Every so often a film comes along that so brilliantly captures an era that it can tell you more about how life was than any historical document. Babylon is one such film.
Released shortly after Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister in 1979, and just months before Brixton exploded in an uprising against police racism, the film tells the story of a sound clash between two rival reggae sound systems.
Set against derelict south London in the grip of mass unemployment, Babylon follows a “toaster” nicknamed Blue – played by Brinsley Forde who fronted the reggae band Aswad – as he prepares for his big day.
Unfortunately Blue’s life is about to spiral out of control. First he is sacked by his racist boss and then violently set upon by a gang of plainclothes police.
And if that weren’t enough, the neighbours that surround the lock-up garage where Blue’s sound system is housed have made clear they have no time for “jungle bunnies” and that they intend to act.
Watching the film almost 30 years after its initial release, you are hit by the incredible openness of the racism. The language in the script is brutal, utterly believable, and yet still shocking to hear.
And whereas today police mostly harass young black people using official procedures and “properly documented” searches, back then it was commonplace to be picked-up, abused, beaten and then dumped on the streets.
The Nazi National Front’s “NF” signature is ubiquitous on the hoardings and estate staircases in Babylon, an ever-present reminder that hatred and violence lurked just around the corner.
Until Babylon and the Brixton riots, the lives of young black Britons were largely ignored by the mainstream media and left untouched by cinema.
The BBC, having originally agreed to screen the film, backed away, leaving director Franco Rosso to scrabble around for the cash to complete it.
Rosso says that he found it difficult even to cast the film because so few theatrical agencies had black actors on their books.
But despite being ignored by the mainstream, by the late 1970s black youth had forged their own way of telling their story – British reggae.
Bands like Aswad, Misty in Roots and Steel Pulse were joined by hundreds of sound systems that acted as a black newswire.
As their lyrics rang out with their views and experiences, they also connected with tens of thousands of young whites radicalised by unemployment and the fight against the Nazis.
Reggae producer Denis Bovell took the sound of British reggae and melded it so tightly to Babylon that the soundtrack became a part of the story – not surprisingly the score is a collectors’ item.
For years after Babylon’s all too limited cinema release, it was only available on VHS, and up to now many will have only seen bootleg copies taped from the TV.
This new DVD version has been digitally remastered in a process overseen by Chris Menges, its original Oscar winning photographer.
The result is a film that remains visually stark and brutal, but in which the images are for the first time clean and vibrant.
There are moments of great laughter, brilliant dancing and even super stylised dog walking in Babylon, and you can’t help but feel that the cast, then mostly in their early 20s, had a ball making it.
But as the sound clash draws close, and tensions in Blue’s Ital Lion sound system emerge, Babylon keeps you on edge.
You can feel the growing menace of racism in the pit of your stomach as you watch.
The film’s final confrontation is nothing less than a call to arms against oppression and provides one of the most dramatic and moving closing sequences in British cinema.
No wonder the BBC couldn’t handle it.
Babylon is distributed by Icon Home Entertainment and costs £19.99
Another DVD remastered version of the film is available in Britain from Italian distributors Raro Video. This package includes Rosso’s 1979 film Dread Beat an’ Blood, a documentary about reggae poet and musician Linton Kwesi Johnson. See » www.rarovideo.com
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