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.
From the DVD:
Sound system ‘toaster’ Blue and his Ital Lion crew are looking forward to a sound clash competition with rival outfit Jah Shaka. But as the event approaches, Blue’s personal life begins to unravel. Fired from his job, he beings to suspect his girlfriend is cheating on him and then one night he is brutally beaten by plain-clothes 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 stars Brinsley Forde, the lead singer of Aswad as “Blue.” Martin Stellman (Quadrophenia) co-wrote the screenplay with director Franco Rosso. The soundtrack was scored by Slits producer Dennis Bovell and featured music by Aswad (their killer “Warrior Charge” number), Yabby U, I Roy, Michael Prophet and others. Babylon was shot by Oscar winning cinematographer Chris Menges (The Mission; The Killing Fields).
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 film-making. 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.
I lived in Brixton in 1983-84 myself—where I saw Aswad play live many, many times and walked past a couple of outdoor Jah Shaka parties that I probably would not have been all that welcome at (his PA system was so loud it felt like the music was thicker than the air, like some kind of dub humidity)—so I was always curious to see this film. It did not disappoint. Babylon perfectly evokes the growing racial tensions—and intense feelings of doom—of inner city London life during the late 70s/early 80s that ultimately culminated in the fiery Brixton riots. Highly recommended.
Mel Smith, seen in the still-frame below, has a small role as Blue’s racist employer.