BY AFRA NARIMAN
Directed By: Franco Rosso
Stars: Brinsley Forde, Trevor Laird, Karl Howman, Brian Bovell
A young Jamaican man named Blue, navigates the streets of Brixton in the year 1980. He and his friends participate in the underground dub-sound reggae scene. Throughout the film, as they prepare for a final matchup in a dub-sound reggae contest, where Blue is a Mic controller (main performer), Blue is challenged by obstacles in his daily life, including family struggles and job-insecurity. The film is centered around showcasing the racial tension present in 1980’s London, which is highlighted in the movie by the group of friends encountering racist neighbors, employers, and the brutality inflicted by the Babylon (the police, or the “establishment”).
Babylon is a story about music, culture, race and friendship. Blue (played by Brinsley Forde), and his friends are Jamaican-borns living in 1980 Brixton, who stick together despite the ongoing racism that they face in their everyday lives. If you watch this film, you’ll enjoy the story that it tells about friendship and about music, but it does so much more than that. It is a politically powerful story about the frustrations felt by black Jamaicans who are constantly oppressed in the workplace and in life, by their neighbors and the police in London.
In their community, there is one place that is free of the ongoing prejudice and racism that they encounter everyday: the underground dance floor where they hold their weekly dub-sound reggae contest. The film practically begins and ends there. Throughout the week in-between the two performances, a lot happens. Blue is fired from his job and his boss uses extremely racist language on his way out. Later, Blue and his friends encounter a group of racist neighbors who harass them, use extremely racist terms towards them and even throw glass at them from an above balcony. During a separate confrontation, one neighbor says to them, “this was a lovely area before you came here.” One of Blue’s friends, Beefy, replies to her, “This is my country, lady and it’s never been lovely…” This exchange is a significant moment of the film because it outlines, in part, the mindset of the racist-bigots that appear frequently throughout the story. Additionally, later in the film, Blue is also attacked, beaten and arrested unjustly by the police, which are referred to as Babylon. The tension between the friends and their neighbors only rise as the film progresses. Beefy, who is the most hot-headed of the group, almost retaliates early on the film, before Blue and their friend Ronnie, stop him.
At a pivotal moment in the film, Blue returns to their garage to find that their racist neighbors have broken in and destroyed much of their equipment and belongings, leaving behind extremely racist and hateful graffiti on their walls. This comes at the end of a week where Blue had lost his job and been called racist names on the way out, his neighbors called him and his friends the same, hateful names, they threw glass at them, he was wrongfully beaten and arrested by the police, left home to venture off by himself and he had recently lost his girlfriend. He felt broken, void of all hope. A blanket of uncertainty and frustration had already wrapped him up. Throughout the film, he had been the moral compass of the audience. He didn’t feel comfortable with violence, as evidenced in the scene where a couple of his peers beat and rob a white man outside of a casino, and Blue voiced his disapproval. At every turn, he chose to do the right thing. He never reacted out of anger, despite all of the racist bigotry that he dealt with on an everyday basis. But at this point, he had had enough. In a moment of uncertainty and anger at the world around him, he proceeds to stab the racist neighbor who had been harassing him and his friends all week. Overcome by fear, anger and worry, Blue immeditely leaves the scene and heads for the dub-reggae competition, where he is due to perform.
The gist of the powerful message that is the overarching theme of the story is said to us, through Blue’s lyrics in the final, closing scene performance at the end of the film.
Rastafari, the religion and way of life, has a huge role in the film as well. At his lowest moment, Blue visits a Church of Jah Rastafari and speaks to a Rastafarian priest, who notices that Blue seems to be carrying the weight of all the world’s troubles on his shoulders. This is one of the most historically educational parts of the film. The priest goes on to explain the plight of the Jamaican people: The Babylonian triangle of captivity, from Africa to Jamaica to England. He explains to Blue that “all of them roads that man take, all of them journeys that man make, is but deceptions and vanities.” He explains that these vanities keep people from being able to step forward out of Babylon; a society, referring to the “system” or “establishment,” that has oppressed black people through bigotry and racism, namely in England. Getting historical context is always important for films that deal with political and social issues. The interaction with the priest proves to have a deep impact on Blue, in that it confirms his frustration with the world around him; a world that seems to want nothing more than to get rid of him. The monologue of the priest, who earlier in the film, preached “One Love,” elegantly put things into perspective for Blue. It was shortly after, that he returned to find their garage vandalized and proceeded to confront the racist neighbor.
When I watched this film for the first time, I couldn’t help but relate it to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Both address the realities of racial tensions and the effects that racism has on communities of color. Much like in Do the Right Thing, the main character of Babylon, Blue, is the one who takes action at the end and does something controversial in response to a hate crime. Lee’s reasoning for doing so in his film was that he wanted his character, who was the most relatable, to be the one to react that way, in order to breed discussion amongst the audience members. It seems that in Babylon, Rosso aimed for the same effect. Blue had been the most relatable character in the film. We witnessed his family life and his love life. As I alluded to earlier, during other pivotal scenes, Blue was the film’s moral compass. Until he did at the end, he constantly refrained from reacting out of anger to the racism and bigotry that he so often encountered. It would have been more predictable if Beefy’s character had done it, because Beefy had tried before. But having Blue, who was partly responsible for stopping Beefy from doing the same thing earlier in the film, be the one who ultimately stabs the racist neighbor, sparks a level of conversation. It also feeds into Blue’s character development and story arch, highlighting his accumulating frustration and his loss of patience in the racist world that he is forced to deal with.
After committing the attack on his neighbor, Blue rushes to the dub-reggae competition, in search for an escape from his bleak reality. Art, for any artist, is both a form of expression and a form of escape. Blue’s reluctance to stop singing after the police (or Babylon) arrive, showcase that sentiment of escape. He had just stabbed somebody, he had lost his girlfriend, his job – the world seemed as hopeless as ever, and the future as uncertain as ever. Lost in the music, Blue continued to express his feelings of oppression and frustration. Everything that we witnessed Blue and his friends encounter throughout the film, everything we learned through the Rastafarian priest’s speech and what we know about the history of racism in not only England, but the world is expressed through Blue’s lyrics:
"We can't take no more of that... Cause we know, it's 400 years, and it's the same kind of living: Brutality, hypocrisy, same immorality... Because we know you can't fool the youth no more. Jah Jah teach the youth the right and true and true way. Then you say every man shall pay, according to the rules of Babylon..."
Dealing with racism had become routine for him, but the film showed how even for the most level-headed person, there is a limit to how much hate a human being can take. By the end of the film, it seemed that Blue was drowning in frustration and hopelessness. The ongoing racist bigotry that Blue deals with everyday led to him reaching that limit. By showing us what Blue and his friends went through, the racism and bigotry that they encountered, and how the frustration of it slowly became more and more overwhelming, the film sends the message to all of us that we need to do our part in changing those around us and the world we all live in. Much like Lee’s Do the Right Thing, this film fulfills German philosopher Bertolt Brecht’s notion that thesaterical art should bring light to a social or political issue and outrage the audience to the point that they are motivated to do something about it. In this context, Babylon is immensely powerful and culturally needed.
The film was written beautifully. The story is powerful, engaging and entertaining. The progression of the characters and events, and the escalation of the film felt natural; and every scene felt important. Rosso did a wonderful job as director. Additionally, the film’s sound-mixing and music is brilliant; the way the music is controlled by what is depicted on screen is wonderfully entertaining and beautifully done. Accompanied by the rich, groovy reggae music that we hear playing throughout the film, Babylon has a lively vibration to it; discussing something serious and sinister, while keeping us entertained through good music, meaningful friendships and occasional comedy. In short, Babylon is as real as movies can get. Although not as well known to many in the U.S, this is one of those iconic films that means something. Babylon is a culturally and politically relevant, and important film that everybody should see. And if you have already seen it, watch it again. It’s that good!