Kevin McDonald’s exhaustive documentary on Bob Marley’s life succeeds in style and scope because it tells his story through the eyes of those who loved him most.
On the night of December 3rd, 1976, Bob Marley after a long, balmy afternoon of intense pickup soccer games and baseball-bat spliffs. The peace didn’t last long though: Hired guns would soon infiltrate his residence of 56 Hope Road in Kingston, Jamaica, out for blood. This is no quiet ambush, either. Entering the courtyard—curiously unguarded—they fire rounds off wildly at the first thing they see: the grainy silhouette of Bob’s wife, Rita. Out of the dozens blasted, only two hit their mark—one burrows into the back of Rita’s head, the other finding her left leg. A hollow silence falls over the compound, and it is in that eerie interlude of dread that Bob’s manager—a slick, tall hustler by the name of Don Taylor—races through the house frantically to find and protect Bob. But he doesn’t quite make it: Don takes five rounds in the back and collapses through the kitchen door entrance, blood spilling out of him in thick, ketchup-y spurts. The fateful pistol then rears its dead eye towards a frozen-as-ice Bob—but by the grace of Jah, the bullet crash-lands into Bob’s right arm like a downed airplane, leaving a long, bloody scar across his chest. In a guest lecture at the Library of Congress, Reggae historian Roger Steffens half-jokes that if “Bob breathed out instead of in,” he would certainly be dead. What is perhaps more mind-blowing is that Bob’s miracle was actually the least miraculous one of the night; Don and Rita survived their horrific injuries as well.
Three days before that attempt was made on his life, Bob Marley awakens to a horrible vision. Trapped in what he described to Gil Noble as a “barrage” of bullets, Bob watches a nightmare uncoil like a rattlesnake: his mother and friends are slaughtered by his subconscious, and there is nothing he can do. But rather than try to escape this violence, an oracle (maybe Jah himself) descends from down high to guide him. “Don’t run,” it whispers lovingly in Bob’s ear. “Don’t run…don’t run…don’t run,” the voice ingeminates until this holy refrain is etched into his soul. Bob didn’t run that night, but threats against him—and everything he stood for—still lurked about in Kingston.
Suffering from what rock critic Lester Bangs called a “colonial hangover,” Jamaica was at war with itself in 1976. The political fervor on the contested island manifested into two warring, incredibly belligerent factions: the neo-conservative Jamaican Labor Party (JLP) and the democratic-socialist People’s National Party (PNP). As Kevin McDonald’s Marley makes abundantly clear, Bob often eschewed Jamaican politics. In interviews, he often shared his belief that opposing political parties were really just two sides of the same coin, aristocratic soirées of virtue-signaling flatulence, false promises, and contradictory policies. While Michael Manley’s socialist values more closely aligned with Bob’s moral compass and philosophical values (he attended PNP rallies earlier that decade), Manley was just as dishonest as his conservative rival, co-opting Bob’s desire to hold a free, non-political concert (his music, withstanding) for his own political aims. By moving the elections to December 15th, ten days after Marley’s scheduled “Smile, Jamaica” concert, both factions interpreted the move as an endorsement for PNP, ultimately igniting the plans for the December 3rd attempt.
Still, Bob bravely performed the concert in near pitch-black darkness at National Heroes Park—a perfect climate for another attack and, as many of his close friends and family kept telling him that day, a good reason to not do the damn thing. Thankfully, nothing happened, but Bob, fulfilling his duty to his people, needed time for himself, away from Jamaica. Less than a week later, he, his band, and then-girlfriend Miss World moved to London, a sort of self-imposed exile in which he would produce Exodus in ’77, his most commercially successful LP, and Survival, a deeply political and poignant album inspired by the political revolutions happening in Africa in ’79. It was in the heart of the British Isles, ironically, where Bob Marley’s political attitude shifted. He traded his eye-for-an-eye perspective for a steady faith in the power of self-change, self-love, and self-awareness, the keys to true spiritual revolution. This sentiment pierces through in a song called “Zimbabwe,” an echo of his own experiences in Jamaica in 1976. It is here where Marley urges his brethren, those struggling against the Rhodesian government in the Zimbabwean War for Liberation, to watch out for deceit, even within their own flock: “O divide and rule could only tear us apart / In everyman’s chest, mm — there beats a heart / So soon we’ll find out who is the real revolutionaries / And I don’t want my people to be tricked by mercenaries,” Bob warns with uneasiness, unsure if Mugabe, the de facto leader of the revolutionaries, was the real deal or not. Unfortunately, it turned out that Mugabe was just, as Genius annotators SamRamsey, RaiderMav, and Kwazi_mov7 described, “another oppressor of a darker hue.”
There are countless songs where Bob promotes the virtues of brotherly love, acceptance, racial and economic egalitarianism, forgiveness, and trust, but “Zimbabwe” exemplifies another side to Bob’s lyrical intentions: He wanted to empower the oppressed to take real, effective action against the white supremacist state of “Babylon,” to love yourself—your color, your identity, and your people, first and foremost—as an act of cultural, political, and economic resistance. It is why in 2020, so many of us are advocating for people to start supporting people of color in more constructive ways (i.e. buying from black-owned businesses instead of Amazon). Politics was a distraction in Bob’s eyes, a means for elitist cabals to posture and promise change to the masses in exchange for their civil obedience, and ultimately, free reign to do whatever they pleased. “Redemption Song” exemplified this view, and that which argues the “real revolution” starts within the healing and improvement of oneself—spirit, body, and mind:
We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind. Mind is your only ruler, sovereign. The man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of the other man who uses his mind.
Marley and its director do a fantastic job at giving context to how Bob and his music—a militant force against white supremacy and classism—gave voice to “third world pain and resistance.” In a review of Steffens’ oral history of Bob Marley, So Much Things to Say, New York Times contributor Touré contemplates the lyrics of “I Shot the Sheriff.” Written alongside his friend Lee Jaffe, “who says Marley began with the line ‘I shot the sheriff,’ to which Jaffe added, ‘But you didn’t get the deputy.'” Touré sees the two lines together as “signifying the impossibility of defeating the system because even if you kill the lawman, there’s another one right behind him. For Jaffe, the message is: ‘This is going to be a long tragic struggle that’s going to need a lot of everyday heroes.'” Marley not only traces how Bob fought against that struggle through his music, interviews, and economic contributions to the poor people of Kingston and beyond, but how heroes like him, those with global renown and rebellious spirit, struggle against a seemingly endless battle. Bob recognized the inexhaustible resources of the rich Babylon state, and we still can see its unceasing grip on the world today: A recent decision made this year by the highest court in Jamaica, schools are now granted the jurisdiction to ban dreadlock hairstyles. Still, in 2020, the birthplace of the Rastafari movement, of Bob Marley—their national hero—is plagued by the syrupy dregs of internalized anti-blackness. Despite Jamaica’s independence (which might as well be put in quotation marks), the final decision on the matter will be left to Britain’s Supreme Court. It is egregious moments like these that must bring ourselves closer to works of art that speak against such injustice. Marley is one of those works.
Until his dying day, Bob literally carried that bullet with him (doctors were afraid that any attempt to remove it would leave his hands numb). In a sense, it was a constant reminder of his “Otherness,” a burden even carried in his own country. At the beginning of Marley, various relatives, friends, and studio mates, who knew Bob as a child, give us a glimpse into the freedom prophets early days, in which he faced brutal ostracism due to his mixed-skin color. He was often called “yellow boy” or “German boy,” and it is, according to “Bread” McDonald and his wife Rita, these experiences that, in part, guided Bob’s relentless war on prejudices of all kinds. The brilliance of Marley stems from Kevin McDonald’s perceptive decision to tell his story through and in the words of those who knew him best, those who lived with him, who jammed with him, who guided him, who loved him, who experienced him as an artist, a philosopher, a Rasta, a partner, and a leader.
When I think of Bob, I also think of Lazurus, an Albino man living in Sub-Sarahan Africa fighting against persecution of black Albinos. “Songs must tell a story,” he shared with zeal in a New Yorker video profile, “So when people sing the song, they will hear the story, and they will hear the meaning in the words. And how it felt throughout the music. I will continue making music about what it is like to be a person living with albinism, so that maybe all the violence, can be ended through my music.” Bob had a similar dream. So do those marching in the streets today—and like Bob, they can’t afford to be pessimistic. Baldwin felt the same way: “I can’t be a pessimist because I am alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I’m forced to be an optimist. I am forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive.” A large part of that desire to survive is to give oneself enough time to tell the truth. When Gil Noble asked Bob “What do you think it is that has made Bob Marley such a big name?,” he responded, “I think this is for what Bob Marley stands for: The truth, and the determination to stay alive and survive.” Bob told the truth for the thirty-six years on this planet. And now it is our time to tell those truths, and eventually, their time to do the same—our children, grandchildren, and countless generations in the future that will, one day, fully realize humanity’s redemption.
In honor of Bob Marley’s 75th Birthday this year, Blue Fox entertainment is making acclaimed documentary MARLEY available in virtual and traditional cinemas.
With each ticket purchase, recipients will receive an exclusive Ziggy Marley song download pack. Additionally, all ticket purchases will be entered to win a grand prize package, including a yet to be released Bob Marley photo book, Marley vinyl and select other Marley merchandise. , and learn more about how to stream and wh to watch MA