Saturday, 15 August 2015

Babylon (1980)

Martin Stellman and Franco Rosso had originally written Babylon for the BBC's Play For Today strand but, when it wasn't picked up for it, they decided to turn it into a feature film instead. Five years after the initial draft, Babylon made it to the big screen and captured, as if in aspic, a specific moment both in Britain society and within British cinema itself.

Renowned cinematographer Chris Menges (Kes) uses natural lighting that firmly puts us on the streets of multicultural London in the dying days of the dour 1970s and the birth of the even harder '80s, and you can really feel the wintry chill in the air among its derelict houses, corrugated, graffiti'd fencing and the oppressive racism around every corner. It's a film that hits the ground running - literally as the opening credits depict Brinsley Forde's Blue and his likeable friend Ronnie, played by Karl Howman, (the only white face in the 'Ital Lion Crew', the central group of friends) sprint through the congested traffic on a London high street. From there, we have no option but to follow the film in flux, as it depicts what is essentially the ups and downs of daily life for young blacks in Britain at that time. Crucially, this allows Stellman and Russo's script to take us by surprise with some dramatic setpieces such as Blue being chased by coppers in their crappy Vauxhall for having the temerity to be walking the streets at 5am - the notorious SUS laws of the time meaning that officers could stop, search and potentially arrest people under the vagrancy act; people usually of colour and a procedure that often meant physical violence from the endemically racist Met; or the moment a horrified Blue witnesses two friends roll a gay white middle class man looking for 'business'; or Trevor Laird's quick tempered Beefy's desire to violently retaliate when confronted by a family of NF supporters and their racists jibes and jeers. With its depiction of a distinctive cultural sub-section of our 1980s society and its unflinching gritty approach to exploring their situation head on, it's easy to draw a line from Babylon to Shane Meadows' This Is England and their subsequent television follow ups.

And on the subject of contemporary resonance, you could argue that the prejudiced, hateful acts against one's fellow man on display in those aforementioned set pieces are perhaps indicative of a less enlightened time in our country, but Babylon's strength is in the thought provoking manner it simply reports documentary-style such events; a style that somehow holds up a mirror to the viewer in the present day and asks if things really are so different now, with an increasingly multicultural society, such endemic racism and prejudice has surely only diversified to incorporate or focus on others - Eastern Europeans, Muslims - instead. Crucially, Babylon was among the first British features that allowed black actors to carry a film, rather than act as secondary characters or cliched metaphors, to explore what it meant to be an ethnic minority in British society from their specific point of view. Where are those films now?

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