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Sprinter provides a fresh perspective on the Jamaican experience. There is always a sense of pride that is ignited when Jamaicans watch Jamaican films; written, directed and performed by Jamaicans and set in Jamaica. However, most of Jamaica’s popular films always seem to focus on the same features of Jamaican culture. Crime and violence have too long been the primary focus in the majority of Jamaican films. Movies such as The Harder They Come, Dancehall Queen, Shottas and Ghett’a Life are just a few Jamaican movies that are set in Jamaica’s inner cities and focused on the issues of crime and violence in the country. It is relieving to see other dimensions of Jamaica’s diverse culture being portrayed in Sprinter. The movie incorporates the breaking down of the family structure due to migration, the culture of track and field, and the issue of lottery scamming, while showing positive growth and development.
A significant number of Jamaicans can relate to the film’s plot where the parent, in most cases the mother, has to migrate in order to provide for their family. The emotional performance by Dale Elliot and his co-stars sparked much empathy for the character Akeem Sharp and the rest of the Sharp family. For decades, Jamaicans have been migrating, mostly to the United States, to find gainful employment so they can send money to their families back in Jamaica. They often overstay their Visitor’s Visa, resulting in broken homes. Throughout the film, Akeem yearns for his family to be whole again. His mother has been living illegally in the United States for the past 10 years and Akeem is devastated to learn that his mother has no intentions of returning to Jamaica anytime soon. He learns of his parent’s pending divorce and this crushed his hopes that his family will be reunited soon. This discovery lead Akeem to shun his mother and become angry towards his father, who in spite of his own shortcomings, has been the primary caretaker since his wife migrated. It is heart-wrenching to see how migration affects both the parents and the children. Akeem feels abandoned and cannot quite understand why his mother left. On the other hand, his mother is sad to be away from her family but knows this is what she has to do so her family can survive. This split also drove his father to alcoholism. Akeem felt compelled to move in with his older brother, Germaine, a decision that almost ruined his future in track and field.
Track and field, a fundamental part of Jamaica’s culture, is often not included in Jamaican films. Sprinter’s main plot focuses on the journey of a young boy as he faces several obstacles on his path to success. Jamaica is often referred to as the sprint capital of the world. With a history of having some of the fastest men and women in the world, Jamaica has dominated the tracks in all major events such as the Olympics and World Athletics Championships. Jamaica also holds the records for the 100m, 200m and 4x100m men’s races and is the home of Usain Bolt; track legend and the fastest man in the world. So, seeing this legacy being the focus of Sprinter, instead of crime and violence like past films, is enlivening. The highlighting of Jamaica’s track and field culture and how it is developed from an early age with events such as ISSA Boys and Girls Championships, showcases the hard work and determination Jamaican athletes invest in order to become successful and make Jamaica proud. The film creates verisimilitude with the appearance of Usain Bolt. The superstar’s surprise visit to Akeem to pass on his knowledge and technique, motivated him to become a better athlete. Also, the embodiment of the Jamaica versus United States rivalry in the film makes it even more realistic. It is good to see Sprinter taking the initiative to give a more positive representation of the Jamaican experience.
Despite the shift away from the primary focus on violence, the film does not completely ignore Jamaica’s underbelly and the issue of lottery scamming. However, this is not presented merely for entertainment purposes but also teaches an important lesson about actions and their consequences. Germaine operates a ring of scammers who exploit elderly United States citizens for cash. This scheme finances Germaine’s lifestyle of luxurious cars and living in what is considered an uptown area. It is commendable that the film portrays Germaine as a complex character and not just a scammer. He is a supportive brother and, as former athlete, he assists his brother with training. He also wants better for himself and he has no intentions of scamming much longer. Germaine develops a plan to invest in his brother’s brand so they can both capitalize on it. By the end of the film, after being released from jail, Germaine has left his life of crime behind. It is inspiriting to see growth, especially of a Jamaican man, being portrayed in this film.
The representation of Jamaican masculinity in Sprinter deserves a round of applause. While the film does depict some negative attributes, it also shows positive characteristics of the Jamaican male that are frequently ignored. The absentee father is a typical representation of Jamaican men. Usually the plot is children being raised in matrifocal single parent homes, as fathers have abandoned their families. However, Sprinter moves away from this narrative. Akeem’s father, despite his battle with alcoholism, is a supportive and caring father and grandfather. He is not too ‘manly’ to embrace his sons as he did when Akeem was injured and Germaine was released from jail. He too also experiences positive growth and becomes more affectionate, overcomes alcoholism and gets more involved in his children’s lives . It is good to see this positive portrayal of fathers on the big screen. Also, the presentation of Coach as a father figure to Akeem in the absence of his father is remarkable. Coach steps up, showing much care and concern for Akeem throughout the film, as he tries to guide him on the right path. Sprinter does not hesitate to portray the Jamaican male in a positive light through figures such as Usain Bolt and the characters of Akeem, his father, Germaine and Coach who experience growth and demonstrate positive attributes.
Other aspects of the Jamaican experience incorporated in film are Jamaica’s Rastafari and Dancehall cultures. Reggae and Dancehall are the predominant music on the film’s soundtrack. This further grounds the film in the Jamaican context. The diverse cast of Jamaican entertainers, media personalities and an appearance by Prime Minister The Most Honorable Andrew Holness, left Jamaicans feeling even more proud. Appearances by popular Jamaican actors like Dahlia Harris, Glen “Titus” Campbell and Kadeem Wilson, media personality Winford Williams, social media stars Dale Elliot, Prince Pine and Danar Royal, as well as dancehall artiste Chi Ching Ching, added so much ‘Jamaicaness’ to the film. The cast is completed with American actor Bryshere Gray, popular for his role in the hit series Empire, and award winning Lorrain Toussaint.
The popular feedback on social media is that Sprinter is one of the best Jamaican movies ever and that it feels great to watch a Jamaican film not based on crime and violence. Many also commend the film for being relatable. The question is though, why is the film just receiving so much attention when it was officially in theatres April 2019? While I was aware of the from 2018, a lot of Jamaicans were not. The film did not get enough promotion on the island and also took too long to be shown in Jamaican theatres. Many, myself included, did not get to see it in theatres and are happy it is now on Netflix, making it more accessible. So, my advice for future Jamaican films is to promote the film as much as possible in Jamaica. Also, Jamaican theatres should give priority to the screening of Jamaican films so us citizens can enjoy our films together in this setting.