Bob Marley: One Love Is a Feel-Good Fake

The story of Bob Marley’s reggae music and his politically infused Rastafarian beliefs is fascinating. Not that you’ll learn anything about them from watching the new feel-good biopic Bob Marley: One Love.

Kingsley Ben-Adir as Bob Marley in Bob Marley: One Love. (Paramount Pictures)

I didn’t know all that much about Bob Marley or reggae or the Rastafarian religion and its attendant political movement when I watched the new biopic currently playing in theaters called Bob Marley: One Love. But I know a lot more now that I did some research in order to figure out what the hell is going on in the movie. The great benefit of the biopics boom is how educational it is — not the movies themselves, which are almost invariably a mass of lies and evasions and oversimplifications, but the research you are spurred to do afterward, when you read up on the subjects’ actual lives and find out all sorts of amazing and suppressed facts about them.

This Bob Marley biopic is a huge hit, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a feel-good cloud of a movie, a vaporous mass of peace and love and pot smoke and danceable reggae rhythms. Floating somewhere in the center of it, there’s a very handsome actor (Kingsley Ben-Adir of Peaky Blinders) smiling and cavorting in an endearing herky-jerky dance imitation of Bob Marley. Marley’s “sins” are presented in the usual silly, rote, second-act way — he gets too interested in going to parties with rich people and aristocrats, and there are raffish-looking women hanging around waiting for him while his wife, Rita (Lashana Lynch), looks angry about his adulterous impulses. But this side plot is the typically temporary downturn in the overall upturn of Marley’s inspirational life. Even Marley’s tragic early death from cancer is made part of the film’s blurry vision of how he overcomes earthly frailties and challenges in his ascent to the pantheon of nice, talented singers we like but prefer not to understand.

Like so many biopics, this one pushes forward a few benevolent biographical points that will make the person’s story more popular with mainstream audiences and gloss over all the spikier information that’s central to their lives but that might prove controversial. It’s a strategy that’s working very well, commercially. Bob Marley: One Love is such a success, in surprising contrast to the tanking of the new superhero movie Madame Web, that it’s generating think pieces about the possible end of superhero movie mania.

It’s reported that One Love “overperformed at the box office” as part of the “musical biopic boom sweeping Hollywood.” Biopics of Amy Winehouse, Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, Boy George, Keith Moon, the Beatles, the Bee Gees, and the Grateful Dead are all at various production stages on their journey toward a theater near you.

Ziggy Marley, singer-songwriter-musician son of Bob, is a producer on Bob Marley: One Love, and he introduces it in theaters in a short film clip before the screenings. I’d already proposed the biopic rule “Never involve the family” when reviewing the mess that was Maestro, and I repeat it here. The understandably touchy feelings of children, especially, are going to undermine difficult truth-telling every time.

Cowritten and directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, whose last film was the 2021 biopic King Richard, One Love starts with a depiction of violent political chaos in 1976 Jamaica, and Bob Marley announcing that his upcoming concert for peace would have nothing to do with politics.

I had to laugh aloud in the theater. “No politics” announced right out of the gate is the most cynically perfect start to this film. And, sure enough, Marley is portrayed throughout as a human dove of peace always aiming to rise above those who would try to drag him down into the blood-spattered arena of terrible policies enacted, corrupt elections fought over, social justice sought and suppressed.

Still of Lashana Lynch as Rita Marley and Kingsley Ben-Adir as Bob Marley. (Paramount Pictures)

The film is so dedicated to keeping politics, and Marley’s politically infused religious beliefs, out of Marley’s life story that half the time you can’t figure out what’s going on. And that’s by design. Take those two feuding white politicians whose combustible campaigning at the beginning of the film, including the partisan violence of local gangs linked to the two parties, is threatening to engulf Jamaica in urban paramilitary mayhem, leading to Marley’s first peace concert. Who are those politicians? What parties do they represent? What policies do they stand for? In the last image of the film, at the One Love Peace Concert, when Marley joins their hands onstage, what is that image supposed to mean?

You’ll never know from watching One Love. You’re not supposed to know.

But if you do a bit of reading, you’ll find out that the two leaders are Prime Minister Michael Manley, of the democratic socialist People’s National Party (PNP), and his opponent, Edward Seaga, of the conservative Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). The image of their clasped hands, which became iconic, could be read as evidence that Bob Marley was apolitical, taking no sides, transcending all conflict. But as Caribbean scholar Brian Meeks explained in an interview with Jacobin in 2021,

That interpretation is far too simple. With his gesture, Bob Marley was not trying to elide the political differences between the left-wing PNP and the right-wing JLP. Rather, he was attempting to rescue the hopes of the social movement that had carried the PNP to power six years earlier — a vision for a new Jamaica that the street violence, which many suspect was the result of a covert CIA destabilization program, threatened to destroy.

In all likelihood, it was JLP gunmen who’d been sent to assassinate Marley in 1976.

Jamaica was engulfed in a neocolonial struggle to bring economic gains to the black underclass that was still oppressed and impoverished a decade after the end of British rule in 1962. The resulting new political movement led Manley and the PNP to a landslide victory in 1972. Reggae, “a militant form of music that was closely linked to Rastafari and the black power movement . . . [was] the soundtrack of Michael Manley’s 1972 electoral victory,” Meeks explained.

Though it’s true that Marley tried to keep a certain distance from politics, this had a great deal to do with his beliefs as a Rastafarian. And good luck figuring out what those are from One Love.

There are many allusions to his Rastafarianism in the film, with no attendant explanations. For example, the gold Ethiopian ring that seems so significant to Marley late in the film, urged upon him by his wise wife, Rita, is worn due to the Rastafarian belief that Haile Selassie, who declared himself emperor of Ethiopia in 1930, was a living god — or at any rate, God’s representative on earth. The emperor himself claimed to be a descendent of the biblical King David. He was regarded as the fulfillment of predictions of a black messiah by influential Jamaican leader and black nationalist Marcus Garvey. Garvey urged black people of the African diaspora to unite and return to Africa, which indicates why, in the film, the return to Africa is so vitally important to Marley in scheduling his Exodus Tour.

The only time we see Marley lose his cool in the film is when he physically attacks his manager, Don Taylor (Anthony Welsh), for trying to profit from setting up the tour, shouting, “Africa ain’t a money thing.” The attack is especially shocking because Marley has been such a peaceable character up to this point, and because Taylor was badly injured in the earlier assassination attempt on Marley’s life that drove Marley from Jamaica to England. Marley only sustained minor injuries, whereas Taylor was critically injured. He shouts, “I took six bullets for you!”

The film’s vague implication is that, as a black performer, Marley isn’t satisfied with merely the usual European and American tours set up by Island Records founder and producer Chris Blackwell (James Norton) and wants to rectify the racist omission of African from tour plans. We can only guess that he feels impelled by a general return-to-the-roots fervor. At so many points of the film, we’re left to wonder what the main actors are referring to.

Remember the scene in London, where Marley lives and makes records for nearly two years after leaving Jamaica, in which he encounters a stone statue of a lion and says, “They don’t know what it means”?

Do you have any idea what that meant? No? Are you curious? Well, you might want to look up Rastafarian culture and its various significant images, because the film has no clues to offer.

Make use of the biopic genre while we have it perpetually at our throats! Use it as a jumping-off point, an opportunity to educate yourself about people and their actual, complex histories — which the films themselves will invariably leave out.