‘Bad Friday’ film chronicles Coral Gardens ‘incident’

Fridays in Jamaica aren’t always good.

In 1963, only a year into independence, hundreds of Rastafarians at Coral Gardens, in the parish of St. James, were rounded up, jailed and tortured by the government of Jamaica. Officials accused the Rastas of setting fire to a gas station and killing two policemen.

Rastafarian survivors of the confrontation, who deny the charges, commemorate the clash annually as the 1963 Coral Gardens “incident.”

The documentary “Bad Friday: Rastafari After Coral Gardens,” co-directed by Penn professors Deborah Thomas and John L. Jackson Jr., in collaboration with Jamaican musician Junior “Gabu” Wedderburn, chronicles the colonial brutality in 1963 Jamaica.

Through interviews with Rastafarians on the island, the hour-long film details the violence that occurred in the country during the “incident.” The documentary makes its Philadelphia premiere on Friday, Dec. 9, at 7 p.m. at the Scribe Video Center, 42nd and Chestnut streets.

Thomas, a professor of anthropology in the School of Arts and Sciences, is half Jamaican. She spent part of her early childhood living there and has, as an adult, written extensively about violence in the Caribbean nation. Thomas says the idea for the film came as she researched her second book, “Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica.”

“I had heard about the Coral Gardens incident, but there wasn’t much written, no big documentation,” she says. For research, she made multiple trips to the island to find witnesses to the actual event. As Thomas followed up one elder’s testimonial, she asked him to retrace his steps. “He agreed,” she says, “but then asked, ‘Wouldn’t it be better on film?’”

Jackson, Thomas’ husband and a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor, is also a filmmaker. Together they have woven a story that sheds light on a moment that has historically been silenced within Jamaica.

The film premiered in Kingston, Jamaica, last summer with 400 people in attendance. “It was great,” Thomas says. “There was a lot of energy around it.”

“Bad Friday” may have an even more far-reaching legacy. Despite years of pressure, the Jamaican government has never apologized for its actions. However, Thomas says Jamaica’s public defender attended the screening and asked for the raw film footage. In August, he began taking sworn testimony with plans to present his findings to the Jamaican parliament.

“At least the process is starting,” Thomas says. “The ball is rolling.” She says she is pleased that her work has begun to make a difference. “It’s so rare that what we do as academics goes beyond our small community.”

Admission to the Philadelphia screening costs $5, and is free for Scribe members.