The First Rasta tells the life of Rastafarianism’s founder, Leonard Percival Howell, from precocious anti-colonialist (he witnesses a murder as a child and refuses to collaborate with Jamaica’s justice system) to world traveler and social visionary. Utilizing archival footage, police reports, traditional voiceover narration, and interviews with Howell’s followers, acquaintances, and relatives, director Hélène Lee, who’s also written a book about the subject matter, goes beyond the clichés associated with Rasta.
Yes, weed and dreadlocks are part of it, but they’re apparently just supplemental elements in a philosophy of life that echoes Kibbutz-living or, perhaps even more so, the communal living and liberating spirit of the counter-slavery Brazilian quilombos of the 1600s, hideout settlements for escaped slaves and the generally oppressed (Jews, Arabs, aboriginals). Besides Howell’s impressive travels, from the Russia of dead communist dreams to a racially promising New York City where “even Macbeth is black,” it’s Lee’s revelation of Rastafarianism as much closer to a serious socio-political anti-colonialist utopia (it refuses theology and ideology) than a rebellious divertissement that’s most interesting about the film.
Pinaccle, the first Rasta community in Jamaica in 1939, is no Mortville (from John Waters’s Desperate Living) for social misfits looking to get high. The film portrays it, instead, as a thoughtful non-dogmatic project and agro-industrial enterprise that vied for autonomy from the colonial state (Howell was against honoring, or paying taxes for, King George). While it’s hinted at, rather superficially, that Howell, Pinnacle’s founder, was as interested in the weed as he was in keeping lots of women around, Lee is more interested in exposing the various police raids that the community suffered than offering a vivid account of what it was like to live at Pinaccle. The film suffers from a kind of hagiography of a place we never quite visualize and the awkward juxtaposition of somewhat slick historical footage with the rudimentary guerilla-style filming of the locals’ accounts. While The First Rasta never goes beyond the surfaces of conventional documentary making of the most average kind, its reticence becomes whimsical every time the elderly interviewees break into song soon after reminiscing. For those fleeting moments we get a sense of what it must have felt like inside a Jamaican utopia.