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‘Babylon’ Rising: The Resurrection of a Controversial U.K. Reggae Movie

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There’s a scene in Babylon, the 1980 cult classic considered by many to be the great U.K. reggae movie, where a bunch of Brixton residents gather together in a rehearsal space. It’s the meeting place for their up-and-coming sound system, named Ital Lion; one of them has just procured a new dub from a shady record-store owner, who claims to have received the track “straight from the J.” (That’d be Jamaica.) The “harder than steel” tune is going to be their secret weapon when the Lion crew goes up against one of their biggest rivals, the real-life pioneer of the scene Jah Shaka, in a few nights. Blue, the movie’s everydread hero and one of the collective’s D.J.s, drops the needle on the record. Aswad’s “Warrior Charge,” all horn blasts and thumping bass, comes blasting out of the speakers. The entire group starts nodding their heads. One of them grabs a video camera that’s roughly the size of a V.W. bug. Spliffs are lit. Suddenly, everyone begins spontaneously dancing and jumping around.

For a single minute, the men listening to the song — all of which, except for one token white hipster, are black — forget about their low-paying day jobs, their pressures at home, the cops and local National Front goons that hassle them, the fact that they are made to feel like outsiders in their own neighborhood. They are completely, joyously lost in the music. They are in the song. Then a woman begins banging on the garage door. They’re people trying to sleep ’round here, she screams, and unleashes a torrent of racist invective that throws of one the D.J.s into a rage and the rest into a serious funk. From ecstasy to agony in one fell swoop. This is England ’80.

Mention the scene to Brinsley Forde, the actor and Aswad co-founder who played Blue, and the 65-year-old musician begins smiling and shaking his head. We’re sitting in the lobby of the Brooklyn hotel where he’s staying, a few blocks away from the BAM Rose Cinemas, where Babylon will finally get its first proper theatrical release in the U.S. (on March 8th) nearly 30 years after it opened in Britain. His dreads are long gone, and grey stubble peeks out from beneath a baseball cap sporting the word KING. But he’s practically bouncing out of his seat. “Why I’m smiling is,” he says. “[Guitarist-producer] Dennis Bovell had been commissioned to do the music, and I kept saying, ‘Guys, I’m in a band, you know? Why aren’t you asking me?’ So, just to pacify me, I think, they said, “Ok, you do the dub.’

“But the thing was, even though I was going into the studio at night to work on it, when it came time to do the scene … we hadn’t finished the track. So when you see us dancing around, there’s nothing playing. I had to do this.” He starts bobbing his head up and down for four unheard bars, quietly humming to himself, then throws begins moving one hand back and forth for another four. Then another hand goes up, doing the same thing in time to the beat playing in his head. It looks like he’s conducting a silent orchestra. “It was just like conducting, yeah,” he says. “But instead of musicians, the orchestra was the actors. ‘Guys, it’s gonna sound like this.’ And they just fell in. When they synced up the track I gave them later, it somehow miraculously worked. Which is a good example of how this movie came together as a whole.”

A subcultural snapshot, a portrait of an underground musical scene, a time capsule for Thatcher’s Britain and a still timely cri de coeur, Babylon sent out shock waves from the moment it had its first public screening. When director Franco Rosso brought the film to Cannes, it became a minor sensation after playing the Critics’ Week sidebar; in Bristol, some patrons literally tore up the seats on opening night. Reviewers applauded its raw social realism and the way it refused to look away from some of the uglier things happening in South London. Those same elements were also why the movie was allegedly slapped with an X rating by the British ratings board, which crippled the film’s financial prospects. The fact that it patois-heavy dialogue would require subtitles for American audiences, which became a point of contention, effectively kept it from getting a U.S. release. For years, it was impossible to get eyeballs on it unless you ponied up for a bootleg — Forde recalls seeing copies “that looked like they were recorded off of fuzzy TVs, going for $400 on eBay.”

But because of both the reggae-soundtrack connection and its revolutionary stance, folks still sought Babylon out wherever they could. After the film finally came out on DVD in England in 2009, a whole other generation caught up with it. Grime musicians started namechecking it; Dizzee Rascal’s “Can’t Tek No More,” which takes it name from part of the toast that Blue delivers during the movie’s climax, enlisted Forde himself to sing the hook rather than merely sampling it. And its gritty, street-level sense of reportage — the way it sometimes makes you forget that you’re not watching a work of fiction — hasn’t lost its sense of urgency. “No one was showing this world on British screens at that time,” Forde says. “No one.’

“When I met Franco, we bonded over the fact that our favorite movie was Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets,” says screenwriter Martin Stellman, Skyping in from his house in Spain. “And that’s what we wanted to make, basically: A British reggae version of Mean Streets.

The project started when Stellman was doing double duty, working as a freelance journalist in the mid-1970s and a community organizer in a neighborhood near where Babylon would be set, organizing drama workshops for teenagers that were half working-class white, half British-black. Rosso had reached out to him to tell him he liked one of Stellman’s articles; he, in turn, was a fan of the filmmaker’s portrait of a dub poet named Linton Kwesi Johnson, Dread Beat an’ Blood. The writer had also been turned on to the local events known as “blues,” thanks to one of his students, and soon became a self-avowed reggae fanatic. “I was one of the only white faces in the clubs,” he notes. “I had a Jewfro at the time, so I was able to avoid some tension because a friend of mine would go, ‘Oh, he’s my light-skinned cousin from Jamaica, he’s ok.’ But you had to earn your right to be there.”

“Our favorite movie was Mean Streets, and that’s what we wanted to make: A British reggae version of Mean Streets.“—Screenwriter Martin Stellman

Suspicion grew when Stellman began to bring Rosso and Gavrik Losey, who’d eventually become the film’s producer, to the parties; he recalls one night when the three of them walked in “and everyone immediately assumed that we were undercover cops.” But as they began to be accepted as part of the crowd, the three men started to envision how they could craft a story around the Afro-Caribbean community that had helped turn the sound systems into a British phenomena. They began working on a script and pitching what would become Babylon to the BBC, with the idea of potentially doing it for the Play For Today slot — a weekly showcase that helped bring social-issue drama into people’s living rooms and was an incubator for filmmakers like Alan Clarke and Stephen Frears.

“They programmed work that that left you feeling very angry, and very desperate to get politically involved after you watched them,” Stellman says. “And that was what we wanted. But when we presented them with the script, the BBC asked us to cut a lot of it out, partially because of time constraints and partially because of what we were dealing with — the racial violence, the drugs, the language — was rough. So we thought, time to move on.” (It was the BBC, however, who suggested that they work with the director Franc Roddam, an introduction that led to Stellman collaborating with Roddam on a different project: the 1979 screen adaptation of the Who’s mod-vs.-rockers epic Quadrophenia.)

As they began to craft Babylon into a proper feature, with Rosso taking on directorial duties, the goal was simple: don’t hold back and keep it real. “We had credentials in terms of empathy … but we were tourists,” Stellman says. “And because we were tourists, we had too make sure everything in the movie was 100-percent copper-bottomed authentic. We’d be double checking the dialogue with my friends from the dancehall and they’d tell us, ‘Naw, they wouldn’t say that. That’s bollocks.’ They’d give us some better patois to use — it obviously wasn’t our thing.”

A scene from ‘Babylon.’

Forde, who’d been a child actor with TV credits to his name and was already recording with Aswad for a few years by this point, heard about about the movie through an open audition and was cast as Blue, the garage mechanic who spends his evenings as a member of the Ital Lion crew. Trevor Laird (Ferdy from Quadrophenia) plays Beefy, the comic presence of the group who’s also the first person to react whenever the local racists start talking trash. Veteran British actor Karl Howman plays Ronnie, the Caucasian hanger-on. (“That role is somewhat based on me,” Stellman admits.)The West Indian community and the streets of Brixton play themselves, which lends an air of documentary to the whole affair.

And then there are the musical sequences, with future Oscar-winning cinematographer Chris Menges filming in real blues events and which culminates in the climactic showdown between the Lions and Jah Shaka. Having just committed an act of violence, Blue shows up late and takes the microphone from his colleague. He launches into an incendiary toast over that earlier “Warrior Charge” dub, as the cops start tearing down the club’s doors and our dreadlocked hero defiantly keeps going, going, going. The ending was based on a real incident that Dennis Bovell told Rosso about, when one of his sound system parties turned into a notorious police-led melee; as for Blue’s now-famous refrain of “Me Can’t Tek No More of Dat,” that was something that Forde says he and Stellman came up with on the spot. “Neither of us had any idea of what I was going to say,” Forde remembers. “So we worked it out for a second, and suddenly that just popped out. All the frustration, all the rage, all the prejudice … it was all in that phrase.”

Both Forde and Stellman also detail two proposed alternate endings, with the former talking about how Blue would have lead a standoff with the cops and end up in jail to atone for his sins. (“We supposedly wouldn’t have got an X rating that way,” he says, shrugging.) The latter mentions writing an extended sequence in which Blue is sent to prison and eventually escapes, finds a boat and sails off into the mist, supposedly to Ethiopia. (You are suddenly reminded that this is indeed the man who wrote the script for Quadrophenia.) “I’m glad we went with the ending we did,” Stellman says. “It feels more resistant.”

And while both men are happy that Rosso, who passed away in 2016, got to see the film get its second chance when the DVD came out in Britain, they’re sad that he will not be here when American audiences finally get the opportunity to see it. “I remember they had a celebratory screening when the DVD came out, and they’d had struck a new print struck, the soundtrack had been remixed and we had a primarily black audience — maybe 75 or 80-percent black. And you could see people who’d seen the film when it come out, and younger folks who were seeing it for the first time — and all of them were seeing their experiences up on that screen. It made Rosso so happy to think his film had a life. And it would make him so happy to know you are seeing their experiences now, too.”

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