Babylon (1980) Takes a Subtle, Yet Most Affecting, Character-Driven Approach to Racism Unlike Any Other Film
Releasing for the first time in the United States, the controversial Babylon is a movie every generation, young and old, should see and applaud.
Release Date: March 8, 2019
MPAA Rating: NR
In a sea of new movie releases every month, many of which follow a tried and true formula, refusing to break free of convention and test their audience or question society, turning to the past for a much-needed fix of mental stimulation is necessary. Better yet is when you can gain access to a movie that has never been released in the United States before because of its subject matter. That is the case with Babylon (1980), Franco Rosso’s transfixing independent triumph that showcases racial tensions in England as the country entered the 1980s.
From Cannes to Nowhere: Babylon Never Sees a United States Release
The Cannes Film Festival world premiered Babylon in 1980, but worldwide acceptance and distribution never came. The New York Film Festival refused to screen it, while it did receive a North American Premiere at the 1980 Festival of Festivals in Toronto (TIFF) and screened in the United States at the Los Angeles International Film Exposition (AFI Fest). The Evening Standard British Film Awards even awarded Franco Rosso the Most Promising Filmmaker award in 1981, but that is where the fanfare ended except in cult circles.
Babylon never received a release in the United States, and the United Kingdom gave it an X rating. Now, there isn’t any nudity or sex in Babylon, but there is violence and police brutality and a fair share of racial slurs to accompany the blatant racism that pervades Brixton, London, at the time. Does that constitute an X-rating (equivalent to an R in the United States)? Possibly, but it’s also an easy way to get theaters to avoid screening the film, and therefore make it difficult for audiences to see it. And wanting people to not see Babylon makes sense if you’re afraid of bringing to light the real circumstances people are living under in a country considered a World Power that others should follow.
Babylon never had a chance because it sympathizes with Blacks, and quite righty paints Whites, police included, as ignorant racists who are not against unwarranted violence to demonstrate their power. It’s a stomach-turning, disgusting display of xenophobia without basis, wrapped up in a package full of emotion, vibrant energy, and intimate displays of a group of people and their culture surviving regardless and without a desire for violence, even as violence is pushed upon them.
The most disturbing part of Babylon is that it is relevant today, decades after it was made.
Babylon, a 1980 Movie Made for Future Generations
As Babylon begins, and Cinematographer Chris Menges (The Killing Fields, The Reader) starts his outstanding camera work, we’re introduced to a different side of London; a realistic side of the city and people living in it because Brixton isn’t Notting Hill. It is full of color though, through the reggae, dub, and rock music that engulfs the entire film, demonstrating moments of lightheartedness for the characters, joy, love, fear, and eventually, rebellion. The music in Babylon is arguably the most important character; the characters move to and with the music, and it sets various tones throughout.
It only makes sense given the main character is a young reggae DJ, Blue (Brinsley Forde of the British group Aswad), involved in a music contest. But that’s just filler — Babylon’s real story is in the day-to-day, the circumstances that present themselves to him and his friends and family. The reason you can’t look away and do not want to from Babylon is how fully engrossing each and every scene is throughout. It must be experienced to fully comprehend, and come away with the undeniable truth: Franco Rosso’s Babylon is an exemplary example of how to craft an honest film that speaks volumes in a subtle way that audiences will resonate with on multiple levels.
Babylon does not force you to see the reality of racism in Britain in the early 1980s. Instead, it establishes itself as a character piece where you are invited into people’s lives, and through intricate build-up through each act, the racial tensions and struggles are seen, until they can no longer be ignored. Babylon is what everyone needs to see today because there is not a blatant agenda thrown in your face. It takes time to build a relationship between the viewer and the characters, creating genuine affection. And then you get angry, as you should because what befalls Blue is unwarranted and worthy of fighting against.
As the final scene in Babylon unfolds, and the music takes control in the hands of Blue, a call for action is made. It’s not violent, but it is warranted. And a tinge of pride flows through you, and the emotional impact brings a tear to your eye.
Will you be ready to revolt against the current state of affairs in the United States after watching Babylon? I sure hope so, in a peaceful manner of course, because no wants a violent race war, and the filmmakers behind Babylon never wanted that either.
Babylon Gets Its United States Release
Keeping United States audiences from experiencing Babylon ends now, as Kino Lorber and Seventy-Seven is releasing the movie in New York and Los Angeles with more cities to follow.
I’ve come to equate Babylon to a movie held in a time capsule, to be shown to the world at the exact right moment. This is the moment in the United States, and while it may never make it to a small town theater in a Red State where it is needed most, the opportunity for a Babylon DVD release stateside exists and streaming a perfect way to get it out to more and more people.
If millions of people are willing to watch Green Book, a movie about racism that keeps everything clean and tidy and without real dramatic effect or consequences, they should be required to watch Babylon, where the connection between viewer and character is far deeper, more memorable, and actually possible of enacting change in the real world after the credits roll.