In the Seventies, institutionalised racism was rife in Britain and no one was talking about it; no one was making movies. Babylon changed all that. Or not. It came out in 1980, showed in a couple of art houses in London for the blink of any eye and then disappeared. With the release of the DVD 28 years later it’s importance can at last be appreciated.

Written and directed by white men – Franco Rosso was an editor and Martin Stellman followed this script with Quadrophenia, which, ironically, opened a year earlier – it tells of a group of friends in Brixton, involved in the battle of the sound systems, a precursor of hip hop contests, like the one in 8 Mile.

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Music, especially Jamaican music, is important to the film, but essentially it follows the travails and misadventures of teenage rasta mechanic Blue (Brindsley Forde), who loses his job, his girl and almost his life at the hands of the police to come through battered and confused to sing at the club in the final head-to-head with the great Shaka.

Without attempting to grandstand, Rosso and Stellman have avoided racial stereotypes and faced the truth of discrimination. These kids live with it and always have done. Some are scarred and angry, while others understand the futility of fighting back. In time, music and sport will bring them a sense of pride. But not yet.

Meanwhile, in Babylon, neighbours hurl insults at them, police beat them up and National Front thugs destroy the lock-up garage where they keep their stuff. Race riots are a year away and the Stop & Search laws have just come into force, giving the Bill free reign with black youth in the inner cities.

Filmed in the style of Scorsese’s Mean Streets, it stands the test of time and the performances of the young cast are exemplary. There are moments when subtitles might have helped. Raw Jamaican, with its reggae rhythms and languid slang, can double the Dutchy for a tone deaf white boy.

Reviewed on: 04 Dec 2008
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Racial tensions and the battle of sound systems in Brixton's black streets in the late Seventies.
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Director: Franco Rosso

Writer: Franco Rosso, Martin Stellman

Starring: Brinsley Forde, Karl Howman, Trevor Laird, Brian Bovell, Victor Romero Evans, David N. Haynes, Archie Pool, T-Bone Wilson, Mel Smith, Beverley Michaels

Year: 1980

Runtime: 95 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: UK/Italy

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If you like this, try:

8 Mile
This Is England