Artwork by @jackmiers

Babylon (1980) Retrospective Review: “This is my country and it’s never been f#%!ing lovely”

South London has never looked so bleak and Reggae has never sounded so pure in Franco Rosso’s take on the experience of Jamaican youths living in Thatcher era UK; eerily relevant as it is powerful, 40 years on.

Forty years is a very long time. A lifetime in fact. In that amount of time, one can trace the inception and evolution of Ska, Reggae and Dub, from their homeland in Jamaica to the periphery of the UK music scene and finally into the global mainstream, between 1950 and 1990. How much has changed in the world then, since Franco Rosso’s film Babylon (1980) first hit British cinemas? One look at the social injustice that still proliferates in the UK, the US and here in Australia and you’d be forgiven for answering: Well… not much. Immigrant cultures continue to confront racism in these countries daily and although the way in which racism rears its ugly face has changed, its ugly face remains the same. After decades of patient dormancy and a belated run in American cinemas, Babylon is being distributed online through the Criterion Chanel and MUBI and despite its age it seems as relevant and poignant as ever.

I’ll admit, I had never heard of Babylon, or Franco Rosso for that matter, until seeing a thirty second trailer pop on my Instagram feed as I was innocuously scrolling through one afternoon. The excited tension that built up in that clip, which showed a group of young mates loading a record onto a turn table and the energy that erupted once they dropped the needle- cutting to a frenetic montage of clips accompanied by a dizzying dub score- had me hooked. What the hell is this and- Wait it’s forty years old? How have I never heard of this?! Having now seen the film on MUBI, I can’t imagine why it’s not talked about more. Babylon is a stunning film. It’s an impressionistic portrait of the experience of the young Jamaican diaspora growing up in Thatcher’s nationalistic UK and the promise of freedom and revolution that music provides; specifically the sounds of Ska, Reggae and Dub that blossomed in London at the time.

The story follows a music crew, The Ital Lions, in the lead up to a competition against rival dub artist Jah Shakah. Central to the Lions is Blue (Brinsley Forde), an ambivalent and alienated youth who dodges work and family expectations to surround himself with music and mates. It’s not expediency or thrills he’s chasing, rather an outlet to vent his frustrations and an opportunity to preach about the alienation he feels in his own home. For him, music is protest. It is a condemnation of the looks and sneers he receives on trains, the racist monickers that the white supremacist majority label him and of the undercover cops that hunt him in the pre-dawn morning. Think Kevin Bacon in Footloose, except this time the enemy of society isn’t the music, its the people who are making the music. Those labeled outsiders. The other.

The crew’s epic sound equipment is locked up in a dilapidated warehouse underneath a railway and loaded into a mover truck to be set up for their sound system concerts. Their creative outlet — their way of life — is hidden away in the liminal space literally between the right side and the wrong side of the tracks and even here they’re not free from discrimination. In the same scene used in the trailer, Blue and his mates burst into an uproarious boogie to the tune of a new found record. However, a disgruntled neighbour interrupts their revelry and berates them on how loud their “jungle music” is, and how lovely the area was before they moved in. Ronnie, a tokenised white hipster friend, acts as intermediary between the two cultures and is verbally assaulted for betraying his “kith and kin”.

Franco Rosso’s talent as a director is displayed throughout this film in his laid back approach to the subject matter, enhanced further by the naturalistic, prac-lit look of Cinematographer Chris Menges. Scenes were shot primarily in real locations throughout South London, with passersby walking through takes. Principle members of the cast and crew were themselves involved with the music scene at the time; Forde was a member of the reggae band Aswad and Rosso encouraged them to decided on their own costumes, avoiding overplayed tropes, allowing the cast to express themselves as they were. The ensemble riff off of each other, jump on each others lines and bop their heads in sync to the beat of highly sought after reggae records. The film’s score, helmed by dub royalty Dennis Bovell, is comprised entirely of dub and reggae sounds which removes any layers of sentimentalisation that an heavily orchestrated score might add. The off beat ska’s, atmospheric reverberations and analog beeps inject scenes with equal amounts of vivacity and unease. The story is in part based off the experience of Dennis Bovell, who was incarcerated for six months after he was picked up at a sound system of his own. The script, written by Martin Stellman and co-written by Rosso is also diplomatic in its treatment of the characters; not all of those disparaged here are saints. Blue bullies his brother, a trait he has apparently inherited from their father, and some of the company he keeps violently take their angst out against others; going so far as to assault and mug a white homosexual in an alley. All these decisions, peel away the obfuscations inherent in the artifice of film and set us in the reality of the characters. We experience an authentic representation of the reality they were, and still are, faced with; all the good, bad and ugly facets.

Rosso’s empathy for the characters must be partially due to him immigrating from his home in Italy to London when he was a boy. In a much more privileged sense, he may have experienced similar prejudice as the characters do in Babylon.

Blue and the generation he represents, are trapped between liminal spaces: As a wandering Rastafarian tells him, they are living in the second Babylon (England) between the original Babylon (Jamaica) and the promised land of Zion (Africa). Blue calls England his home despite being labeled as an outsider by the white majority. He and the Ital Lions hide their music equipment between the right and wrong side of the tracks. Blue walks the line between violence and meek obedience under his oppressors. By the finale Rosso provides another option: Civil disobedience through musical protest. But the harrowingly abrupt ending leaves us to wonder, is that enough?

Babylon is a remarkable piece of art; painfully relevant forty years from its initial release. If you can watch it, do.

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