In terms of Black British cinema, Franco Rosso’s 1980 feature falls between Black Joy (1977) and Burning an Illusion (1981) both chronologically and in its approach. Black Joy was lightweight, a romp almost, whereas Burning an Illusion was intensely political, and Babylon captures elements of both. Following Blue (Brinsley Forde) during the build-up to a soundsystem clash between his own Ital Lion and rivals Jah Shaka, it touches on themes of racism, unemployment and more general coming of age dramas, but does so with a lightness of touch. He’s not a political character, as it were, though this subtly increases throughout the film’s duration, and for the most part Babylon is happy just to follow him as he hangs out with his mates. In some respects it also serves as a corrective to Black Joy, being a more authentic portrayal of black experience at the tail-end of the seventies replete with strong language, liberal drug use and the patois which saw initial prints of the film accompanied with subtitles.
We had been here before with Horace Ové’s groundbreaking 1975 feature Pressure, an altogether rawer experience. Rosso and Ové had worked together previously, most notably when Rosso edited his 1970 documentary on the Caribbean Music Festival held at Wembley, Reggae, and there are further connections. Babylon was initially mooted as a BBC Play for Today - just as had made The Garland and Hole in Babylon for the strand shortly after Pressure - until the Corporation got cold feet promoting Rosso and co-writer Martin Stellman (who also penned Quadrophenia and Defence of the Realm) to consider it instead as a feature film project. Yet in retrospect the BBC’s decision feels slightly misplaced as this is a fairly conventional work, more so than Pressure or Burning an Illusion, and arguably more professional. During both the commentary and accompanying Q&A session, Rosso and Stellman are continually at pains to inform us that the script was fully developed and stuck to throughout, give or take some variations in dialect, whilst Chris Menges’ photography further adds a polished sheen as you would expect. If this means Babylon perhaps lacks the edge of Pressure then it may also explain its cult appeal and why this DVD should come eagerly awaited (barring the inferior disc issued by Raro Video in 2007). Certainly it’s far more palatable than Ové’s film, Burning an Illusion or more obscure (and still to the see the light of day on disc) titles such as Maggie Pinhorn’s Tunde’s Film from 1973.
If this sounds like I’m damning Babylon with feint praise then perhaps this is true to an extent. By not connecting with the political issues as overtly as the films noted above its narrative does risk lacking in weight or force. Indeed, only in the final third, when we witness elements of police brutality and violence on both sides (with implicit homophobia also thrown into the mix), does the picture genuinely kick into gear and gain a sense of urgency. And yet to focus on such issues would be an injustice towards the delights found elsewhere. Whilst the narrative may meander a little in its first hour, it is nonetheless fuelled by a terrific dub soundtrack courtesy of Dennis Bovell (note that Babylon was released the same year as Rude Boy and The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle and is equally deserving of recognition as a key musical document of the era) and the amiable lead performance of Forde, clearly building on his background as a child actor, most famously in kids’ show The Double Deckers, even though his success with Aswad, who also contribute here, would lead him another direction. He’s effectively the liberal conscience at the centre of Babylon but never lets such concerns burden his presence, switching nimbly from the comic to the serious without forcing the issue. Furthermore, he’s backed by a terrific ensemble, some more familiar than others perhaps, but each embodying their roles fully – only Karl Howman gets tainted by his subsequent television work (Brush Strokes, etc.), though the filmmakers can hardly shoulder the blame for this one. One particular surprise is Mel Smith cropping up pre-comic fame and pulling of a tiny role exceptionally well, allowing his character’s latent racism to sneak up unannounced.
It’s also worth noting that Babylon, together with Pressure, Black Joy and Burning an Illusion, marked only a small flourish in Black British cinema, effectively petering out soon afterwards. Rosso returned to documentary filmmaking (1988’s The Nature of the Beast being his only subsequent feature – a kind of white flipside to the concerns of Babylon), Ové produced one more key work in Playing Away (1986), and Menelik Shabazz, director of Burning an Illusion, found work mostly in television. Indeed, most of those involved with these films continued to work albeit in a more diffuse manner and unable to produce works of the same resonance or immediacy. As such Babylon’s status as a key British film cannot be underestimated and, despite some of my reservations, proves to be terrifically entertaining. Furthermore, it more than deserves shelf space alongside the BFI DVD editions of Pressure and Burning an Illusion - a collective sign of vibrant of British filmmaking that disappeared all too quickly. Perhaps the current crop, from Bullet Boy to Noel Clarke’s efforts, can bring about a genuine movement these titles somehow failed to achieve.
Considering that Babylon was blighted by poor distribution on its initial release, it’s somewhat surprising to see Icon, as opposed to a smaller label such as the BFI’s distribution wing or Second Run, releasing the film onto disc. A pleasing side effect of this is that it has been treated to an absolutely superb restoration, one that genuinely brings out the qualities of Menges’ photography and Bovell’s soundtrack. Given that the film has been barely seen over the years, it’s remarkable to see it for the first time in such fine condition: the print is flawless with no damage, minimal grain in only a handful of scenes and the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio restored. (I’m unable to verify but the listing on Raro’s website states that their disc was 4:3.) The soundtrack similarly sounds as fresh as when it was first released, the original stereo sounding as full as many a more elaborate mix, adeptly handling both the dialogue and music. Optional English HOH subtitles also make an appearance and it’s interesting to see how they occasionally edit or adapt the patois into more easily decipherable words. (Unfortunately there’s no indication as to whether these follow exactly the subs which appeared on cinema prints, if so then there’s an added intrigue here.)
As for extras none of those which appeared on the Raro disc appear here, which means we’re sadly missing Rosso’s 1979 BBC documentary on Linton Kwesi Johnson, Dread Beat an’ Blood. However, we do find an all-new commentary from Rosso, Stellman, Forde and producer Gavrik Losey plus a Q&A, filmed at the BFI Southbank especially for this disc, which finds the quartet joined by Dennis Bovell, critic Gaylene Gould and actors T Bone Wilson, Brian Bovell, Mark Monero. In both cases we get plenty of discussion of Babylon’s influences, its production and the word of mouth it stirred up. Soon, however, things become more informal and ramshackle, but this proves to be a good thing. The anecdotes thus begin to flow and the level of insight is perhaps greater than a more formal approach would have allowed. Needless to say both end up being highly enjoyable for the very same reasons. The final addition is a breakdown of the restoration process and although brief it does show up just how good this film now looks. Babylon would have been a worthwhile purchase almost regardless of its presentation, but coming across as it does here there’s no reason to give it a second thought.