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Bob Marley: One Love (2024)

Bob Marley: One Love kicks off by dropping you smack in the middle of one of the major crisis points in the icon’s life. Rather than start “from the beginning,” as many biopics do, the film, directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green and written by the three-man team of Terence Winter, Frank E. Flowers, and Zach Baylin, begins by recounting the near fatal assassination attempts on the lives of Marley, his wife Rita, and others in their inner circle at their home in Kingston, Jamaica. We then see his devotion to his wife, who suffered a near deadly gunshot wound to the head, and the political upheaval and degeneration of Jamaican politics which had descended into bi-partisan violence, underwritten by politicians who weaponized and exploited their connections with local Kingston gangs. This was the situation in which Marley had to determine if he and his band, the Wailers – who were his family – would still play the scheduled Smile Jamaica Concert.

Bob Marley: One Love is a music-filled triumph that paints a three-dimensional portrait of the incomparable Robert Nesta Marley (1945 – 1981), weaving in histories from his childhood as a small, mixed race boy in the Jamaican countryside, to his coming of age in Jamaica’s capital, Kingston where he teamed up with the likes of Peter Tosh and his soon-to-be-wife Rita to break into a fledgling Jamaican music industry. Colourfully, the film depicts how the industry was controlled by eccentric and violent producers. It also narrates his national and international rise not merely as a song writer and musician of brilliance and daring, but as a revolutionary who understood the power of music as a spiritual vehicle to reach people and to transform their thoughts and actions. One Love!

The film was co-produced by Hollywood super star Brad Pitt (who also produced Black British director Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning 12 years a Slave [2013]) alongside Marley’s widow Rita, and several of his uber-talented children including Ziggy and Cedella. It is no doubt due to the Marley family that the brilliant Kingsley Ben-Adir, the Trinidadian-British actor of recent Barbie (2023) fame, was cast in the title role. When we first heard that a film on Marley was in the works, we all agreed the casting of the wrong actor as Marley would be a death blow to the film. Not only did Kingsley have to get the mannerisms, movements, and stage presence right, heaven help him if he couldn’t master the accent; Jamaica Patwa yes, but with Marley’s distinct pensive, almost lazy drawl. But Ben-Adir shines as Marley in the film, capturing with uncanny accuracy his speech, gestures, and the fine grain of his often-transcendent stage performances. Indeed, we were so transfixed by Ben-Adir’s transformation as Marley that when the film’s last frames introduced documentary footage of the real Marley, we were jarred from our illusion. (By the way, if you’ve ever watched the accomplished Angela Bassett play Tina Turner in What’s love Got to do with it [1993] you will likely have the same experience.)

But how do you sum up a monumental life on film in under two hours? The task itself is next to impossible. The film strikes a difficult balance in layering aspects of Marley’s attentiveness and tenderness as a father and his understanding of the global spiritual relevance of what he was called to do and share through his music. Powerfully, it also represents the daily aspects of Marley’s life as a devout Rastafarian and the self-discipline (diet and exercise), clean-living, and spiritual practices that entailed. Indeed, there are several scenes in which Marley (and the Wailers) are jogging together through Jamaica’s tropical terrain or cold European landscapes, and playing soccer in his signature track suits. The film also does not shy away from his human frailty as a man who was unfaithful to his devoted wife and someone whose drive and single-mindedness led to the loss of significant friendships. What the film makes clear though is that Marley’s music was a spiritual calling and none of the tremendous work that it took for him to bring that music to the world was about his ego. Marley like his fellow Rastafarian band-mates (the men and women who became his family) was a devout Rastafarian and for him that meant that Jah (God) was at the centre of everything he did.

As the film makes clear, Marley’s decisions then (to the shock and horror of white record label executives in London, UK) were never about “selling records”. While the more supportive presence of white record executive Chris Blackwell (played by James Norton) is felt throughout, there is also a wonderful scene set in an office in London, where an executive attempts to convince Marley and members of the Wailers that an image-based cover is best for their album Exodus; an album, by the way, that Time Magazine later named the greatest of the twentieth century. Indeed, the recently deceased artist Neville Garrick plays more than a small role in the film. What emerges from the meeting as Marley dismisses the white executive’s fixation on record sales and profits, is the extent to which he and those in his inner circle had much loftier goals that had everything to do with their spiritual message and nothing to do with making money.

The film also captures the intensity and sometimes urgency of the travel and movements of Marley, whether inside Jamaica or on the world stage. After the assassination attempt, Marley and members of his inner circle initially fled to Strawberry Hill in the Jamaican mountains to regroup and consider their next move. Greeted by gang lords and Rastafarians, it is there that we begin to understand how Marley’s profound self-awareness and humility allowed him to remain accessible to everyone: a man and a hero of the people.

The film also does an excellent job of revealing Rita’s profound influence on Marley. Together since they were teenagers, it was Rita who introduced Marley to the Rastafarian religion, became a key member of his backup singers The I-Threes (which also included Marcia Griffiths and Judy Mowatt), and provided a stable, loving home to him, their children, and the children from his other relationships. Traversing years of the central figures’ lives, the film casts two actors to play the younger and older Rita and three actors to play Marley from boyhood, through adolescence, to Ben-Adir, as the adult Marley. In one of the most gut-wrenching scenes, an adult Rita played with understated brilliance by Lashana Lynch, finally confronts Marley outside of a glamourous European party about the impact of his numerous infidelities on her. As she relates the devastation of always putting his needs and those of the children first, she laments the ongoing suppression of her own desires.

As the movie makes clear, the troubled familial histories of Marley and Rita continued to haunt their relationship, regardless of the profound love and spiritual purpose that they clearly shared. The film represents Marley’s familial pain in powerful ways, often symbolically. There is a bitter scene for instance, where Marley as a young, wide-eyed boy overhears his black mother arguing and pleading with his white father who denies him and refuses to care for him, financially or emotionally. (The histories of mixed-race offspring disowned and/or enslaved by their white fathers is of course a story with profound roots in Transatlantic Slavery.) Marley’s white father’s wealth is encapsulated by his military-style uniform and his departure on horseback.

Relatedly, throughout the movie we are privy to visions of a burning ring of fire engulfing a sugar cane plantation and encircling a young Marley as he tries to flee the smoldering field that threatens to destroy him. But after several sequences, we see that Marley is not alone in the field but pursued by a man on horseback. His father perhaps? But if so, to what end, since this man is certainly not coming to save him! But in the last incarnation of the vision, the man on the horse is revealed not as Marley’s disdainful white father, but as the Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, who Rastafarians worship as the Black Messiah. The timing of this vision comes near the end of the film when Marley is also gifted a ring from an Ethiopian dignitary which Rita implores him to wear. This is the ring, by the way, that Marley is seen wearing in the famed photo of his Legend album cover.

In a poignant exchange Rita reminds Marley of a biblical verse that summarized his life and became lyrics in his song, Ride Natty Ride (1986), “The stone that the builder refuse, shall be the head corner stone.” The film also sheds light on the devotional practice of Marley’s song writing. We say devotional because as the film and various documentaries make clear, Marley was a higher spirt who called down lyrics and melodies from on high and wove them into glorious rhythms with messages that often-transcended human materialism. His spirituality was also visible in the trance-like states to which he succumbed during live performances. There are several mesmerizing scenes where Ben-Adir showcases his command of Marley’s musical inspiration whether in a recording studio, strumming his guitar solo, or surrounded by his children. But one scene stands out. Set in Europe in a rented townhouse where he and the Wailers lived communally, Marley overhears an orchestral song called Exodus and draws inspiration from the tone and style. Descending with his guitar, we see Ben-Adir’s Marley begin to summon the framework and then the details and substance of the hit song Exodus out of thin air all the while directing his Wailer family in the tone and feeling he is after and imploring them to help him to build the layers of the anthem.

What the film makes abundantly clear is that Marley was far more than a talented musician. While his ambition spread reggae around the world and far beyond the shores of his Caribbean island home, the vision and Rastafarian spirituality that defined his life ensured that his message of love, humanity, resistance, and revolution was also globally-received. Near the end of the film, when questioned by a white journalist about his fear of returning to perform at a concert in a Jamaica that was still riddled by violent partisan politics, Marley responded, “my life is not for me, it’s for the people.” That kind of daring, Jah-focused love is something to which most all of us fall short, but to which all of us, with Marley as our inspiration, can aspire.

Despite the very real threat of another assassination attempt, Bob Marley and the Wailers did play the One Love Peace Concert in 1978, and as Marley had fervently desired, they went on to also play in Zimbabwe in 1980 at a concert marking the nation’s independence from Britain.

Although a part of the film, the narrative does not focus extensively on Marley’s extramarital affairs or his death from Melanoma (a form of skin cancer that most commonly afflicts white people) in 1981 at the age of thirty-six. Instead, the film focuses as it should, on Marley’s life: his traumatic upbringing, transition to manhood, love story with Rita, spiritual transformation, musical evolution, and global triumphs. One Love, indeed!


Watch Ziggy Marley and Kingsley Ben-Adir’s interview on King Charles (With Gayle King and Charles Barkley), CNN