Set in Brixton (which is to London what Harlem is to New York City—and both have been gentrified in recent years), starring Rasta singer Brinsley Forde (the frontman of the legendary reggae band Aswad), and cowritten by Martin Stellman (who also wrote 1979 UK cult favorite Quadrophenia), Babylon is a feature-length film about black life, black music, and black struggles in 1980 Britain.
The economy is in the toilet, Margaret Thatcher has begun her assault on labor and welfare institutions, and city after city is becoming what the Specials famously described as "a ghost town." If you want some background to the sad Brexit issue that cost the Labour Party a stunning 59 seats in the general election of 2019, you need to see Babylon.
Many of the black men and women in the film are the children of the Windrush generation, Caribbean blacks who came to the UK after the Second World War for jobs. The UK's postwar economy had lots of work to offer the immigrants and also a new commitment to the welfare of the working classes—public housing, the dole (benefits paid by the government to the unemployed), universal health care, and so on. But by the end of the 1970s, the economy was running out of steam and the welfare state was viewed more and more as excessive. Instead of blaming the rich for this state of things, white Brits began blaming the immigrants—black immigrants. This is the birth of your Brexit.
But there's more to Babylon, which is a fictional film, than its substantial historical value. It also has an important story to tell. A young black man called Blue (Forde) loses his job as a car mechanic (his racist boss repeatedly calls him a monkey), he has a very bad encounter with the cops, he is accused of a crime he did not commit, and he ends up on the run from the law. As Jamaican dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, a voice of the Windrush generation, put it: "Inglan is a bitch, dere's no escapin' it." England, once an island of hope and opportunity for black immigrants, became a living hell.
The film is also visually rich. Every minute is filled with the details of a period and milieu that's rarely so crisp on film—the shoddy furniture in the flats, the beat-up cars in the repair garage, the ganja smoke in the underground clubs, the big speakers, the hypnotic toasters, the racial mixing, the tight jeans worn by the Rastas, the old women wheeling their grocery carts, the street markets, the scrappy-looking shops, the empty factories. All of this is wonderful.
Finally, Babylon has a dub score that's dark, crackly, deep, and dread. In the dub echoes, we hear the African paradise that the Rastas long for. But the inner-city blacks can't go anywhere. They are stuck here in Babylon.