Banned 'Babylon' Finally Sees Light of Day

Brinsley Forde as Blue in Franco Rosso's Babylon (1980) (KinoLorber)

Franco Rosso's stark, rough-edged, and music-soaked 1980 drama, Babylon, about West Indian Londoners scrapping for survival, was never released due to worries about inciting violence. Until now.

Franco Rosso

Kino Lorber

Mar 2019


Like many music-heavy movies of its ilk, from Perry Henzell's The Harder They Come (1972) to Jack Hazan and David Mingay's Rude Boy (1980), Franco Rosso's long-unseen Babylon (1980) is not a particularly deft drama. Its screenplay—a scrabbled-together thing by Rosso and Martin Stellman (who later adapted Victor Headley's West Indian British crime novel, Yardie, for Idris Elba, 2018)—is more a collection of signposts and signifiers than true narrative. It's in many ways clumsy and ham-fisted. And yet, somewhere in between the densely layered dub and reggae soundtrack, Chris Menges' evocative cinematography, and the sharp spark of political agitation, there's something to the movie that cannot be so easily dismissed.

The story is both simple and only vaguely outlined. It's set in South London, where National Front graffiti is everywhere, and reactionary whites are pushing back against the West Indians whom they see as changing their neighborhood. Blue (Brinsley Forde, a child actor who was also in the group Aswad) is a mechanic also pursuing a DJ'ing career. There's some build-up to that reliable old dramaturgical standby, the battle of the bands—in this case between a couple of rivalrous reggae crews—but generally the action traces the pressures of racism, poverty, and the police on Blue and his cohorts as they try to find a way to live in Thatcher's England.

While he has a reggae-loving white best friend, Ronnie (Karl Howman), Blue spends most of his time with other Jamaicans who, though at least some appear to have been born and raised in England, feel and are treated like foreigners. Their accents are heavy enough to require the use of subtitles, though untranslated patois will likely leave some viewers grasping for clarity. Blue and his friends seem to be hovering on a knife's edge of petty criminality that becomes only sharper as more is taken away from them by assaults that are physical (bottles thrown, police harassment), verbal ("this was a lovely area … fuck off to your own country!"), and economic (Blue fired by his racist boss).

Scientist (Brian Bovell), Beefy (Trevor Laird), and Lover (Victor Romero Evans) are members of the Ital Lion Sound System (KinoLorber)

Rosso's rangy, neorealist approach means that characters float in and out of the dramatic frame with little explanation. But when married with Menges' cool-tinted, beautifully smoky imagery and Dennis Bovell's eerie and surprisingly electronic dub score, the overall effect is that of a kitchen-sink docudrama more interested in painting a picture than telling a story. The effect falls apart somewhat in the conclusion's panicky violence, which seems forced, but it remains a sometimes hypnotic immersion in a schismatic time and place where music is both a source of comfort and a tool for uprising.

Much of the lore of Babylon seems from its controversial past. Originally written as a TV play in the mid-'70s, the movie premiered at Cannes in 1980. But the incendiary subject matter—most particularly a vengeful murder of a white man—made it seem to censoring authorities like the kind of tinderbox-lighting cinematic bomb that a racially discordant England could not abide. The rest of the world followed suit, with the movie only getting a brief Canadian release. Of course, the very things that made the movie seem so dangerous at the time -- its ability to illuminate the vibrant culture and resistance of a brutalized class -- were exactly the reasons that it should have been released.

Coming out now, in the shadow of Brexit-era England convulsing yet again in economic anxiety and reactionary populism, Babylon seems like less of a time capsule than a warning.





Nazis, Nostalgia, and Critique in Taika Waititi's 'Jojo Rabbit'

Arriving amidst the exhaustion of the past (21st century cultural stagnation), Waititi locates a new potential object for the nostalgic gaze with Jojo Rabbit: unpleasant and traumatic events themselves.


Why I Did Not Watch 'Hamilton' on Disney+

Just as Disney's Frozen appeared to deliver a message of 21st century girl power, Hamilton hypnotizes audiences with its rhyming hymn to American exceptionalism.


LA Popsters Paper Jackets Deliver a Message We Should Embrace (premiere + interview)

Two days before releasing their second album, LA-based pop-rock sextet Paper Jackets present a seemingly prescient music video that finds a way to ease your pain during these hard times.


'Dancing After TEN' Graphic Memoir Will Move You

Art dances with loss in the moving double-memoir by comics artists Vivian Chong and Georgia Webber, Dancing After TEN.


Punk Rock's WiiRMZ Rage at the Dying of the Light on 'Faster Cheaper'

The eight songs on WiiRMZ's Faster Cheaper are like a good sock to the jaw, bone-rattling, and disorienting in their potency.


Chris Stamey Paints in "A Brand-New Shade of Blue" (premiere + interview)

Chris Stamey adds more new songs for the 20th century with his latest album, finished while he was in quarantine. The material comes from an especially prolific 2019. "It's like flying a kite and also being the kite. It's a euphoric time," he says.


Willie Nelson Surveys His World on 'First Rose of Spring'

Country legend Willie Nelson employs his experience on a strong set of songs to take a wide look around him.


Gábor Lázár Is in Something of a Holding Pattern on 'Source'

Experimental electronic artist Gábor Lázár spins his wheels with a new album that's intermittently exciting but often lacking in variety.


Margo Price Is Rumored to Be the New Stevie Nicks

Margo Price was marketed as country rock because of her rural roots. But she was always more rock than country, as one can hear on That's How Rumors Get Started.


DMA'S Discuss Their Dancier New Album 'The Glow'

DMA'S lead-singer, Tommy O'Dell, discusses the band's new album The Glow, and talks about the dancier direction in their latest music.


The Bacon Brothers Deliver Solemn Statement With "Corona Tune" (premiere + interview)

Written and recorded during the 2020 quarantine, "Corona Tune" exemplifies the Bacon Brothers' ability to speak to the gravity of the present moment.


Garage Rockers the Bobby Lees Pay Tribute to "Wendy" (premiere)

The Bobby Lees' "Wendy" is a simmering slice of riot 'n' roll that could have come from the garage or the gutter but brims with punk attitude.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.