Thursday, April 18, 2019

Franco Rosso's Urban Reggae Anthem Babylon Makes Its Long-Awaited US Debut

Brinsley Forde and spliff
(Franco Rosso, 1980, UK, 95 minutes) 

"If he don't wanna go, force can't hold him."
--Blue (Brinsley Forde) explaining his little brother's truancy

The sharp-dressed men in Franco Rosso's feature-film debut, resplendent in snappy headgear and wool coats with a hint of swagger, spend much of their time moving sound systems from one end of South London to the other. Primarily of Jamaican descent, they're part of a scene that revolves around gambling, ganja, and reggae, heavy on the dub. The patois is so thick that the (helpfully subtitled) dialogue plays more like music than talk.

The loose-limbed plot centers on Blue (Aswad front man Brinsley Forde, wiry and intense) and Beefy (Trevor Laird, Quadrophenia). When they find a record they like, they bring it to their garage hangout, and skank with abandon. One night, they're having a bit too much fun when a white neighbor, a wan figure in a housecoat, bangs on their door, and hurls epithets in their direction: "coons," "jungle bunnies," "mango munchers"--you name it. London was lovely, she tells them, until they arrived. She might as well have been wearing a MAGA hat. "This is my fucking country," Beefy seethes, "and it's never been fucking lovely." He's right, of course.

Trevor Laird as the track suit-sporting Beefy
If the acting can be stiff at times, Laird's anger is so palpable that it's hard to imagine the actor didn't experience similar moments in his own life, particularly when Beefy pulls out a knife and attempts to charge after an especially hateful trio of bullies. His friends have to use all of their strength to hold him back, cautioning that the price he'll pay for getting his revenge won't be worth it. They're right, too.

The pattern repeats itself whenever the black men enter majority-white spaces, exemplified by a kinetic chase through dark, rain-soaked streets (the Italian-born director has a knack for positioning bodies in space).

If the film is devoid of sexual imagery, there's profanity, mild (ganja-specific) drug use, and non-explicit--but potentially deadly--violence. Nonetheless, the British Film Board slapped the dreaded X rating on Babylon, diminishing its exposure in the United Kingdom and ensuring that it wouldn't open in the United States until almost four decades later.

This 2019 release feels uncomfortably apt. Between Donald Trump in the US and Theresa May in the UK, black people are still easy targets for bitter, resentful whites who vote against their own best interests, fail to learn from their mistakes, and go out of their way to inflict their misery on everyone they can, but especially those more vulnerable than themselves.

Then, just when it seems as if the dis-
tinction be-
tween the two camps couldn't be more stark, Blue watches in horror as his friends partic-
ipate in an act of homophobic violence. They want money, a white man has it, and they'll do whatever it takes to get it, even using his sexual orientation against him. "Money's money, innit, mate," his friend reasons. Moments later, Blue shows that he's just as capable of the same twisted logic when he threatens his lonely, neglected girlfriend.

By the end, the crew even doubts the loyalty of Ronnie (Karl Howman, Brush Strokes, Eastenders), their sole white member. Maybe he's different than the rest, maybe he isn't, but how can they be sure? If the film is refreshingly free of firearms, the knife in the first act becomes the Chekhov's Gun of the third when the anger that's been steadily accumulating culminates in the sort of vengeance the group had previously prevented.

Throughout, composer Denis Bovell's dense waves of sound saturate the scenario as surely as Tangerine Dream's pervasive score for Michael Mann's Thief (other artists on the soundtrack include I-Roy and Yabby U).

Combined with the rich, velvety imagery of Oscar-winning cinematog-
rapher Chris Menges (Kes, Local Hero, The Good Thief), who oversaw the new restoration, South London comes across as beautiful and foreboding, suspended somewhere between romantic dream and treacherous night-
mare. You may want to visit, but you certainly wouldn't want live there.

Unfortunately, many do live in such places, and escape routes for the poor and powerless are no more readily available now than they were then. Babylon is hardly a feel-good proposition, but it captures the highs--the music, the camaraderie--and lows--the homophobia, the misogyny--of an underrepresented scene with lacerating, you-are-fucking-there precision.

Babylon plays SIFF Film Center Friday, Apr 19, through Sunday, Apr 21.  

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