Babylon: out now on DVD
*This review contains a spoiler*
Babylon is London, 1980. Where Ital Lion soundsystem carve out and existence on the streets of the capital. They work, rave, shoot pool, meet girls, get engaged and daub their own graffiti on streets already lined with the emblem of National Front.
Blue is central to Ital and his journey is central to the stories Babylon plays host to. He cannot control his little brother because his little brother wants to grow up to be just like him. He cannot please father because his father wants his eldest son to grow up to be just like him. He is left with his friends, but they don’t want to grow up at all (one of his friends, Lover, is hours late for his own engagement party).
The best mate is Ronnie, a white kid from south London who defies convention of the time by embracing Jamaican culture as his own. Blue and Ronnie are thick as thieves and at times, display a friendship without dilemma or uncertainty.
It is an illusion; not even they can escape the differences between them. Ronnie might live in Lewisham but he doesn’t live in Babylon like Blue.
In Babylon, black men get sacked from jobs for resisting unfairness, whilst white men get to pull sick days because they can’t handle the high grade they were smoking the night before. In Babylon, SUS laws mean a black man can get arrested for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Ronnie is rational in the face of this ignorance, but name calling and police discrimination are easy to denounce. Does Ronnie really understand what a society like this takes from people like Blue?
When he uses Jamaican language after the soundsystem is destroyed by National Front vandals, (“Cho man we dealing pure wickedness”), he takes one of the last things Ital have left. In response, the hot-headed Beefy nuts him square in the nose. “Don’t talk black, white boy, talk white!” Imitation is not the finest form of flattery, in this case, it’s an affront.
Babylon is a cult British movie for a good reason. Firstly, anyone who says multi-cultralism is a failed experiment would do well to watch Babylon and ponder the ways in which multi-cultralism has failed. If Babylon was to be made today half of Ital would be mixed race and the token white kid would have a voice by which his ethnicity could not be determined. Black youth these days are more likely to be scared of each other than the Met.
It is more than entertainment, it is history on film. As Dennis Bovell notes in the Q and A in the extras, the police invasion of the soundclash that closes the movie happened to him. He was on trial at the Crown Court, with murderers and rapists. He was up for affray. Dennis Bovell, the black British song-writing legend, spent six months in jail because the judge read the jury’s verdict incorrectly. If it wasn’t so tragic, the story would be laughable.
I think Babylon’s intent was to record the segregation of inner city London. Blue visits a much frequented pool hall alone at one point, but can’t go in because it’s full of white people. There aren’t any white characters sympathetic to black people in the whole movie. The one character you could call ‘sympathetic’ no doubt changed his mind after he is led up a dark alley and mugged by Blue’s friends. And finally, we come to Ronnie and Blue, black and white, friends for a least a decade. Yet all they have in common is material. By the end of the film Blue is unemployed and has stabbed a stranger. Scenarios alien to Ronnie, who begs his friends to show restraint under provocation. These details are not cinematic exaggeration, they are fact, proven by the Brixton Riots that erupted three months after the film’s release.
Halfway through the movie, Ronnie’s mother says the area used to be nice before ‘they’ came along. Beefy disagrees. “I was born here and it’s always been shit!” Ronnie’s mother has a selective memory, specifically to aid her prejudice. Now Britain has a selective memory, specifically to aid its tolerance. Perhaps this is why work like Babylon is often forgotten. Life in the cities of Britain used to be really shit and even though we’ve moved on, the release of Babylon on DVD is a reminder for us all.