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Reggae Britannia: Cult classic ‘Babylon’ deals pure wickedness
03:20 pm



Babylon is a totally engrossing 1980 British film that is set against the UK reggae and “sound system” culture of South London’s then predominantly West Indian neighborhood, Brixton.

It stars Brinsley Forde, the lead singer of Aswad as “Blue.” Martin Stellman (Quadrophenia) originally co-wrote the screenplay with director Franco Rosso as a teleplay for the BBC in 1975. The soundtrack was scored by Slits producer Dennis Bovell and featured music by Aswad (their killer “Warrior Charge” number, which figures in the plot of the film), Yabby U, I Roy, Michael Prophet and others. Babylon was shot by Oscar- winning cinematographer Chris Menges (The Mission; The Killing Fields).

From the (region free) UK DVD:

Sound system ‘toaster’ Blue and his Ital Lion crew are looking forward to a soundclash competition with rival outfit Jah Shaka. But as the event approaches, Blue’s personal life begins to unravel. Fired from his job, he begins to suspect his girlfriend is cheating on him and then one night he is brutally beaten by plainclothes policemen. Finally, when their lock-up garage is broken into and their sound system destroyed, he cannot take any more. Increasingly angered and alienated by what he perceives to be society’s rejection of his race and his culture, Blue is compelled to respond by fighting fire with fire.

Babylon is a real treat and considered a classic today. The soundclash scene with Jah Shaka near the film’s end is just a flat-out great piece of filmmaking. Babylon was difficult to see until it was released on DVD in 2008, but it’s made a strong comeback since then, with prestigious screenings and a BBC broadcast as part of the “Reggae Britannia” season.

Certainly it’s a unique film, the only one of its kind to examine the harsh life of Jamaican immigrants in London during that time. Babylon represents the first time in UK cinema where British reggae culture and Rastafarianism were explored in a non-documentary. Director Rosso was raised in south London himself and knew exactly where to find visually arresting backdrops of urban decay in Brixton and Deptford.

Keep reading after the jump…

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
The Brixton Riots: 30 years later

Thirty years ago today, the famous Brixton riot of spring 1981 brought the long-simmering issues of class, race and police repression to the front pages and TV screens of England.

Brixton was definitely not the first sign of racial unrest in the Thatcher era. A police raid on the Black & White Café in Bristol’s economically hard-hit St. Pauls district the year before had led to a day-long riot among Caribbean youth. And police apathy in investigating a fire at a party on New Cross Road in early ’81 fuelled the notion in South London’s black community that their lives were perceived by the cops as worthless.

In the days before things jumped off in Brixton’s Lambeth area on April 10, cops had launched the charmingly named Operation Swamp 81 in an attempt to curb local robbery and burglary. Over a week, officers stopped almost 1,000 mostly black people—including three members of the Lambeth Community Relations Council—and arrested 118.

Combined with the extremely high unemployment rate among Brixton’s sons and daughters of the Windrush generation of Caribbean immigrants, and the rise of organized white racist activism, the community’s temperature was at peak. As one of the youths put it in one of the films below: “Jobs, money, then National Front…something was bound to happen.” Confusion and bad-faith rumors around police involvement around a stabbing incident was all it took to set off two days of fighting.

The implications of the multiracial Brixton riot unfolded throughout the subsequent summer of that year in Handsworth, Chapletown and Toxteth. Despite the improvements and gentrification that Brixton has seen since ’81, the place hasn’t been free of unrest.

In 2001, director Rachel Currie produced The Battle for Brixton, one of the authoritative video chronicles of the revolt, for the First Edition program.

Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6
After the jump: on-the-ground footage from community members, and Brixton’s impact on music.

Posted by Ron Nachmann | Leave a comment