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DVD Review: Babylon (1980)


Before hip hop hit the UK, before we all waved our hands in the air (like we just don't care) at raves and more significantly, before the Brixton riots, there was Babylon. Missing, presumed lost, the movie has now been superbly restored and reissued, offering up an important document of the era, as well as being a cracking slice of 80s Brit cinema for anyone with a smallest interest in British street culture.

Babylon is primarily a tale of one man (Blue), but it's also the tale of Brixton in the early 80s, specifically the story of second-generation black Londoners, stuck in an area of high unemployment, high crime and low investment. From the opening minutes, you can see the area crumbling in front of your eyes in just about every scene. Yet it all starts on a high.


That 'high' is the dancefloor of a sound system party - reggae grooves, drugs and wall-to-wall dancing. No, the raves hadn't hit, but the warehouse parties were already alive and well in Brixton. The man toasting on the mic is Blue (Brinsley Forde), fronting the Ital Lion Crew. But his day job is less glamourous, working long hours for a racist garage boss (played by Mel Smith). When he complains, he gets the boot, taking his life on a downward spiral. After being chased by plain-clothed police officers, Blue gets a good kicking and a criminal charge (effectively for walking the streets at night) and he's forced to leave home. He also suspects his long-term girlfriend is playing away. The final straw comes when the lock-up containing the Ital Crew's gear gets raided and wrecked by national front sympathisers, just before the crew are due to take on their Shaka rivals. Blue takes the issue into his own hands - inviting a heavy-handed response from the all-too-keen coppers.

It's a fascinating and incredibly well-made movie that builds over the 95 minutes to create that bleak picture of the world in which it is set - a society riddled with racism, plagued by police with little or no respect for the area's inhabitants and an area slowly dying and decaying through a lack of investment and employment. It's not afraid to pull its punches either, portraying the underside of both black and white communities, including the drug dealing and mugging of the black street gangsters.

Some great performances from the likes of Brinsley Forde, Karl Howman (as 'white boy' crew member Ronnie) and Quadrophenia's Trevor Laird as Beefy, but the cast is just half the story. Just as important for the end product is the behind the scenes crew. The cinematography from Chris Menges really does bring home the grime and decay of the streets. The script and characterisation is superb, mixing street talk and style (dig those Gabiccis) with cutting one-liners, but above all, it's the direction Franco Rosso makes Babylon something special. Watch as the layers of doom and desperation are added over every scene, building a picture of hopelessness and frustration - with the occasional chink of light, more often than not provided by the sound system gatherings. Which reminds me, the soundtrack is dynamite.

A lazy last paragraph would be to call this a reggae Quadrophenia (indeed it was co-written by Quad movie scribe Martin Stellman and does have more than the odd similarity in tale and tone). But Babylon is a very different movie. It's a movie with more realism, it's a movie with more bite and it's a movie that captures a unique moment in time. Possibly one of the most important British movies of the modern era and a movie that should be in your collection. You'll be quoting it for weeks.

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