A rage in Harlesden: Stuart Hall on Babymother, Britain’s first dancehall drama

A rage in Harlesden: Stuart Hall on Babymother, Britain’s first dancehall drama
Despite the much acclaimed British cinema renaissance, black British films are still rarer than gold dust. Babymother, the new ‘reggae musical’ from Formation Films, courtesy of Channel Four Films, the Arts Council and sundry foreign backers, will be one of the first of the new cinematic wave to test the treacherous waters of British film distribution.

Babymother is available to rent on BFI Player.

Directed by Julian Henriques, former Arena and BBC arts-documentary producer, and produced by Parminder Vir, herself a successful television-documentary producer and his partner in Formation Films, Babymother is grounded in the vibrant black scene of dancehall – the latest musical sound (and look) to capture the imagination of Britain’s urban black youth. Shot on location in Harlesden, one of London’s black inner suburbs, using largely non-professional actors, it is a much expanded and transformed version of an idea first tried out by Henriques in a 1992 Channel 4 docudrama-with-music, We the Ragamuffin.

Babymother is the story of Anita (Anjela Lauren Smith), a young black woman who has two children for babyfather Byron (Wil Johnson), an ambitious reggae singer. Anita is determined – along with her two rude-girl friends Sharon (Caroline Chikezie) and Yvette (Jocelyn Esien) – to become a dee-jay, make a successful recording and be the toast of the local dancehall scene.

However, life as a babymother on a Harlesden housing estate is a difficult base from which to launch this project, and Anita is having trouble with both the babyfather (who is more dedicated to his singing career than to his paternal duties) and her mother and sister (who disapprove of her ragga style, attitude and ambitions), not to mention raising the money for the demo-tape session. The vicissitudes which accompany her struggles to survive, and her group’s ultimate success in a competition with Byron, provide the film’s main narrative drive.

This storyline, however, is merely the thin scaffold for the elements that really give Babymother its vitality and raw energy, which have everything to do with the dancehall scene. It is not the first film to be based on dancehall – but the low-budget, tape-to-film Hi-8 Dance Hall Queen (shot by Don Letts and Rick Elgood for Chris Blackwell of Island Records fame), which commanded Jamaican screens without a break for six months, still languishes without a commercial release in Britain.

This feature originally appeared in our September 1998 issue

This feature originally appeared in our September 1998 issue

Dancehall has been loosely appropriated into Britain’s black inner suburbs from Jamaica’s burgeoning club scene. The music derives by way of a series of sliding transfers from ‘roots’ reggae, through hip-hop to dee-jay music and US-influenced gangsta rap: rhythms with which black youth has been beguiling the hearts and souls of white ‘wannabes’ (that is, ‘want-to-be blacks’) in the urban club scene for some time.

The violent imagery, sexually explicit (often homophobic) lyrics and dance movements which characterised the so-called ‘slackness’ style of the dominant male ragga singers (such as Buju Banton) have been translated into the stunningly glamorous, recklessly minimalist fashion outfits, incredible hairstyle constructions and erotic body-moves of their followers, the ragga girls.

Indeed, the women’s display/performances in dancehall – to or at or for their ‘men’? – have rapidly become its scandalous, spectacular centrepiece. The girls’ taking of centre stage, putting their new-found independence (or, not to mince words, “pussy-power”) into the music and their bodies fully on the line – which is at the narrative heart of Babymother – represents the capture and overrunning of the last bastion of the male-dominated reggae scene.

As the song puts it, “No need no ring ‘pan we finger to be a man’s wife / The loving wha’ we have man want that for life / We live in the gym, non-stop exercise / And the body wha’ we have make man stand up and rise.” So much for patriarchal power.

Babymother (1998)

Babymother (1998)

Almost everything to do with dancehall itself in Babymother is first rate. The recording-studio sequences and dancehall scenes – especially the final showdown between Byron and Anita – are beautifully shot and exciting to watch, transmitting an authentic feel of the cultural vibes. The music – ranging from slow reggae to ferocious rap put-downs like I Don’t Care and featuring some of the finest current black British performers (including Carroll Thompson and Cinderella) – is of consistently high quality.

But the other aspects of Anita’s story – the love entanglements, the difficult relationships with her mother and sister and the scenes shot around Harlesden – are more problematic. Here the narrative tends to become cluttered, with too many dramatic turns that remain undermotivated. Designed to lend emotional depth to the portrait of Anita’s life and social context to the story, these scenes feel as if they have been conceived and directed in a different register, owing more to well-made, social-realist British television drama than to the exuberant stylisations of the musical.

The portrait of Harlesden remains sketchy and generalised, while the emotional scenes test the range of these engaging but inexperienced actors. There is a real question about the relationship between the everyday lives and the stylish dancehall performances of these rude boys and girls – whether, ‘in reality’, these different facets belong together or are a Saturday night/Monday morning thing – but the tensions of this aspect of dancehall subculture are not convincingly explored, so the film’s different registers appear as a lack of stylistic integration.

This is compounded by the fact that Babymother is described as a ‘reggae-musical’. One expects the term musical to be used loosely here: that this will be a film about the music scene, which will provide the narrative excuse for a great deal of musical performance. But audiences may be surprised to find that the film also works to the conventions of the musical genre, with characters in everyday-life settings bursting into song – or rather, works in this way some of the time.

Two scenes towards the beginning – where Byron woos his way back into Anita’s affections and she, in song (and body), ‘responds’; and when he tries to win her by serenading her from the bonnet of his convertible and the girls on the balcony send him packing in a musical ‘reply’ – are strictly non-naturalistic in form. However, unaccountably, the genre conventions then disappear, the rest being conceived and shot in a broadly stylised naturalism.

This may be the result of revisions in the editing room or a change of heart as the production progressed, but the effect is to make the film’s address to the audience difficult to read. Knowing references to other films and genres are all the rage these days, in the spirit of postmodern quotation, but this reflexivity works only if the shifts are self-consciously undertaken and clearly marked. It’s difficult in Babymother’s case to see what introducing such references and then abandoning them is supposed to achieve.

Babymother (1998)

Babymother (1998)
Credit: Channel Four Television Corporation

All this suggests Babymother is unsure what kind of film it aims to be – as was Isaac Julien’s Young Soul Rebels (1991), a film about black soul music, sexual politics and growing up black and male in London, a political thriller and a film noir rolled into one. It’s as if black filmmakers have so few chances to make films they are seduced into trying to realise all the movies they have in their heads in one go, in case they never get another shot at it.

What looks like a failure of stylistic integration in Babymother may be the effect of trying to make a serious film about black popular life and a musical entertainment extravaganza within the same cinematic vehicle. It may also be a function of grafting on to a commercially risky venture a sure-fire popularity and box-office appeal, offering its audiences something on screen they can identify with.

This should not affect our overall assessment of Babymother’s achievement. New British cinema has not so far produced a successful film of any quality based on the music industry – its forays into youth culture have studiously avoided that culture’s most exuberant aspects and primary domain: everything to do with the music scene. This is where black British youth culture – stylish, self-confident, aspirational, entrepreneurial and replete with attitude – has been making its indelible mark on British popular culture, transforming street fashion, dance and sexuality-as-public-spectacle in its wake.

Having succeeded in introducing the black male body into contemporary media iconography, it intends to make a series of body-moves on the carefully constructed limits of the current ‘babe’ style. Those wishing to know what the new ‘multi-cultural London’ is really like should stroll down Harlesden High Street on a Friday afternoon, as the black boutiques close and the dancehall venues and Jungle-music clubs prepare to come to life, and listen to the white ‘rude boys’ with their imitation locks talking a broad Estuary-Trench Town patois, and measure the length of the women’s, as it were, skirts.

Babymother (1998)

Babymother (1998)
Credit: Channel Four Television Corporation

Babymother’s audiences will be invited – perhaps for the first time – to look inside the engine of popular creativity, in all its raw excess, which is being tentatively invoked in more sober terms in New Labour’s relentlessly empty hype about New Britain. This is a bit of New Britain little dreamed of by Norman Tebbit, or, one suspects, Tony Blair (though Peter Mandelson may have encountered it!).

This film is wired directly into the motor of assertive energy which is powering so-called multi-cultural Britain, to whose rhythm London is increasingly swinging. Indeed, dancehall represents the thin, shapely, aggressively stylised and eroticised black body of Hot Britain struggling to get out from inside the sleeker, fatter, complacent corporate figure of Cool Britannia.

Cultural critics – in Harlesden, Kingston and on Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue (for this is a black diasporic phenomenon, as Isaac Julien’s 1994 television documentary The Darker Side of Black clearly shows) – are already at work trying to unravel what Babymother has to tell us about the current state of play in the gender wars. For dancehall represents one form of the cultural emancipation of young black women: the film’s rude girls breaking out from being forever bossed about by the rude boys in the unthinkingly masculinist world of reggae culture.

It transmits the sight and sound of an explosive declaration of independence – though the position of the rude girl who is also a babymother (implying the continuing importance but conspicuously absent presence of the babyfather) reminds us of the persistent ambiguities on which this independence is predicated. In dancehall women can simulate the wilder aspects of copulation in their dance movements on stage as explicitly and aggressively as any man, but they remain, as Babymother shows, emotionally centred on the absent male and are on display for the men (as well as, perhaps, for one another). Their sexual lives, their squabbles and jealousies, still revolve around the male figures to whom the performances appear to be primarily addressed.

These complex issues are well represented within the film through Anita’s tender moments alone with her children, the scenes of them with their father, when he’s at home (which avoid the usual sentimentality), and the film’s theme song itself, which underlines the message: “Babymother! Be a Mother to Your Child!” But they cannot be fully explored within the limits of its entertainment conventions. In that sense Babymother marks another episode in second-wave feminism’s long, incomplete march. It reminds us that popular culture, despite its elements of celebration and resistance, is also and always an ambiguous and contradictory space.

Among other issues, Babymother poses the question of just how, and by what complicated shifts, the liberation of women is connected to girl power. And, as an added bonus in an engaging black British extravaganza, Anita, Sharon and Yvette make the Spice Girls look like convent fifth-formers at a Sunday afternoon tea party. 

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