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'One Love,' Bob Marley biopic, was a chance to get Jamaican language and culture right in media

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

What’s worse than a bad movie? If you ask linguist Joseph Farquharson, he might say a movie that makes a caricature of the distinct patois of Jamaican accents.


When asked to be an advisor on the new Bob Marley biopic “One Love,” the Jamaican professor said not if it’s going to be another “Cool Runnings.” The accents in the 1993 feel-good movie about the Jamaican Olympic bobsled team and, similarly, Sebastian the singing crab from “The Little Mermaid” don’t sound like real Jamaicans, Farquharson says.


A patois is not just an accent, but rather a dialect of people from a particular region. Jamaican Patois formed during the transatlantic trade of enslaved Africans, Farquharson says.


“There are numerous accents associated with the Jamaican language, which a lot of people call Patois,” he says. “People of African descent who were enslaved, and people of European descent, they are enslavers, coming out of that contact, this new thing emerged. And Jamaica wasn’t the only place in which this happened. Creole languages are a common linguistic feature that we are familiar with.”

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The British long ruled Jamaica as a colony until 1962 and tried to suppress the Patois, the language. Now, a majority of Jamaicans want schools to teach in standard English and Patois.


“All languages are more than words,” Farquharson says. “They represent the worldview of their speakers, the main vehicles through which culture is transmitted to subsequent generations.”


Rastafari,  the Christian religious and political movement, grew out of the colonial period. “One Love” is set in 1976 amid political violence in Jamaica and Marley trying to bridge divides.


The film features words from the specific Rastafari culture. During a cast and crew screening of the film, the audience responded to hearing authentic Jamaican swear words — “the most authentic thing possible,” Farquharson says.


Kingsley Ben Adir, who plays Marley, compared learning Patois for the movie to learning French. He told The Guardian there’s a lot of English in it but it’s more complicated. 


“The problem with the Jamaican language, Patois, and languages like it, that are related to English is that a lot of the words derive from English. And so you think you’re hearing English words and you think they mean the same thing that they mean in English,” Farquharson says. “But that’s not always the case.”


In English, for example, did is the past tense of do. But in Jamaican Patios, did marks an action done in the past. “Me did talk to you,” Farquharson says, means “I talked to you in the past.”


In making “One Love,” director, John Turtletaub said he was under pressure because then-chair of Walt Disney Studios Jeffrey Katzenberg didn’t understand the dialogue. But Farquharson says he and a Jamaican “language community” on set were determined to make the film better than its predecessors.


“I think that the Bob Marley ‘One Love’ movie has set a new standard for how not just the Jamaican language, but Caribbean languages generally, how they are represented in film,” he says.

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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