Revisiting 1997 Jamaican Drama ‘Dancehall Queen’ in 4 Slices

Julien Neaves, Caribbean Head Writer

Greetings Cariwood (Caribbean film) lovers, Jamaican film fans, or those who accidentally clicked on a link and ended up here. Views are views. So a couple of weeks ago I reviewed classic Jamaican action crime film Third World Cop on YouTube and I was thoroughly impressed. And I noticed that the YouTube channel Palm had some other JA films as well, so I thought I would spend some time checking these out. And that brings us to our review for today, 1997 drama Dancehall Queen.

Now I remember watching this one years ago and I found it underwhelming. But I try to keep an open mind when rewatching films and so I still gave it a fair shot. So what did I think about it the second time around? With a passa passa-sized SPOILER ALERT let’s break down (or bruk down) Dancehall Queen in four slices:

Slice 1: Life Hard To Rahtid

Meh wonder if ‘im ah eediat or him jus fool fool

Dancehall Queen follows Marcia Green (Audrey Reid), a street vendor and single mother struggling to raise her two daughters. Her only “friend” is Larry (Carl Davis), a shady rich man who is only financially supporting the family because he wants to sleep with Marcia’s 15-year-old daughter Tanya (Cherine Anderson). Marcia is not only aware of this fact but encourages her to return his advances despite Tanya’s disgust over the situation. Yes. You read that right. She is whoring out her daughter to take care of the family. Yeah I don’t care how difficult times get that is despicable and the character loses my support right there. And the film doesn’t even circle around and have her be remorseful about it and apologise. They just leave it there like a festering sore and move on.

And the funny thing is Marcia is not a weak character or a pushover. She’s feisty and a fighter, so this behaviour just seems incongruent. I will also give props to Reid and Anderson as they are both solid in their roles. And Davis is quite believable as Lecherous Larry. Ironically Marcia only realises what a horrible person Larry is when she finds out he had someone kill her friend over a squatting dispute. So prostitution and pedophilia involving your teenage daughter is fine but you draw the line at your friend’s murder? Okay then.

Wine up yuh batty gyal!

The storyline of Marcia finding empowerment by becoming a dancer dubbed the Mystery Lady would seem odd to those unfamiliar with dancehall culture. Her achieving fame by dressing in gaudy, skimpy outfits and out-wining (gyrating) other women is unlikely to make her a feminist icon. And even for me, a Trinidadian somewhat familiar with this world, I felt more like a passive observer than someone invested in this character.

The fact that most of the film’s focus was on her dancehall quest meant that I was disconnected for a lot of runtime. Maybe some viewers, especially Jamaican viewers, may find merit in it but it just wasn’t for me.

Slice 2: Unholy Priest

If yuh talk meh will (expletive deleted) (expletive deleted) (expletive deleted) kill yuh (expletive deleted) (expletive deleted) (expletive deleted) (expletive deleted). Zeen?

But one aspect I did enjoy, and one of two reasons I would say the film is worth watching, is the villain Priest, played by Jamaica’s most popular actor Paul Campbell (The Lunatic, Third World Cop, Shottas, Home Again). This knife-wielding hoodlum is a pore-raising, terrifying character and Campbell plays him with diabolical glee. He is scary and scary good. He dominated every moment he was on screen and turned the film into a crime thriller. As Priest he has the most memorable line in the film, “Walk and yuh live, talk and yuh b—t dead!”

Marcia’s brother Junior (Mark Danvers) is so traumatised by seeing Priest murder his friend that he has a mental break. He then spends most of the movie scared and acting mentally unstable, which I found was a waste of Danvers’ talents as he was much better in Third World Cop two years later. And him being cured thanks to country food and country air is definitely not how mental health works. #justsaying. I also felt Carl Bradshaw, another of Jamaica’s famous actors, was wasted as Police Officer #1. Other than a couple of scenes of roughing up Junior he barely does anything.

Slice 3: Chune Again!

Sometimes Beenie have nuff gyal, sometimes ‘im have one gyal. Is all good

I mentioned there were two reasons the film was worth checking out and the second is the music. If you are a fan of 90s dancehall this one is definitely for you as the soundtrack is a mix of music created for the film and other dancehall songs of the time. Dancehall artist Beenie Man opens the film singing a version of the megahit song and title theme “Dancehall Queen”. We see him just sitting on the street singing while people pass by and it’s a little weird. In the film he is playing himself (and competently I must say) so why would the actual Beenie Man be just sitting on the road singing to no one in particular? As I said, weird.

Beenie also features in some other scenes and sets up the final dancehall queen showdown between Marcia as the Mystery Lady and her sassy rival and reigning Dancehall Queen Olivine. He also closes the film with the more popular version of Dancehall Queen with singer Chevelle Franklyn, who later switched to gospel.

Olivine immediately regretted having mannish water and peanut punch for lunch

And speaking of turning to the Lord, the film also features a live performance from then Queen of the Dancehall Lady Saw who years later would become an evangelist under her real name Marion Hall. There is also a live performance by reggae singer Anthony B and other songs from Bounty Killer and Beenie Man as well.

The film is called Dancehall Queen so s one would expect there is a lot of dancing in the dancehall. I will give the movie props that the scenes do look and feel authentic but the sexual suggestiveness of the dancing and the frequent close-ups of bottoms and crotches may a bit much for the casual viewer. But for those looking for an accurate representation of this aspect of Jamaican culture they would not be disappointed.

Slice 4: Di Dance Dun

It’s the eye of the tiger
It’s the thrill of the fight
Rising up to the challenge of our rival

While I thought the Marcia character could have been better written (the film itself could have used some better writing as well) I did appreciate her resourcefulness in pitting Lecherous Larry and Priest against each other, with Priest fittingly dying at the end of his own blade. And in the end she overcomes her shame of everyone finding out she is a lowly fruit vendor, defeats Olivine, becomes the dancehall queen, wins the cash prize, tells off Larry, and the entire community celebrates her. I couldn’t cheer, however, as the film had lost me long before this point.

But I can understand why this was one of the most popular films in Jamaica with its popular music and celebration of dancehall culture. For me though, I would rather rewatch Third World Cop.

Editor Jules’ Score: 6 out of 10

You can check out the film for yourself by clicking this link, though the audio does drop out coming to the end. And you can check out more great Jamaican content below:

Jamaican Action Crime Film ‘Third World Cop’ Run Tings (Tings Doh Run Eet!)

Jamaica’s Ghett’a Life: Ghetto Rocky with Gangsters (7 Days of Cariwood)

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Julien “Editor Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. Read more.