One Love star takes his Hebrew name to Hollywood

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One Love star takes his Hebrew name to Hollywood

Jewish actor Kingsley Ben Adir is Jamaica's favourite son in the hit new movie

Kingsley Ben Adir as  Bob Marley in One Love
Kingsley Ben Adir as Bob Marley in One Love

“SUN HOTTTT, SAH!” sizzles an unknown male voice from the quiet street of the upmarket location. Standing so close you’d think we were in an invisible queue, both watching the vintage cars – a BMW 1602 here, an open-top Land Rover Defender there – being carefully unloaded onto the moisture-free red dirt road before filming starts.

We’re behind the fence, but made to stand well away. The combined security of both the Jamaica Constabulary Force and Jamaica Defence Force are there to make sure the milling Lady Musgrave Road crowd look at the cars, but don’t touch.It was the same way when the identical models were parkedoutside the home of the most famous Jamaican singer-songwriter ever born. No one in Trenchtown touched his ride, although he only owned a BMW because it stood for Bob Marley and the Wailers.

This location is one of several chosen in the city for the shooting of a cinematic event not seen in more than a generation. Kingston has been quietly transformed to tell part of the story of its favourite son, Robert Nesta Marley, in the much-delayed biopic of his life. Jamaica is buzzing with anticipation of big, big ‘tings.’

Jewish actor Kingsley Ben Adir is Bob Marley in the hit new movie

Many projects have tried to capture a live-action telling of Marley’s influential life, but most fell flat. Not only because there was no bona fide Marley family commitment but because there were too few actors who could convey the charismatic energy Marley possessed. Marley family insiders recollect those who tried to imitate or simply copy Bob. Only one actor sought to simply channel him. Enter north London’s Kingsley Ben-Adir, translating literally from the Hebrew as ‘Son of the Mighty’.

If you wanted a better example of the universal arc of nominative determinism, you need look no further than Kentish Town’s mixed heritage wunderkind. Born in 1986 in London’s Kentish Town, Ben-Adir was brought up in the Jewish faith. Although you’ll struggle to read any online self-commentary on his private beliefs, it’s clear that by carrying his name to Hollywood, Ben-Adir seeks to celebrate his Jewish roots publicly.

A graduate of Guildhall Drama School, he had a stint as Shakespeare’s gentleman, Demetrius, in A Midsummer’s Night Dream at London’s Old Vic, before appearing in TV shows such as Peaky Blinders, Midsomer Murders and Vera. If you didn’t know about him by 2018, your bubbe did.

In Barbie, Kingsley as another Ken with Ryan Gosling as Ken

How could she not? With his leading man looks and emotional intelligence, Ben-Adir brings to his roles a new kind of intense authentic swagger and even retained his dignity as a Ken in the Barbie film.

Think of him as a St. Elsewhere-era Denzel Washington mixed with the braggadocious charm of a rising Brando and the home-grown appeal of a raw Daniel Craig.

Kingsley as Malcolm X in Regina King’s One Night in Miami

Ben-Adir’s future is so bright that his name has been whispered lately in the same sentences as another supremely British institution: James Bond. Shush! Nominated for Bafta’s Rising Star award in 2021, his measured but urgent performance as Malcolm X in Regina King’s One Night in Miami was lauded, as was his nuanced delivery in The OA as dogged private investigator Karim Washington.

As such, Ben-Adir has that elusive cinematic mix of A-list potential and the universal struggle of the everyman. He’s only 37. A year older than Bob Marley when he died.  “The process of getting to know Bob and trying to convey the magnetism of his charisma has been life-changing for sure,” begins Ben-Adir, when asked about playing the son of the sun.

Kingsley in One Love as Marley  whom he was told “‘Bob’s not soft. Bob’s not soft.”

“What’s interesting about Bob is that to find his vulnerability in a way that looked truthful took a lot of nuancing,” he chuckles. “You can’t just put Bob in a scene where he’s crying because it’s not real and that was the instruction from Jamaica: ‘Bob’s not soft. Bob’s not soft. Tuff Gong, y’know?’” he smiles while purposefully sliding back into Jamaican patois.

In One Love we see different sides of Marley and find a man very much in love with his wife Rita, but apprehensive about explosive events taking place around him, memorably the assassination attempt on his life in Kingston,1976.

Lasana Lynch as Rita in Star of David with Kingsley as Bob

“You have to understand that this man was closer to a football manager in terms of his stance and his position,” the actor begins to gesticulate, warming to his Marley theme. “This is a guy from the streets. Yes, he’s vulnerable in his music and yes, when he sings there’s nothing like it and his lyrics are an open book, but me as a guy trying to find stories about when he was vulnerable ? That was so much of the research. It’s like who did see him cry? In private, who was he?”

Bob Marley’s Jewish background has never been hidden. Born Robert Nesta Marley on 6 February 1945 in Nine Miles, St Ann’s parish in Jamaica, Marley was the son of Cedella Malcolm – a Jamaican – and Norval Sinclair Marley – an Englishman commonly known as ‘Captain Marley’, though whether this was earned through rank or service recognition no one knows. Cedella was 18 when she married Norval, then 60, who was the son of Ellen Broomfield, a Jewish Syrian Jamaican, a class often referred to on the island even now as a ‘Jamaican White’.

Bob Marley in a chai necklace

Marley Jnr was estranged from his father, reportedly never enjoying a fruitful relationship with him. But the Jewish link resonated in the singer’s lifelong faith of Rastafarianism; a religion strongly linked with Abrahamic-Christian-Islamic traditions.

The Marley-Jewish connections run deep like still water. Not only does Marley’s manager and founder of Island Records, Chris Blackwell, possess Jewish ancestry, but the film itself centres around Marley and his wife Rita (portrayed by No Time To Die’s Lashana Lynch) and the 1977 album Exodus (‘Wandering’ or ‘Departure of People’).

Jewish founder of Island records Chris Blackwell in red with Marley in Jamaica

“Exodus means movement of Jah people,” reflects Skip Marley from Miami. He is the son of the film’s co-producer, Bob’s mother Cedella Marley. He continues his reasoning in his amiable Jamaican-Floridian twang: “Exodus is a call to humanity. All of Jah people on the ert [earth] coming together, moving out of Babylon.”

Kingsley in Jamaica with Bob Marley’s real former girlfriend Cindy Breakspeare

Back in Kingston, Ben-Adir got to know what made Marley tick. “Yeah, I went to Bob’s House in ‘the government yard’ [in Trenchtown]. I went into his bedroom,” said the actor. ”Going into Hope Road and seeing where he recorded and all those places, I don’t know what that feeling is. It just activates your imagination in a way that’s really helpful. I just had to get my head around what my feeling is when playing real-life characters, which is about the essence of the person. Not being an exact copy or trying to be a mimic. When it came to Bob, my instinct was to be and look as close as I could to him.”

He certainly passed muster on the streets, where Marley’s music is the heartbeat of Jamaica. “Music is everything to Bob,” concludes Ben-Adir. “That’s my interpretation of him. Music and Bob.

He’s singing from his soul and from his gut. There’s no half-concert, no half-hearted performance. The reason why his music can’t be recreated is because he’s singing for his life.”

ZIGGY Marley in and on Israel

For many years since Bob Marley’s passing, Israel has celebrated his music and his ethos with the One Love Festival. Held around the star’s 6 February birthday, the event was founded by Bella Malkin and Shmulik Bar-Dan, who want to spread Marley’s message about “human rights, love, loving thy neighbour and spirituality” to the world.

Ziggy on stage In Israel

They have attracted significant support from the Marley family, notably Ziggy Marley, Bob’s son, who has performed regularly at One Love Israel. Co-producer of the film and founder of Tuff Gong Records Worldwide, Ziggy is married to Orly (née Agai), an Israeli of Iranian-Jewish descent, who is mother to four of Bob’s grandchildren. Hugely popular among young Israelis, Ziggy, along with 700 other notable Hollywood figures, including Amy Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld and Gal Gadot, signed an open letter written by the Creative Community for Peace affirming his support of Israel.

On 9 October, he posted on social media: “It is absolutely reasonable and logical to be opposed to the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians while simultaneously calling for the protection of Jews in Israel and around the world.” On 20 October Ziggy posted an image of a  raised hand with the words, “You know wha! There must be a better way. Free Gaza from Hamas.”

Exodus by Skip Marley is on the One Love soundtrack out now on Tuff Gong/Island Records

Bob Marley: One Love is on nationwide release 


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