In a Brixton basement somewhere, the little LCD clock hanging precariously on the wall above the speaker stacks vibrates with the same heavy bassline that moves everything else around it: the walls, the people, culture; it reverberates so much that the time it is supposed to show is rendered illegible, a thing of no consequence.
Set in the pre-gentrified soundscape of Brixton, tuned in to the bass frequencies of the black community resisting in apnoea under the repressive yet unstable surface of British history at a critical juncture of its development, Babylon is a shamefully forgotten masterpiece of (British) cinema. The magic of the film comes from the brilliantly orchestrated transposition onto celluloid of the socially conscious culture fostered by the sound systems, back in the Caribbeans, and later in England; here the MC is replaced by the filmmaker, the microphone by a camera, and the physicality of the bass is rendered through the livid intensity of the images.
Rarely screened after its release and never issued before on DVD, Babylon was directed by Franco Rosso, an Italian immigrant who considers England his home. It is perhaps his status as an outsider that allowed the director such an empathetic, insightful look into a culture that he felt close to, and that he believed needed to be represented on film in order to be preserved from the homogenising tentacles of the establishment.
Institutions were indeed far from tolerant, let alone understanding. The BBC refused to produce the film while The Guardian‘s Molara Ogundipe-Leslie criticised Franco Rosso for not being best placed to provide an accurate description of the black community: ‘If there are funds for the making of such films as Babylon, should they not be awarded to black film-makers? Or, could non-black film-makers work more closely at the conceptual level with black artists and intellectuals who know their people better and who can define their own reality more truthfully?’ As the shooting began the unions refused to accept the labour of young Jamaican workers not unionised (interestingly enough, Melvin Van Peebles experienced a similar problem on the set of Sweetback).
But when the London screens were taken over by the lights and sounds pounding out of this cinematic sound-clash, the response was solid and righteous, the black community liked it, and those outside were, as Rosso put it, ‘forced to, for a very short time, accept and open the doors’ (interview by Dave Philips in the first and only issue of New Britain).
The story of the vicissitudes and frustrations of young people faced with an intolerant British society, Babylon remains as uncompromising as it was back in 1980, with time adding an extra layer of historical significance to the film. Babylon – the sinful capital of consumerism and corruption for Rastafarians – is the backdrop for the daily life of Blue (played by the lead singer of Aswad Brinsley Forde) and his Ital Lion crew in the run-up to a sound-system battle against the rival group Jah Shaka. In only 95 minutes, the film manages to expose the audience to the daily injustices suffered by ethnic minorities through its wide range of characters and situations while avoiding any moralising bombast. As the story progresses, Blue finds himself increasingly stranded on the margins of society and his plight is representative of a whole generation of black people told to ‘go back home’ after having been exploited for cheap labour; but, as one of the characters points out: ‘this is my fucking home!’
Against the Sus law, the racism of the National Front and the cowardly silence of progressive liberals, the only weapon left to the characters of Babylon is the music, and they wield the subwoofer as a political tool to fight the violent bigotry of British society. As a result, the soundtrack in Babylon represents more than a mere melodic accompaniment and functions as a narrative device punctuating the montage, becoming part of the materiality of the film and subverting its usual role of comment ‘lost’ between the expressive content and the stylistic form of the film.
The DVD comes with the documentary Dread, Beat an’ Blood as an extra. Also directed by Rosso, this documentary portrays the art and times of insurgent dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, a friend of the director and his guide to the sound systems scene. The Babylon DVD presents essential views whose long unavailability should make us reflect upon the inestimable value that different cultures could represent in a real multi-cultural society.>
Celluloid Liberation Front