Black History on Film – Babylon (1980)

In celebration of Black History Month, Dr Michell Chresfield of the Department of History and the Centre for American and Canadian Studies hosted a screening of the 1980 film Babylon. Directed by Franco Rosso, explores race relations in late 1970s Britain through the experiences of a reggae sound system group. The film is in equal parts a joy to watch for its obvious and infectious love of reggae as a genre, and horrifying in its depictions of police brutality and the societal racism infecting areas of London. Babylon, though relatively little known, rightfully holds a place as a definitive piece of Black British cinema.

Babylon is dedicated to showing the struggle of the Black British community around this time. In addition to police brutality and the stop and search culture the law allowed, there is a lot of thought given to the way the characters react to racism and harassment. There is a deep understanding of the inability to engage with violence within a system so clearly biased towards one side. The only recourse the characters we follow have is proud engagement with their own cultures or, in one case, guerilla-like brutality against isolated white men. The film also strikes a highly pessimistic tone. The primary white character is a childhood friend of the protagonist Blue, but these ties of friendship are strained by acts of racism perpetrated against the group by the local white community. This character is ultimately cast out by the group because of his race. The message here is clear, relationships in an uneven society are fragile, and we have to deal with institutional racism before we can stand a chance of building lasting friendship.

Following the screening, Dr Rob Waters, Dr Sadiah Qureshi and Professor Gavin Schaffer led the group in a spirited discussion of the film and the issues it raised. The level of engagement with the film stands as a testament to why events like this are so important, and why Black cinema should be showcased. A striking aspect of this discussion is the extent to which this kind of structural racism has impacted deeply upon a relatively young audience over 30 years later. Whilst the audience were mostly too young to have memories of this time and place, there were many who had stories passed down by relatives or told within peer groups. What was shown on screen thus resonated with many present. The discussion concluded with a collective call for more such events in the future.