In 1980, a small British film about Jamaicans reveling in reggae, parties and sound systems hit the UK, and within that same year it received an X rating in London, and was banned from the US for being too controversial.
Of course, these weren’t the actual reasons for Babylon’s ban. It was the look of black Londoners living their honest every-day’s that truly frightened most distributors. From a plot perspective, former child actor, musician and MBE (Order of the British Empire) honoree Brinsley Forde played Blue; a black soundsystem DJ among a crew of DJs living it out in the early 80s—arcades, public housing and tunes—with the standard of police shakedowns, racial slights and internal rage. Despite the ban however, it still became a cult hit, resonating with reggae heads and black Londonites far before America experienced similar honesties with Do the Right Thing (1989) .
Having been restored and theatrically screened on March 8th in NY, with an LA showing set for March 15th, the Franco Rosso cult classic is finally getting the legs it needs to expand nationwide. In commemoration, I had an opportunity to chat with Brinsley Forde himself, as we spoke about the state of race relations in London, and the moment he finally understood why Babylon was a film to be feared.
VICE: I watched Babylon for the first time last week, and it was eye-opening, but this is me saying that in 2019. What were your thoughts as you were putting this race based film together in 1980?
Brinsley Forde: If I’m going to be honest, it was work. We lived a life emboldened in that racism and sound culture. We never thought of it as a story we couldn’t tell in hindsight. We simply had an opportunity to relay a story any black person in London was aware of. It’s 40 years later, and the similarities are still striking. We haven’t really moved on. Yes, we’ve seen improvements in some ways, but the problems of bigotry, poverty and class still keep us on that same treadmill. It’s still there.
In the 1980s, we had law called sus [suspected person], which was very reminiscent of what’s been happening with the border conversation in America and Black Lives Matter. The point is, we had police officers that were stereotyping a specific group of people, and they acted in accordance, whether it was from fear or ignorance. Much of this still happens. We know why it persists, but it’s striking when I think, wow, we did this in 1980, but somehow it still applies.
How different was it compared to other films in the early 80s?
From 1980 to 1990, there hadn’t been any films that really depicted the black experience in the UK. And honestly, there hasn’t been much since. That actual story depicting life on the road as a lot of us know hasn’t been shown in cinema. It also hasn’t been a box office draw, so it isn’t happening.
But not just that, films like Do the Right Thing are renowned for addressing issues of race, but that was in 1989. You guys did it several years earlier.
True, but that was an American kind of story. Sure, these themes apply to anywhere in the world, but the British world was its own place. We were detailing our experiences from a black British point of view. In 2019, it may not be as black and white as it was in 1980, but we’ve just had a referendum, and most of the population voted against immigration. It was a rebellion against otherness due to the influx of eastern European people coming into the country. It wasn’t a vote against blackness, but one against the threat of lost jobs. Even the other day, there was an investigation into realtor who weren’t offering apartments to black people in London. These are the issues we deal with, and it’s the same story we had to tell.
But I did still identify with your character. That feeling of being angry and scared at the same time. How did you plan on representing black British men who weren’t being seen at the time?
It was a difficult part to mature in. Obviously, Blue was very close to my personality. I didn’t want him to just be me reading a script. I wanted him to be his own character. Due to the problems with sensitive rating system in the UK, Blue was tempered quite a bit. Several scenes where he displayed fire and anger had been taken out. But 40 years later, I don’t miss it as I once did. The film portrays the subtle anger of a young black man pushed against a wall well as opposed to the early days when I thought the anger needed more meat. It’s far more in tuned the ways today’s society can recognize that compared to those who couldn’t comprehend it in 1980.
Did your experiences compare with Blue’s?
I never confronted racism as physically as Blue did in his world. But understand that I was also privileged. At 11-years-old I was doing shows, and moved into the entertainment world where people are far more liberal. I grew up in that surrounding. But like Blue, I’ve had the experience of being profiled, and stopped by the police. I’ve had those moments of being called a racial slur like many have in the west. When I think about Blue’s encounters being compressed within a few days, those things occur within a period of a lifetime. When stretched out, it doesn’t seem as devastating, but it hits home.
I most remember a scene when someone in Blue’s crew punches a white friend who’d been like a brother. It was out of the frustration of the racism they experienced. It’s a special scene.
Yes, that scene is very emotional. What we have to realize though, is that many black people have had that same experience. You’ve been to school with your friends, or at work, and you’re shouting to a friend and they can’t say hello because their mother or crew doesn’t want them to speak with you. At times it’s unsaid with non-invitations. This scene, when the white friend in Ronnie finding himself separated from the crew of black friend he knew so intimately, we’ve all had that experience as black people. That time when you were figuratively headbutted for being different and not fitting in. We’ve had to come to terms with it, whether it was walking in a place to get a job, and suddenly, your colour made a difference. White audiences seeing that in reverse is very dramatic.
Why was the authenticity behind these feelings, and even the interactions matter so much at a time when accuracy wasn’t a priority?
We were relaying the information in terms of how it was. It’s why films like this can stand the test of time. They aren’t dramatizations. This is how it was and is, and director Franco Rosso understood the experience. He knew what otherness felt like as an Italian growing up in a British society. But as an actor, he most importantly allowed actors and non-actors to be themselves. There was nothing to tell us what and how something should be. We all experienced the issues these characters dealt with as far as covert and overt racism. You could say, we were mostly acting as ourselves. It was just real. I still have people who quote lines to me from the movie, because it’s just everyday life. It’s our life all the time.
Why do you think this film was really banned in the US?
In one of the Q&As, when talking about the subject of why it was banned in the west, a woman said, “I think it’s the stabbing scene.” Now I’m here wondering what that’s supposed to mean. There are a ton of movies that feature far more violence. But she then says, “the underdog,” and it made sense. America turned their backs on it, and England gave it an X rating, because the idea of the underdog fighting back is too much for some to handle. It’s a different thought process. Could this film incite riots? Could this group inspire others to go against the establishment? Maybe, and that’s what it was. As we’ve moved through the years, we’ve seen banned content for what it was. They thought differently and freed our minds from what we’ve normalized. In the 1980s, there was a great fear of what film could do alone to incite people.
So do you feel like there’s been a change with British culture and its treatment of other races?
The situation, as with most countries, consists of a group who finance both sides of this argument. They keep the status quo a it is. Will we see a black Prime Minister in the United Kingdom for example? Maybe it will, but it would have to be drastic. My belief is that [Barack] Obama became president because the world realized that America was lying about everything. They lied about weapons of mass destruction and the state of race relations. So what do they do? Create the American dream. If America hadn't found itself exposed, we would have waited far longer for Obama. Will that happen in England, well we’re quite a few years away.
So when you ask me if things have changed, I’ll say that people are much more educated to the lives of others. Are they still ignorant to other races in England? Yes, they are. There’s so much that non-whites have given to society but much of England is ignorant to it. I believe there would be less racism if people just looked at us and recognized how much we’ve given them and how much we can contribute. It's why film in itself is so important. It can be a pathway to that, and these are the things that I think are important for my children to know. For all of us to know. In 1835, the politician Thomas Babington Macaulay returned from Africa and said the nation was beautiful, but that the only way to destroy its people was to make them feel worthless. This is what has happened and it’s what we have to remember when we ask, what has changed. It’s never accidental. It’s an intentional design.
How does it feel to be a part of a film that in many eyes, feels pretty timeless?
I’m proud. It’s unfortunate that we haven’t moved too far from the themes of this film. But you had English judges like Leslie Scarman who asked to see this film because he believed it was the only movie that could give him an idea of what black Britain dealt with. This is a film that was literally used for public inquiry. I’m proud to be a part of that.
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