Franco Rosso’s 1980 Babylon—deemed too controversial for U.S. release at the time—portrays the brutal racism, violence, and austerity of Thatcher-era London through the eyes of Caribbean teenagers bound together by a love of Jamaican music and sound system culture. The film systematically lays bare the legacy of colonialism that governs the lives of these kids: a white boss fires Blue, the group’s de facto leader, under racist pretenses; the crew are subjected to constant harassment from white neighbors; and, in one of the film’s most powerful sequences, a team of cops arbitrarily beat and arrest Blue for the crime of being out too late. At one point, a character named Beefy, the goofball jock of the group, screams back at his white, nativist tormentors, “This is my country!”, summarizing the contradictions at the heart of these characters’ lives. Ultimately, level-headed Blue (Brinsley Forde of the British reggae group Aswad) finally loses his cool and lashes out at the bleak, oppressive world that hangs like a poisonous industrial fog over the lives of these young black men. Of course, retribution from the state is swift, and strikes at what the teens hold most dear: their sound system and their music.
For these kids—as for the street punks of A Brighter Summer Day—music is one of the few bright spots in their lives. Babylon delivers the goods in that department, featuring a soundtrack laden with the heavy reggae and dub that Blue and his friends blast out of their massive portable sound-system. These cavernous, dusty jams—tracks by artists like British producer Dennis Bovell, soul man Johnny Clarke, and roots godhead Yabby You—provide a sanctuary and a spiritual refuge for these youth in revolt. Our Film Comment Playlist builds off of that original soundtrack, blending British and Jamaican dub and reggae tracks that evoke the themes and vibes of the film. Drop that digital needle, and chant down Babylon…
Babylon screens March 8 through 14 at BAM.
Clinton Krute is Film Comment’s digital editor.