Franco Rosso’s controversial Babylon follows the misfortunes of Blue, a “sound system” DJ who works as a car mechanic by day in the working-class suburb of Brixton, South London.
Brixton made headlines in the early 1980s for the violent clashes between its predominantly African-Caribbean citizens and Maggie Thatcher’s Metropolitan Police. These riots (dubbed the Brixton Uprising and triggered by a racially-motivated arson attack) took place less than six months after Babylon’s U.K. debut in November of 1980. According to Time Out’s Vivien Goldman, the film was considered too hot to handle in the U.S. and “likely to incite racial tension.” Because of the controversy, the film was promptly dropped from the New York Film Festival and never played stateside… until now.
As realized by Brinsley Forde, lead singer of the reggae band Aswad, Blue is an engaging antihero. His energies are mostly spent scheduling a battle of the bands, allowing him to distance himself, somewhat, from the day-to-day ordeals of life in Lambeth Borough—poverty, racial prejudice, and street crime, the upshot of a singular lack of opportunities. But he loses his paying gig, gets roughed up by the rozzers, and goes on the run, ultimately facing off in a scene of cathartic violence.
Until that almost inevitable payoff, Babylon breezes along on its own easy-going charm, populated by strong, likable characters, and awash with smoky, neon-lit cinematography. And it pulses, non-stop, to an infectious reggae beat courtesy Dennis Bovell (with contributions from Michael Prophet, Yabby-U, I-Roy, Cassandra, and, of course, Aswad).
For its original U.K. run, English captioning translated the Jamaican patois spoken by the film’s colorful characters—Blue, Dreadhead, Errol, Beefy, Elaine. Kino Lorber Repertory and Seventy-Seven are releasing the film for the first time in the United States, both with and without newly-designed subtitles—the former are intended to help audiences “better understand the patois, and the British slang, while preserving the nuances.” Babylon’s original D.P., Chris Menges (The Killing Fields), supervised the U.S. restoration, including some color grading, and the net result is an incendiary, neo-realistic snapshot of Britain’s impoverished youth, a time capsule of a film that burns with an energy and candid intensity rarely seen in mainstream movies.
Catch it if you can; it’s been a long time coming.
(c) 2019 David N. Butterworth