Social Realism in London’s Reggae Underground


Babylon was almost lost to film history. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1980 but received an X rating in the U.K., crippling its prospects, and was never released in the U.S. But film fans are a stubborn lot and grainy bootleg VHS copies kept Babylon’s reputation alive until it was released on DVD in the U.K. in 2009, and finally reached American audiences this year.

Babylon follows a group of young Jamaican men living in Brixton (South London) in 1979. They struggle along in their various jobs and relationships but unite around their reggae sound system, Ital Lion. Somehow this crew has scored a face off against reggae legend Jah Shaka (playing himself) in an upcoming club battle, a David and Goliath match up. But the days leading up to the competition are complicated by racism, family troubles, fractured romance, police brutality; and what initially seems a fairly light slice-of-life film turns in a darker direction.

The central character in Babylon is Blue (Brinsley Forde), the “toaster” or front man for Ital Lion. Blue is a mechanic, living with his supportive mother, disapproving father, and a chronically truant younger brother. He is quiet and contained compared to the brash Dreadhead (Archie Pool) or volatile Beefy (Trevor Land). But Blue has an inner resolve that costs him his job when he insists he be given a lunch break. That’s only the beginning of his trials, particularly given that he’s living in a city permeated by the open racism of the National Front Party and the harassment of the “sus laws”, the U.K.’s version of “stop and frisk” policing. (For a depiction of another community facing the racism of the National Front in Thatcherite England, see this summer’s Blinded By the Light.)

Italian documentarian Franco Rosso was a familiar figure in London’s reggae underground, having already made a film about Jamaican-English dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson. Rosso and co-writer Martin Stellman were inspired by Mean Streets in creating Babylon, with its depiction of young men on the margins, somewhere between big dreams and petty crimes. Chris Menges, who would go on to win an Oscar for The Killing Fields, gives Babylon a smokey cinematography and reggae producer Dennis Bovell provides a pulsing score.

Brinsley Ford was (and is) the front man of the reggae band Aswad, and at least a couple of Aswad songs are used in Babylon. Forde is a charismatic performer, and Blue a largely sympathetic figure. Watching his life fall apart and his mounting desperation gives the film its tense trajectory. The specifics of Blue’s life seem all too familiar: He runs from men who are following him and then is arrested for running when it turns out those men are police detectives. A neighbor complaining about loud music rages at the members of Ital Lion that they should go back where they came from, that “this was a lovely area before you came here!” Beefy shouts back at her that Brixton is where he came from, and “this place was never good.” The greatness of the past is in the eye of the beholder, and often depends on whether you’re looking at it from the top or the bottom of the social ladder. The racial slurs thrown at Blue and his friends throughout Babylon are stomach churning, but far from unthinkable in Brexit England – or Trump’s America, for that matter.

Babylon is a masterful film. The performances, many of them by non-actors, are so natural and compelling that the film seems to teeter toward another Rosso documentary. The indignities which the members of Ital Lion face are often overwhelming, but in reggae they find not an escape, but power. Babylon ends with outside forces literally crashing in on Blue, but he continues to sing, unflinching, to an Aswad song called “Warrior Charge”, repeating the rallying cry, “We can’t tek no more ah dat”. It’s not by any means a happy ending, but it’s also not a defeat. Like the exiles in the biblical Babylon, Blue may be a captive, but he won’t sing the songs of his captors. He and his mates will continue to sing the songs of Zion.

Kino Lorber’s new release of Babylon delivers well Chris Menges’s painterly cinematography and the propulsive score from Dennis Bovell and Aswad. New subtitles were added for this release, translating some of the Jamaican patios used by the film’s characters, but leaving some of it untranslated and rendered phonetically. It took me a few minutes to fall into the rhythm of the patois, but the meaning always comes across.

Bonus features include an audio commentary with Rosso, Stellman, Brinsley, and producer Gavrik Losey; the short doc Dread Beat and Blood; new interviews with Brinsley and Bovell; a restoration featurette; a Q & A with the cast and crew recorded in 2008; and trailers. The Blu-ray also includes a photo-laden booklet essay by music journalist Mike Rubin.