Macdonald makes clear in the first few minutes that historical context and social critique matter immensely, and not just the monumental impact Marley’s music had. The opening seconds in West Africa show the Door of No Return at Gorée Island. Through it Africans left as slaves for distant places like Jamaica where the next stop is Marley’s St. Ann birthplace, 6 February 1945, and the one known photo of Captain Norval Marley, Bob’s white father. In his meticulous research, MacDonald found and includes footage of Bob talking poignantly about his rejection as a half-caste having to earn every meal, as he says without bitterness.
For the next two engrossing hours, MacDonald proceeds chronologically through Marley’s life, from Jamaica to Delaware, reggae’s birth to international tours, obscurity to fame, and his death from cancer 11 May 1981 at 36 years of age. Alternating black-and-white with contemporary color footage, Macdonald dramatizes events as successfully as he did in his previous feature, The Last King of Scotland, by vividly capturing significant locations in Marley’s life and, most importantly, listening carefully to people who knew him well. This includes his mother Rita, who talks about meeting Bob’s father Norval at the age of 16, and several of Marley’s 11 children, notably Ziggy and Cedelia. As wonderful and central are Jimmy Cliff, Neville Livingston of the original Bob Marley and the Wailers and Dudley Sibley, a Studio 1 recording artist who lived there with Bob for a year and a half in the early days. The sequence on Marley’s part in the 1970s Jamaican political turmoil is worth the price of admission by itself.
Throughout the film, Marley neither idealizes nor sentimentalizes the life of this legend. With its own journalistic energy, it channels Marley’s charismatic, energizing presence and, of course, the music is great. The end credits testify to Marley’s enduring impact and brought a tear to my eye. With English subtitles when needed. At a Landmark Theatre.