The Story of ‘Babylon,’ a Lost Reggae Classic

The Story of ‘Babylon,’ a Lost Reggae Classic

Late director Franco Rosso’s Babylon screened to a sold out, standing-room-only crowd at Brooklyn’s BAM — its first-ever U.S. release a mere 40 years after it was made. The excitement of the eclectic crowd was undeniable. Everyone was on the edge of their seats: from young dancehall heads, to septuagenarian types who might’ve seen Bob Marley at his first show in New York, to British expatriates from Brixton, the London neighborhood where the movie takes place.

As the final credits rolled at the Brooklyn cinema, the crowd spontaneously erupted into wild applause, chanting the lines that main character Blue passionately sings over the deep horn-laden dub of Aswad’s 1980 reggae track “Warrior Charge.” Lead actor Brinsley Forde was there as well, chanting and singing along next to Dennis Bovell, the film’s music composer. The audience’s reaction exemplified the film’s universal message: the struggle of the unrepresented — and the struggle of minorities all over the world.

Babylon follows young reggae DJ Blue (played by Aswad front man Brinsley Forde) as he battles rival sound system Jah Shaka — as well as the system: the racism and violence of his neighborhood, the police and his boss at the garage where he works. With the deep reggae of his Ital Lion sound system and crew as his only escape, Blue and co. hope to be crowned the kings in a sound clash against Shaka. You’ll have to watch to see if they’re victorious.

Babylon’s press upon its U.S. launch sang unanimous praise: a rave from The Hollywood Reportera “Critic’s Pick” in The New York Times, an epically long story in Rolling Stone, a thinkpiece in The New Yorker… And since, the film has played in over forty cities nationwide — an auspicious debut for a movie that was virtually unknown stateside prior to this past March. TIDAL will be premiering the film soon — exclusively streaming it for the first time in North American for the month of June.

This is a welcome state of affairs, as Babylon was only available via import until this year; for years it was passed around among reggae aficionados on fuzzy bootleg copies taped off British TV. It was practically impossible to see, although the early aughts welcomed its first DVD release — but only in Italy. A few years later, it was properly restored and available commercially on home video — but only in Britain! It’s thrilling that thousands more will now be able to see it.

The story of Babylon begins in early ’70s London, when Rosso met screenwriter Martin Stellman. Both white guys in Britain’s capital, they became fans of reggae and dub. Stellman was working as a community organizer in Lewisham, a neighborhood of South London, and doing theater workshops with local kids. He got into the music through his students and became a self-proclaimed “sound system groupie” with a Jewfro. He’d go to the dances or “blues” as they were called often.

Stellman was also a freelance writer, and upon penning a feature on reggae and sound systems for Time Out circa 1973, he got a call from Rosso, whom he had never met before. Rosso wanted to collaborate with him on a film. And although Rosso was a documentarian, they both wanted to make a narrative, fictional film about the scene and the struggles of the Caribbean community in London. In The Guardian’s obituary of Rosso, Stellman eloquently spoke about why his friend was drawn to the culture: “[He] always felt like an outsider, which may well account for the extraordinary empathy with the disaffected and marginalised that characterised his work.”

Rosso experienced xenophobia as a child, being an immigrant from Italy — an outsider. And although that prejudice was, of course, not as extreme as what the black Caribbean immigrants experienced, it still affected him deeply and set the course for him to depict minority communities in Britain.

In an interview with The Forward, Stellman explained how Rosso first got into the music. The director lived in South London, where his local church hall was overrun by sound systems. “His first experience was a negative one,” Stellman said. “He had young kids at the time and you can imagine what the bass was like at two in the morning.”

Nevertheless, the music enraptured both Rosso and Stellman. “Back then I was listening to a lot of roots reggae and obviously Bob Marley,” Stellman said. “But this is not that. This is something more. This is cosmic compared to all the music I had been listening to on my very modest stereo system.”

Aware that they were not a part of that musical community, Stellman and Rosso enlisted Caribbean friends to ensure that the script’s language was correct — not just the patois wording, but also the nuances of the street language. They were determined to get it as accurate as possible.

As for the story itself, it was inspired by the experiences of musician Dennis Bovell. By the late ’70s and early ’80s, Bovell was known as an in-demand reggae/post-punk producer; he not only led his band Matumbi, but also wrote, produced and arranged music for dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, all female group the Slits, post-punk pioneers the Pop Group and others. (Recently he remixed Arcade Fire’s “Flashbulb Eyes”.) Before all that, however, he was falsely imprisoned and spent months in jail in the mid ’70s. His sound system at the time, Sufferer’s HiFi, was performing, and the cops raided the club and arrested Bovell for inciting a riot. The charge was ultimately thrown out, as the police officer who arrested him lied on the stand. This provided a basis for part of the film’s script, and subsequently, Bovell created the film’s deep, atmospheric score.

It was precisely this gritty subject matter that made it close to impossible for the film to get made. No one wanted to get behind a script about a subculture within the black community in Britain that dealt so forcefully with racism and implicated the police. That is, until the new head of the National Film Finance Corporation (the government entity funding British cinema) got involved. Mamoun Hassan, a Saudi immigrant, another outsider, was known to support challenging work.

While Stellman and Rosso were hocking the script to the BFI, it came across the desk of Hassan, who was enamored with it and gave the green light to fund 80% of the film’s budget. Up until that point, the most the NFFC would fund was about a third of a film’s budget, so this was unprecedented; it would be the only film they’d fund in 1980. The rest of the money was raised by scrappy producer Gavrik Losey, legendary American director Joseph Losey’s son. Joseph Losey immigrated to Europe due to the “Red Scare” of the ’50s; he was blacklisted after being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was a leftist, and became a member of with the Communist Party and therefore unemployable in Hollywood.

Gavrik, who had been in Europe producing his father’s work as well as his own, ended up securing funds for Babylon by bringing on board Chrysalis Records, which would release the film’s soundtrack. “I went to Chrysalis, told them we were making a reggae film, and offered them a deal for the record,” he wrote in the film’s original press notes. “They offered us $60,000 toward production simply because the man I approached believed so strongly in the film.” And according to Losey, Chrysalis was the only entity that made money off the film!

With backing assured, production took place in late fall/early winter in South and West London in 1979. Crackerjack cinematographer Chris Menges shot the film, and the film’s lead character Blue was played by Forde. Brinsley imbued Blue’s character with anger, melancholy and humor. A child actor turned Rasta musician, he fronted Aswad, Brit reggae pioneers. The song composed for the film, “Warrior Charge,” became one of their more successful singles of the time.

So Babylon was well on its way. The world premiere was at Cannes’ Quinzaine des réalisateurs (Director’s Fortnight) and it was met with critical praise. And then came its North American premiere in Toronto — the home of a vibrant Jamaican community and legendary reggae musicians (including Studio One keyboardist Jackie Mittoo and Leroy Sibbles of the Heptones). The film’s reception at the “Festival of Festivals” (the precursor to the Toronto Film Festival) was so strong that a small company called Pan-Canadian Film Distributors released it in certain markets up north in 1981. But that was the movie’s only official commercial release in North America — until this year.

With Cannes and Toronto locked, one would think that this imprimatur would secure a stateside premiere at the New York Film Festival, but alas, it wasn’t to be. It took until the following year in May/June 1981 to premiere in the U.S. at Filmex (now AFI Fest) in L.A., where it played without subtitles. (The film has always been released subtitled for the patois, and in 2019, for the cockney slang that North American audiences might not be familiar with.) This thereby assured its relegation to obscurity in America.

That said, with the wind at its back in Europe, one also would think the U.K. theatrical run would be a success — the press praise was practically unanimous — but the British Board of Film Censors gave the film an X rating, also assuring its failure at home. There was much criticism at the time of this decision.

“[T]his powerful film…has been placed out of bounds to great numbers of the black community… Even though its actual violence is less, much less than many films…open to 14-year-olds and up, Babylon has been given an ‘X’ certificate excluding anyone not yet 18” wrote Alexander Walker in The New Standard. His passionate critique continued, “It is the old, shameful story of censors who claim a paternalistic wisdom and a condescending right to ‘protect’ anyone they think stupid or immature enough to misread the message.”

In the same paper, Guy Pierce wrote about taking three younger black Londoners to a screening and how taken by it they were: “It’s very true to life, That’s exactly the way it happens… It’s a very fair reflection on the way things are,” they said to him. But still, the film came and went in the U.K. Losey also told me that the only money that was made upon its release came from creating 50 16mm copies of the film for the British police to use as a learning tool for what they shouldn’t do.

So why has it taken close to four decades for the film to be released in the U.S.? Because of its obscurity. After re-discovering it, I programmed it for a festival of reggae films on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence, and I became enamored with it. As part of that festival, it screened in New York once at a late show in the middle of August. The audience was less than two dozen people, but the reaction at the end of the movie was palpable. We were all speechless. After that, it was permanently on top of my to-do list to release the film, and in the past couple of years, I worked on just that.

Discovering that distributor Kino Lorber thought the same thing, my company Seventy-Seven & KL decided to team up with them; a dream has come true. And now its auspicious unveiling on TIDAL will enable thousands more to appreciate it for the first time — not to mention its killer soundtrack.

Babylon is timely, timeless and transcendent. From Dennis Bovell’s opening synth tones over the film’s red, gold and green lion logo to the closing credits. So, in closing, let’s heed the salutation by the Rasta in the film, “Me Idren! Peace to the I! Rastafari!”

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