remains heavily focused on Bob.
The movie explicitly establishes the limited period of time during which Bob Marley was inspired to create his album Exodus. However, fans of The Wailers may still be confused, just as they were at recent exhibitions featuring immersive photos of Bob, about significant individuals in his career, such as his fellow original Wailers, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, or the Barrett brothers, drummer Carlton and bassist Aston “Family Man” (who passed away last week). While these characters are well portrayed in One Love – particularly Aston Jr who plays his father – with such a large group, they often blend together and lack distinct personalities.
Bob was consistently eager to collaborate in a group. He inquired, “Why do you always interview me? Why not speak with Family Man instead? He’s the leader of the band.”
Within the community, there exists a woman named Cindy Breakspeare who is known for her quiet and understated nature. She is the mother of Damian Marley, and in 1976 she was crowned Miss World. This was around the same time that her relationship with Marley began, causing a stir in the media with headlines such as “Beauty and the Beast”. This sudden attention launched Bob, who was relatively unknown at the time, onto the front pages of tabloids. Despite Breakspeare being his main partner, Bob, who lived a complicated and non-monogamous Rasta lifestyle, continued to have children with other women. (Breakspeare declined to comment for this article, and Paramount, the film’s studio, was unable to arrange interviews with the screenwriters.)
Some viewers believe that the film’s focus on Rita is a natural tribute from the producers, Cedella and Ziggy, to their mother. However, whether intentional or not, this choice downplays the complex love triangle that was marred by issues of class and colorism. Cindy, an affluent and fair-skinned girl from uptown, was the daughter of privilege and exuded effortless beauty. On the other hand, Rita came from a tougher background and struggled alongside Bob for years before gaining her own privileges. Cindy and Bob first met when she lived at Hope Road and had a genuine connection. In the film, Bob sings “Turn Your Lights Down Low” to Rita, but it was actually written for Cindy. Rita played a crucial role in solidifying Bob’s relationship with Rastafarianism and portrayed a demure version of Rasta femininity, in contrast to Cindy’s glamorous allure. It is a testament to true “One Love” that during Bob’s final days, when he lost his dreadlocks due to chemotherapy, the two women were able to put aside any differences and come together.
Like in any biographical film, some details are altered for dramatic effect, but the true story of Bob and his childhood friend is even more intense than what is shown. In the movie, we witness Claudie Massop, a member of the JLP, wearing his iconic red beret, appearing through the fog as Marley seeks refuge at Strawberry Hill – Blackwell’s residence in the Blue Mountains – after being shot. Massop confronts him and clarifies that he was not involved in the attack. Marley trusts him and continues on his way.
Massop was unable to attend because his party purposely had him imprisoned in the Gun Court to prevent any interference. However, Massop was able to contact Bob from the prison and warn him. Despite this, Marley had faith in Jah’s protection and proceeded with the concert preparations.
While filming Exodus, the character of Marley in the movie is surprised to encounter Massop and his former rival Bucky Marshall in a park in London. The two have made peace and invite Marley to come back to Jamaica and perform at the Peace Concert. In reality, Marley paid for their plane tickets from Jamaica specifically to discuss this invitation and Massop had stayed at Marley’s home in Chelsea. This may seem like excessive information for a film aimed at a wide audience, but it helps to understand Marley’s bravery, faith, and strong connections with the “dons” – men who were similar to him but were trapped in dangerous situations controlled by powerful countries far away.
Aside from the shooting and Taylor’s financial betrayal, which Bob physically confronts, One Love does not dwell on negative events. There is no indication that Marshall and Massop were killed just months after these events. The only hint at a larger cold war conflict involving Jamaica and Marley’s shooting is when Marley overhears news about it on TV in London.
The purpose of this movie is to make Marley’s message of unity and pan-African and pan-human ideals more accessible by blurring the unconventional choices he made. The standout performance by Ben-Adir anchors the film and successfully delivers this message. The film highlights Marley’s unique approach to revenge by taking one of the gunmen on tour with him, which surprised and worried many of his peers. This film showcases Marley’s compassionate and unifying vision of One Love, for which he risked his life to spread. It is hoped that this lively and heartfelt movie will inspire a much-needed sense of purpose.
Bob Marley’s film, “One Love,” will be premiering on Valentine’s Day. Vivien Goldman, a journalist, will be releasing a new collection of her work titled “Rebel Musix, Scribe on a Vibe,” through White Rabbit later this year. Additionally, Three Rivers Press/Random House will be publishing “The Book of Exodus: The Making and Meaning of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Album of the Century.”