As the 1970s, a decade of immense upheaval in Britain, came to a close, three films exploring and, to a certain degree, defining the various and often contradictory aspects of what it meant (means) to be black and British astutely chronicled the changing face of youth politics and incipient popular culture, the impact of which has only truly been acknowledged through more recent and closer examination.
Horace Ové’s Pressure (1975, UK), the first feature film made by a black director in Britain, Menelik Shabazz’s Burning an Illusion (1981, UK) and most poignantly Franco Rosso’s Babylon (1980, UK/Italy) all contribute a telling insight into the changing face of Britain from a minority perspective, at a time when the traditional notions of class and politics were being fiercely debated and challenged. The films marked a paradigm shift in what it meant to be British, in the broadest sense, and how that affected notions of race and class identity. The films, in retrospect, would form a trilogy; highlighting some of the smouldering issues that were to become the major battlegrounds of the early Thatcher years.
With racial tensions finally erupting across Britain’s inner cities, in places like Toxteth, St Paul’s, Hansworth and the Notting Hill Carnival, Margaret Thatcher’s axiom ‘there’s no such thing as society’ seemed to ring particularly true for a whole generation of black British youth. It is this brooding undercurrent that informs Rosso’s film and makes it stand above so many of the overly romantic, retrospective portrayals of British youth culture such as Frank Rodman’s Quadrophenia (1979, UK), Isaac Julien’s Young Soul Rebels (1991, UK) or Nick Love’s The Football Factory (2004, UK).
The generational and cultural conflict between the optimistic, often middle-class, immigrant sensibilities of the Windrush generation, and the predominantly pessimistic, working-class notion of black Britishness, is steadily unfolded in Pressure and Burning an Illusion, yet it is Babylon, recounting the travels and travails of a small South London sound system, Ital Lion, and their struggle to make a name for themselves, that crucially identifies the formation of a unique and stridently militant identity amongst the first generation to fully have come of age under the banner of black Britain.
Central to the success of the movie is its intelligent and realistic depiction of reggae music and the cultural milieu provided by the sound system as the social building block of a new, disenfranchised generation of black youth caught in the no man’s land of a Diaspora culture, born in a country that many felt they could not claim as their own, yet separated from the ancestral homelands of their parents. The film is also one of the first to not only identify but, more importantly, fully embrace vernacular language, music and fashion. This was the springboard from which black British popular culture would become the driving force behind British youth culture as a whole, before the brand-laden and all-pervasive aspects of American hip-hop (itself beholden to the influence of the reggae sound system) became a global, commercial omnipresence.
Unlike a plethora of revisionist depictions of youth culture, Babylon captures the zeitgeist of the era, avoiding the grip of nostalgia, instead providing a harrowing yet ultimately uplifting account of a cultural and spiritual triumph over the adversities of poverty and overt racism (institutional and physical) that were still so ingrained in Thatcher’s England. Without resorting to the cliché of a Hollywood happy ending, with everyone learning the error of their ways, the film’s climax relies upon its lead characters looking inward to find an inner strength from which to build an identity.