BABYLON (Franco Rosso, 1980)
Expands Friday, March 15
One of the best, and most important, British films of the last forty years took the long route to reach America, but it’s finally here, and it’s a knockout. In 1973-74, Franco Rosso and Martin Stellman wrote Babylon, a somewhat semiautobiographical story of prejudice and bigotry set around Jamaican sound system culture during the Thatcher era in South London. The BBC rejected it, and after several production companies passed on it as well, it was finally picked up by Mamoun Hassan of the National Film Finance Corporation. The movie was shot in six weeks on location in Deptford and Brixton and received an X rating, despite having limited violence and no sex. It screened at Cannes but was turned down by the New York Film Festival, which considered the subject matter too controversial. The film was restored in 2008, but an old print was shown at BAM in 2012, the only time the film was officially shown in the United States. That is, until now; the scorching tale at last got its American theatrical release March 8 at BAM and has now opened as well at IFC Center, Kew Gardens Cinemas, Nitehawk, and the Magic Johnson Harlem 9. Babylon is a don’t-miss work that is still frighteningly relevant today, even though it was ripped from the headlines of the 1970s.
Brinsley Forde, a former child actor and founding member and original guitarist for the British reggae group Aswad, stars as Blue, a toaster — a Jamaican dancehall deejay who chants over riddims — whose crew, Ital Lion, is preparing for a bit-time competition against their archrival, Jah Shaka (the real-life legend who plays himself). Blue is a mechanic but would rather spend his time toasting, smoking spliffs, and goofing around with his buddies, including Beefy (Trevor Lair), Dreadhead (Archie Pool), Scientist (Brian Bovell), Errol (David N. Haynes), Lover (Victor Romero Evans), and Ronnie (Karl Howman), the only white man in the group. When a racist Caucasian family living above their hangout starts threatening them, some of the Ital Lion crew want to fight back, but Blue tries to prevent any violence. However, following a harrowing night when he’s chased through the dark streets by white men in a car, Blue packs his bags and reconsiders his future.
Babylon is a blistering film, spectacularly photographed by Chris Menges, who would go on to win Oscars for his cinematography on The Killing Fields and The Mission, and expertly edited by Thomas Schwalm, bringing the rhythm of the crew to the fore. In his first feature film, Rosso, a documentarian who spent his career making works about the underrepresented, captures the energy and the rage, the spirit and the fear experienced by Blue (superbly played by Forde, who was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 2015) and his friends as they try to survive amid ever-more-threatening xenophobic danger that is almost begging for revolution and rebellion. It echoes what is happening around the world now, particularly the treatment of refugees and immigrants (legal and illegal) and calls to build a wall to keep out “the other.” Perhaps not surprisingly, cowriter-director Rosso (The Mangrove Nine, Lucha Libre) was the son of an Italian immigrant, cowriter Stellman (Quadrophenia, Defence of the Realm) is the son of a Viennese Jewish immigrant, producer Gavrik Losey (Magical Mystery Tour, Agatha) is the son of blacklisted American director Joseph Losey, and NFCC managing director Hassan is the son of a Saudi immigrant. And of course, the music is simply phenomenal, from Dennis Bovell’s pulsating soundtrack to songs by Aswad, Yabby You, Cassandra, Johnny Clarke, I-Roy, and Michael Prophet. In this intensely realistic and deeply involving masterpiece, Rastaman (Cosmo Laidlaw) identifies Africa, Jamaica, and England as the “Babylonian triangle of captivity,” but forty years later it continues to spread far and wide, ensnaring more and more in its hateful reach.