“Babylon” is a 39-year-old nugget of a movie about young British Jamaicans and their itinerant reggae scene built around sound systems, freestyling and parties with rich, low lighting. The film is making its American debut on Friday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and it’s got an episodic vividness and blanket-load of warmth, but also a harsh view of day-to-day life for black people in South London — on its streets, in its public housing, at its video arcades. If the police aren’t trying to shake down and beat up these guys, some fed-up white lady has come to their chill spot to complain (not unreasonably) that their music is too loud by telling them (unreasonably) to go back to their country and calling them “jungle bunnies.”
The movie is more interested in what feels real than what seems right. What was real, when the movie opened in Britain in November 1980, was the poverty and racism its characters dealt with. Apparently, it was too real. The movie arrived with an X rating, which, in Britain, was basically like an R. But it ensured that the young black people whom “Babylon” was primarily made for wouldn’t have been let into a theater to see it.
The thinking might have been that censors would have been saving young impressionable audiences from themselves. That kind of paternalism is, in some way, the force being retaliated against. The movie comprises a bunch of tangents (a minor music deal, some vandalism, an engagement ceremony). But a soulful, genial mechanic named Blue (played by Brinsley Forde, a guitarist in the British reggae outfit Aswad) provides the film’s spine: his rocky home life, love life and career prospects (he doesn’t keep his repair job for long; he dallies with a couple of thugs who lure then rob a gay white man). Blue’s close bond with a white kid named Ronnie (Karl Howman) and his love of reggae are just about all the stability he has. And once the racial stress of the neighborhood asserts itself into their group of friends, that bond seems rickety, too.
Franco Rosso directed “Babylon” from a script he wrote with Martin Stellman. And you can receive it as a toothsome scrapbook of a moment in time — a future Oscar winner, Chris Menges (“The Killing Fields”), shot the film, and the reggae polymath Dennis Bovell did the music. Critics then — like, the filmmakers, white men — seemed to get the movie’s politics, immediately hailing “Babylon” as a crucial imaginative, representative step forward for a stagnant film industry, despite more than one writer feeling compelled to grapple with such an abundance of dreadlocks.
Both anger and wonder course through the proceedings, and I’m not sure Rosso and Stellman knew what more to do about either than observe them, more the way an Italian neorealist director would than a psychologist might. The film’s reggae culture makes it natural kin of Jamaican jams like “Rockers” and “The Harder They Come.” But “Babylon” is a British movie about disaffected British people (disaffected British men), and, as such, seems just as seminal an entry in the English “angry young man” sweepstakes as the plays, novels and movies about alienation made in the 1960s. The final five minutes are bleakly abrupt, like being dropped off a cliff.
And yet all of that observation in “Babylon” amounts to something that still feels new. You’re looking at people who, in 1980 England, were, at last, being properly, seriously seen.