What “Babylon” Captured About Racism and Reggae
In June, 1948, the H.M.T. Empire Windrush docked in the Port of Tilbury, near London. Among its passengers were approximately eight hundred West Indian workers, mostly from Jamaica, who had come in response to England’s postwar labor shortage. Some planned to earn money and return home; others wondered what it would be like to stay. There was a lot of work to be done and, by the early nineteen-sixties, the population of West Indian immigrants in England had grown tenfold. They had arrived, initially, to help rebuild a country that had been devastated by war, but they contributed to the construction of something entirely new: a modern, multicultural British society.
These early waves of predominantly Jamaican immigrants would become known as the Windrush generation. They established roots in England, and, as often happens in immigrant communities, the traditions and styles of home began to take new forms. For young Jamaican-British people, reggae music was like a homing signal. The booming sounds and fierce rivalries of Jamaican “sound systems”—mobile crews of d.j.s and m.c.s who had built their own performance gear—took on a kind of desperate air in the cramped, dour spaces of postwar England; many older white English people came to associate the music’s resounding echoes and joyful buoyancy with unrest and unruliness. The famed producer Dennis Bovell quit his sound system in the mid-seventies, after he was jailed for six months when police wrongfully accused him of stoking a riot. He and his friends were just having a party. While they heard sweet, soothing sounds that provided an escape from working-class drudgery, some of their neighbors heard danger.
Few films portray this moment in black British life quite like Franco Rosso’s “Babylon,” which premièred at Cannes, in 1980, and was hailed for its soulful depictions of a community largely invisible in British media. Because of scenes of racial violence, it was rated X in the United Kingdom, where it became a sensation. But, until now, it was never formally released in America. (It will première at BAM on March 8th.) The hero, a young man called Blue, is played with a quiet, searching intensity by Brinsley Forde, of the reggae group Aswad. He’s pulled in all directions by family and friends, and works a dead-end job at a South London auto shop. When his boss goes from berating him to pressing him for a favor, Blue finally snaps. “How come I’ve got to sort out your fuck-ups?” he asks. It sounds as though he’s speaking on behalf of a generation.
“Babylon” often feels more like a mood than a movie. It was shot by the cinematographer Chris Menges, who later won Oscars for his work on “The Killing Fields” and “The Mission.” His camera captures the effervescent throbs, humid swelter, and slow-motion glory of a tightly packed club, and the stark contrast with all that is outside: empty lots, small fires, a landscape of ash gray and foreboding shades of blue. The emotional frustrations at the heart of the film build slowly, in tight, forced smiles and resigned sighs, on the edges of scenes where kids are just horsing around and making do.
Blue’s one salvation is his sound system, Ital Lion. The members of the crew are friends, and they share an unarticulated dream: first, neighborhood superiority; then, who knows? Rival sound-system crews engage in acts of playful sabotage; racist police and neighbors hassle them; friends give up on their dreams and turn their attention to making a quick, cynical buck. But there is always the next party to temporarily wash away the indignities of daily life. The music says what they can’t, bass waves travelling farther than they can.
Rosso, who co-wrote “Babylon” in addition to directing it, was himself an immigrant, like the Jamaicans at the heart of his film. He had worked as an assistant on Ken Loach’s “Kes,” in 1969, and then spent the seventies directing documentaries on the Mangrove Nine—a group of black intellectuals and activists who, in 1970, were wrongfully accused of inciting a riot—and the dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson. He collaborated on the “Babylon” script with Martin Stellman, who had worked on the cult classic “Quadrophenia,” from 1979, about England’s working-class Mod subculture.
But neither Rosso nor Stellman came from the communities at the heart of “Babylon,” and it’s tempting to read the character of Ronnie (Karl Howman), a happy-to-be-there white kid welcomed into Ital Lion’s inner circle, as their proxy in the film. Ronnie has other roles to play, too. Ital Lion’s rehearsal space is a small garage tucked under an overpass. To them, it is a sanctuary of bass waves and weed smoke. But the neighbors see them as troublemakers, and Ronnie is often the one sent to politely answer the door. He is told that he’s a traitor to his “kith and kin.” He just laughs.
By the end of the film, surrendering to a wicked tune is no longer enough to release all the pent-up pressure. A woman from a nearby building yells at the Ital Lion crew to “fuck off back to your own country” and accuses them of ruining this formerly “lovely” part of town. A carefree character named Beefy, who has been the film’s constant source of comic relief, boils over. “This is my fucking country, lady, and it’s never been fucking lovely. It’s always been a fucking tip for as long as I can remember,” he yells back. Beefy’s outburst marks a shift in the movie’s atmosphere: every interaction with a nosy neighbor or bigoted cop starts to feels like a dangerous game of brinkmanship.
“Babylon” closes with a climactic party, with Blue holding the microphone and the crowd’s attention. The police try to break up the party, and the crowd scatters, running for the exits. In Rosso and Stellman’s original script, the film continues, and Blue ends up in prison for inciting a riot, though it’s really just a party, a storyline that borrows heavily from Bovell’s case in the seventies. In that version, Blue eventually escapes, and the script ends with him embracing the teachings of reggae’s most radical prophets, sailing toward Ethiopia as music plays. He ripples through the water, a man chasing an echo.
According to the Rastafarian belief system that animates some forms of reggae, Babylon refers to the corrupted, capitalist, colonial world that righteous believers are always trying to escape. This is another idea that came from one place and took on new meanings far from home. The Windrush generation had initially been welcomed to England, at least perfunctorily; by the seventies, immigrants had become scapegoats for a faltering economy. When Dreadhead, the leader of Ital Lion, heads to a record shop to pick up a new dubplate for an upcoming sound clash, the Jamaican shop owner says, “Where you think you are, Trenchtown? This is Brixton.” It’s a friendly ribbing, but it’s also a reminder that they are trying to build a new world atop the old one.
“Babylon” does more than borrow the music, fashion, or world view of reggae. It embodies the ethos of the music—and it feels like a song, swaying from a clever joke to fire and brimstone, conveying a message less through language than through the passage of sound waves through bodies. There is no real catharsis in the movie, even as the police come to break up a moment of communion. There’s just a groove and a chant, as Blue, whose words have failed him through much of the film, stands immovable, and finally declares, “Can’t tek no more.”