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Babylon
cast: Karl Howman, Trevor Laird, Brinsley Forde, Brian Bovell, and Victor Romero Evans

director: Franco Rosso

91 minutes (15) 1980
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Icon DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Gary Couzens
It's often the case that the most 'authentic' films about minority groups are often made by non-minority filmmakers, their outsider eye often picking up aspects that an insider might overlook. Take Babylon for example: this Brixton-set and shot drama, with a mostly black cast, its dialogue thick with Jamaican patois (so much so that cinema prints went out with subtitles), pulsing to the off-beat rhythm of reggae, is often seen as one of the leading examples of black British cinema. Yet its director (Franco Rosso), its writers (Rosso, and Martin Stellman, the latter also the scriptwriter of Quadrophenia and Defence Of The Realm) and most of its crew were white. First-hand experience is one thing, but talent and accurate observation can pay dividends too.

The film has a loosely-wound plot, mostly following Blue (Brinsley Forde) and his friends Beefy (Trevor Laird) and white rasta Ronnie (Karl Howman). The storyline builds up to a sound-system battle between Blue's Ital Lion (music courtesy of Forde's own band, the future chart-toppers Aswad) and rival Jah Shaka. On the way, we build up a picture of young black life in the late 1970s, with unemployment and overt racism particularly prominent.

Babylon had a brief, arthouse cinema release in 1980 - the major cinema chains thought the film completely un-commercial, followed by a brief pre-Video Recordings Act release on VHS in the following year. It's had at least one TV showing, late night on Channel Four, but has been otherwise commercially unavailable until now. It's had a cult following since its release, circulating on bootlegged videotapes: partly because of its widely-touted authenticity in depicting a time and a place (London in the late 1970s - principal photography was in 1979), and also because of its reggae soundtrack.

Given that this is the Brixton of 30 years ago (though most of the film was shot in Deptford and Lewisham), hindsight affects the film. Of the major cast, Forde was the best known due to his having been a child actor. (Those of us of a certain age will remember him alongside Peter Firth in The Double Deckers.) However it's hard to see Karl Howman nowadays without thinking of his later sitcom success in Brush Strokes, and it's particularly hard to shake off future associations when Mel Smith turns up as the owner of the garage where Blue works. Also, society has changed - the overt racism displayed by many white characters here would be unacceptable nowadays. (We shouldn't be complacent about our tolerance; as the 2007 Celebrity Big Brother race-row informs us.)

On the other hand, Babylon stands up as a well-made film. It has an advantage over many other black British films - such as Horace Ové's Pressure and Menelik Shabazz's Burning An Illusion - by being shot in 35mm by an Oscar-winning DP, namely Chris Menges. Rosso's interest in the subject matter sprung from Dread, Beat An' Blood, a documentary he had made about Lynton Kwesi Johnson. Rosso has directed only one other feature, 1988's little-seen The Nature Of The Beast. Finding further features increasingly difficult to set up, he has concentrated on documentaries and commercials since.

Babylon has been digitally restored for this DVD release, and is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. If the film had been made a few years later its music might have benefited from a Dolby stereo soundtrack - but mono it was, and mono it remains. The hard-of-hearing subtitles translate everything: there is no separate option to subtitle dialogue in patois. The extras include a commentary (involving Rosso, Stellman, Forde and producer Gavrik Losey), a 31-minute Q&A from 2008 featuring the above plus several other cast members and critic Gaylene Gould, after a showing of the film at the BFI Southbank, and a restoration demonstration.
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