'Babylon': Film Review
A group of British-Jamaican musicians endure racism at the dawn of the Thatcher years in Franco Rosso's slice-of-life drama.
Invaluable even if all it offered was a window into the reggae sound system culture of South London circa 1980, Franco Rosso's Babylon is substantially more than that — an English cousin to the earlier Jamaica-set films The Harder They Come and Rockers that is vastly superior in cinematic terms and just as valuable as a cultural document. Nearly four decades after its Cannes premiere, the pic is finally getting U.S. distribution via Kino Lorber and a new label called Seventy-Seven, launched by New York City exhibition insider Gabriele Caroti; it deserves a robust welcome as it begins a spring/summer tour of art houses in America.
Aswad singer Brinsley Forde leads the ensemble as Blue, whose Ital Lion sound system (DJ groups spinning and tweaking the latest reggae records for live parties) is a leading crew in the city. He works in a local garage with buddy Ronnie (Karl Howman), the only white guy in this circle of friends, but when the pair's racist boss fires him, the precariousness of life for a black man in Thatcher's England is hard to ignore.
The film, co-written by Quadrophenia's Martin Stellman and vividly lensed by Oscar-winner Chris Menges (The Killing Fields, The Mission), follows Blue and his mates through slice-of-life episodes, rarely stringing scenes together in much of a plot. One group member (played by Archie Pool) haggles with an importer over new records his rivals don't yet have; a hot-tempered one called Beefy (Trevor Laird) is increasingly unwilling to turn the other cheek at racist taunts; the group joins more straight-laced members of the immigrant community for a party celebrating Lover's (Victor Romero Evans) engagement to marry Sandra (Beverley Dublin).
As aggression mounts from both cops and the white Brits who have apartments near the group's garage rehearsal space, Babylon doesn't spoon-feed the viewer; it's assumed that we understand the politics at play and know that the "NF" scrawled on a housing block walls refers to the fascist group National Front. In a welcome concession, this restoration does provide subtitles for the dialogue's heavy Jamaican patois — though Americans will have to guess at the meaning of "claat," an apparently multi-purpose slang word that is often but not always paired with "blood" and rarely used affectionately.
Though it saves its live club scenes for its opening and closing — the closing sequence was inspired by an actual, violent police raid on a party — Babylon spills over with killer reggae on its soundtrack, the music feeling very different in this urban context than it does in The Harder They Come. At a particularly vulnerable moment, the all-but-homeless Blue finds himself wandering into an intense gathering of Rastafarians, whose leader invites him to "let these herbs...heal your troubled mind." Anybody who thinks that's a shallow suggestion to get high and forget the world's cares is probably watching the wrong movie.
Production company: Diversity Music
Distributors: Seventy-Seven, Kino Lorber Repertory
Cast: Brinsley Forde, Karl Howman, Trevor Laird, Archie Pool, Brian Bovell, David N. Haynes
Director: Franco Rosso
Screenwriters: Martin Stellman, Franco Rosso
Producer: Gavrik Losey
Director of photography: Chris Menges
Production designer: Brian Savegar
Editor: Thomas Schwalm
Composers: Dennis Bovell, Aswad