Brinsley Forde, Karl Howman, Trevor Laird, Brian Bovell, Victor Romero Evans, Archie Pool, T-Bone Wilson, Mel Smith, Beverly Michaels, Stefan Kalipha, Mark Monero, David Cunningham
Directed by Franco Rosso
When Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” was released in 1989 it became a voice for urban black America as it explored racial tensions with brutal honesty. Public Enemy’s anthem “Fight the Power” blazed through the opening credits with Rosie Perez throwing punches to the hip hop beat. Make no mistake this was Mr. Lee’s call-to-action.
Almost a decade earlier, Franco Rosso’s “Babylon” served as a voice for young black Londoners as it addressed racial tensions with a fearless vigor set amidst the reggae dancehall scene. But unlike Lee’s film, “Babylon” faced a significant amount of suppression as it was deemed “too controversial” and “likely to incite racial tension.” The film was banned in America (I guess in 1980 we weren’t ready for a British version of “Do the Right Thing”) and U.K. censors gave it an X-rating ensuring that anyone under 18 wouldn’t be able to see the film.
Now, on the eve of the film’s 40th anniversary, “Babylon” is finally in U.S. theaters after undergoing a new restoration under the supervision of the film’s Director of Photography, Chris Menges who went on to win Oscars for his cinematography in 1984’s “The Killing Fields” and 1986’s “The Mission.”
Brinsley Forde, founding member of the British Reggae group Aswad, plays Blue, a mechanic by day and a deejay with the Ital Lion soundsystem by night. Here in the U.S. the DJ spins the records and provides the beats while the MC raps over the music or serves as the hype man. The DJ or “deejay” role in reggae is like America’s hip hop MC who rhymes over the beats but in the reggae or “Dub” scene the deejay raps over instrumental versions of preexisting songs while adding reverb and phaser sound effects, this is called “ridding the riddims.”
“Babylon” opens in Thatcher-era South London in a warehouse filled with ecstatic party goers bopping to the groove as Blue drops rhymes over the dub track, the scene reminiscent of a rave. As the crowd chants “Lion! Lion!” the host announces that the Ital Lion crew have made it to the finals. Next week they’ll have to battle dub legend Jah Shaka but if the crowd’s fervor is any indication Blue’s crew have it in the bag.
Rosso’s film takes place over a week between the two Dub battles. Blue and his mates which include best friend Ronnie (Karl Howman), the only white member of the gang, Scientist (Brian Bovell), Dreadhead (Archie Pool), and Errol (David. N. Haynes) go about the week hanging at the arcade, celebrating a friend’s engagement, and stealing speakers from schools for their soundsystem, a mobile disco complete with bass bins, speaker cabinets, turntable, and various audio equipment like the Roland RE-201 Space Echo effects unit.
In the late 70s/early 80s poverty and racism was a daily struggle for these young black Londoners as displayed in scenes that include various white business owners and neighbors using ethnic slurs when referring to Blue and his friends. No surprise that the police often targeted these men based on the color of their skin. During the film’s climactic Dub Battle we witness police with sledgehammers busting down the entrance to the warehouse just as the music reaches a fever pitch. That scene was based on an actual event.
The violence in the film and ethnic slurs seem tame compared to contemporary films and certainly not worthy of an X-rating. Here in the America the film would have probably been rated PG since the PG-13 rating was still 4 years from coming into existence (Patrick Swayze’s “Red Dawn” was the first film released with the new rating). Still, the racism portrayed in the film is no different than the prejudice on display today, almost 40 years later.
Written by Martin Stellman (“Quadrophenia”) and featuring a soundtrack boasting Aswad, Johnny Clarke, Yabby You, Cassandra, I-Roy, and Michael Prophet, “Babylon” is a significant piece of cinema that is finally getting the respect it deserves. The new restoration features subtitles on certain scenes where the Jamaican Patois is hard to understand. “Babylon” is an entertaining and culturally significant film that exposes much more than the world of reggae dancehall. It’s a fitting companion piece to Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.”
(3 ½ stars)