Note: This piece originally appeared in the first (and like many great zines, only) issue of 'New Britain' zine, which came out in the mid-90's. Since putting up this piece some time ago, I have found out that it was written by a guy called Dave Phillips who has now graciously allowed me to host it here. New Britain was edited by Mathias Connor.
- interview with Franco Rosso
(White Lady), "Look at you all, good for nothing, noisy, stinking filth, lazy, you're everywhere, junglebunnies. This was a lovely area before you came here, lovely... Fuck off back to your own country, Junglebunnies."
(Beefy), "This is my fucking country lady and it's never been fucking lovely, it's always been a tip for as long as I can remember, so don't fucking tell me, right, 'cause I never done it, it wasn't me right..."
In 1980, directed by Franco Rosso, Babylon, a film about black youth growing up in South London was released. At the time it stood out on its own, not only because it was a film about Black kids who follow a reggae soundsystem, but also in the way it reflected the depressing realities of Britain at the end of the 1970s.
I was too young to remember when Babylon was first released. In 1980, I had just turned the ripe old age of 8 and at that time only ever went to the cinema with my Mum and Dad. Being fairly typical white middle-aged parents from Ilford, my Mum and Dad were, surprisingly enough, not big followers of the mighty Jah Shaka, Abashanti-I or Fatman reggae soundsystems that rocked the dancehalls of London. Neither did they have much interest in black youth culture (or youth culture generally for that matter), so I never got to see it first time around.
Like many people's experience of culture generally, be it film or otherwise, my experience of Babylon came second hand, some five or six years after its release. Its discovery didn't surround some trendy retro scene or fashionable revival, the way much of contemporary culture is packaged and processed by glossy magazines and yoof TV, it simply drifted around on video cassette between various friend's houses and my own, its dialogue becoming memorised and quoted at every opportunity, (for me anyway, the sign of truly great movies), and its characters becoming local heroes.
It's one of the best British films ever made, not just one of the best 'Black' or 'Youth' films, but one of the best British films period. Not because of its enormous budget (it was made for around £350,000), or for its star studded line-up (all the actors were relatively unknown to a wider audience) but because it was one of only a handful of British films that recognises that socially, racially and cinematically, there is more to living in this country than yet another period drama.
If you have never seen it before, I won't spoil it by giving the whole game away, but essentially the story surrounds 'Blue' (played by Brinsly Ford) and the soundsystem Ital Lion, he toasts for, its members including the charismatic dread, loverboy, Errol, Ronnie (Blue's white friend) and the legendary Beefy. As the up and coming soundclash with the mighty Jah Shaka sound looms ("Shaka gonna beat you, Beefy, Shaka rule!"), the pressures in Blue's life increase. Police brutality, racist abuse and attacks, as well as girlfriend trouble and questions of faith (Rastafarianism) eventually erupt into violence and confrontation.
Riding on the wave of a decade that was punctuated with extreme and violent outbursts of racism (the 1970s was not a good decade for race relations), Babylon was an important and brave venture. It presented a section of the black community in London not all as muggers, out and out thieves, rapists or any of the other bullshit perpetuated by the tabloid press and media, but as people with lives just as complex (even more so?) as the rest of the white majority.
With the 1990s showing an alarming increase in racist activity, the BNP gaining electoral successes in London as well as a string of highly publicised racist attacks, many of the questions raised in the film Babylon as a film still seem very relevant today.
15 years on and Babylon as a film, still (sadly) stands on its own, but how have things changed socially and racially since its release? The film's director and writer, Franco Rosso, born of Italian parentage, came to London at the age of nine and experienced much of the hostility and distrust West Indian immigrants would experience a decade later. After fighting his way through school ("literally") he entered the Camberwell School of Art where his interest in film developed, carrying with him his experience of race growing up in culturally mixed south London. I spoke to him about these experiences as well as his thoughts on Babylon then and now, and how Britain of the 1990s shapes up to the Britain of previous decades.
How did Babylon come about?
It came about through a number of circumstances. One, I had made a film with Linton Kwesi Johnson and he was very keen on it. I went to a lot of sounds systems with him, and I was brought up in Streatham, Brixton, all those areas and I kind of knew all these people and places.
also really to do with, even when I was at school, there was very
much an outsider clique and an insider clique. The outsider clique
were the ones who weren't British, particularly the Greek/Cypriot,
Italians, anyone who was different tended to be given a pretty hard
time, so you tended to stick together. There were similar things in
Babylon, which I think if you had asked anyone who had been brought
up around then, went on. You tend anyway to make films you choose
to make, about things you know and sympathise with.
Was the basis of the trouble you experienced all racial?
In a way, the Blacks who came over after the war were a kind of saviour
for us. After a certain point you learn to become a chameleon. It
was easier if you were European not to be spotted, but of course the
black kids couldn't hide, so in a sense, when the first generation
arrived, they really took the flack and took over from where we were.
Most probably, the Indian kids have inherited the same thing.
Did all these experiences influence the way Babylon developed?
Yes, to a point. There was basically a lot of racism at the time.
How did you think the film would make people feel?
Nobody had ever tried to do that kind of thing before and it shook up a lot of people really, because it was, of course, what everyone was aware of, but nobody had actually put onto film. At the time both Martin Stellmen (the film's co-writer with Rosso) and I worked at Albany Empire where they had a youth theatre for kids who were seen as really hopeless, but were in fact terrific. The hall was being hired by black kids who had their own soundsystem and they had to have a staff member because everyone was terrified to leave them on their own, and they asked us "would you sit in with us?". So we volunteered and Babylon really grew out of that because virtually the story of the kids was there, the fights and everything - it was very educational.
There was also a church at the bottom of the garden that had a soundsystem every Friday night. It was all coming together, the soundsystems, the kids, it was all really multi-racial. It was more by accident that people were mixing, than by design, but it was the atmosphere of the time and we were really just observing it and being there. As we were writing the story for Babylon, two guys from the soundsystem would come in and we would say "OK, this is it", and they would say "Oh I like that", or "No, that wouldn't happen", and then they would actually speak it to us, so the whole script was written in patois - it was very much done with them.
What type of reaction did Babylon get at the time of its release?
At the time, many people saw it as part documentary, which gave them the perfect opportunity to pooh pooh that. It was in fact a drama, a piece of fiction that was written and acted; it just wasn't in the tradition of English cinema, no way. Because it did well, those people were forced to concede that maybe there was another element within British cinema, that didn't have its roots in public school [NB - in the UK 'public school' actually means the expensive schools for the children of the upper classes. - JE], Oxford and Cambridge - because that's what it was, and still is, the dominant factor in British drama.
In a sense, they were forced to, for a very short time, to accept and open the doors temporarily. It didn't continue because there wasn't anyone to follow it - I didn't want to make "Black Dramas"; I chose Babylon because I actually had a sympathy for it, and I knew the people, and it was an enjoyable thing to do. I felt that in a sense it was the time for them, (black film makers), to make their own films. People were beginning to come through, but of course they were immediately stopped.
In the 1990s, people seem to be much more racially aware again - why do you think this has come about?
I think we are deeply deeply racist as a nation. I'm guilty of it. It's almost kind of ingrained. It's even worse when you've experienced it because you then take it up with a vengeance. I'm not saying I'm going to go around slagging people off, or being deliberately racist, but sometimes I do catch myself doing all the things I can imagine that a lot of other people do, but don't admit to. It is endemic really. It's part of the education system, part of the way we are brought up. I think it's because we are basically dishonest as a nation. We are not really multi-racial. We're multi-cultural. That's why you do get people saying "Oh why do the Indians and Bangladeshis all stick together?". They stick together because they are terrified. It's not that people don't want to integrate, people don't want them to integrate and its the same for the black population. The black position has changed because they are now the new working class - they are the working class - they have taken on all the attributes of that class.
Why do you think that the 1990's in particular has seen an upturn in racist incidents?
It's recession. These things come out of recession, poverty, ignorance and it's what extremists of any form will grasp and push and find sympathy for, because people are desperate.
Is it the same reasons now as it was in the time of Babylon?
Yes, I think it's education, employment, it's all the things that come from recession and they are very easy things to target. When people are bitter and resentful, these are easy tools for extremists, certainly the fascist element to use, when really it's divide and rule. People are basically bashing their heads at people who are on their level, who are their class, who have got the same problems, who have got the same preoccupations; they want better for their children, better education, but they divide and rule. It's just one way of keeping the whole class system down, it's a way of stopping people.
Do you think since Babylon, that the position of black people in British society has changed at all?
I don't think it's got any better. I think it will change because the media in a way holds the key to a lot of it and we're getting a kind of infiltration of people who are not predominantly white, middle class, into television especially, and very very slowly, their influence will begin to surface and we will begin to get different kinds of programmes, which I think will help to change all that, with their own focus and perspective.