Violence. Hatred. Music. Passion. Welcome to the neighborhood.
The old Romeo and Juliet story gets yet another modern treatment in this tale of two unlikely lovers, one black, one Jewish, in the racially charged Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Facts of the Case
Sol (Tariq Trotter) is an up-and-coming hip-hop artist from the Jamaican section of Crown Heights. Sara (Karen Goberman) is a straightlaced Jewish girl from a very religious family. Their worlds collide (literally) one night when a car carrying Sol and his pal Scratch (Bonz Malone) collides with a car driven by Sara's boyfriend Judah (David Vadim). Judah and Scratch quickly get into a heated argument about who is at fault, but Sol and Sara share an instant, mysterious connection.
Tensions mount between the Jewish and black communities as Judah and a group of Jewish vigilantes seeks vengeance on Scratch, and Scratch retaliates by blowing up Judah's car. Judah and his friends retaliate by burning down the door to Club Dread, a popular hip-hop nightspot where Sol and his group are playing.
As the situation escalates, Sol and Sara reject the madness the see coming from their friends and relatives, and seek refuge in each other.
Writer-director Marc Levin conceived Brooklyn Babylon based on his experiences living in Jerusalem, Jamaica, and Brooklyn over the past thirty years. According to the production notes the ties between Judaism and Rastafarianism struck him. While the plot is pure Romeo and Juliet, is it heavily flavored here by the story of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, a story from the Jewish scriptures that forms one of the central elements of Rasta theology. Together he and Bonz Malone created a story that is skillfully assembled from black and Jewish elements, providing some interesting comparison and contrast. This is often accomplished through a juxtaposition of scenes that could almost be continuations of each other, if it were not for the change in location and actors. I am reminded of the scenes in Fritz Lang's M which treat the resemblance between the police and the underworld in similar fashion.
Levin's direction of the movie has a very natural, dynamic feel with lots of subtly effective camera movements and angles. He starts the story slowly, carefully introducing us to Sara and Sol and their respective cultural surroundings. He shows us the neighborhood with almost loving care, letting us grow accustomed to the sights and sounds and textures. Perhaps it just caught me in the right mood, but I found it quite enveloping. Of particular note is the scene early in the movie where Sol and Sara encounter each other in a public garden; their moves are carefully choreographed so that they can conceal the fact that they are talking from anyone who might see them; the camera moves and compositions in this scene are very skillfully done.
Adding to the realism was the performance of Tariq Trotter (AKA "Black Thought") in the role of Sol. The character as written and his performance were surpassingly thoughtful, and he captured the sense of a peaceful musician among much less peaceful compatriots. David Vadim is good in the role of Judah, Sara's hot-headed boyfriend. Although the character as written is a one-dimensional Jewish zealot, Vadim makes him believable. We sense not only Judah's racially-directed anger and frustration, but also his love for Sara, however poorly expressed.
Karen Goberman's performance as Sara, along with Trotter's Sol, is one of the key roles in the movie. In her looks and demeanor she reminds me of Marisa Tomei, only younger and more fragile, less sure of herself. Goberman hits and misses in the role, sometimes capturing Sara's fears and her strength, but sometimes coming across as overly subdued and wooden.
Brooklyn Babylon has been lovingly transferred to DVD by those good folks at Artisan, every indie movie lover's best friend. Picture quality overall is very good; during the opening credits sequence we see rooftop shots of the neighborhood from various angles, and they are as crisp and clear as looking out a window. The movie then cuts to some "news" footage of the last racial disturbances in Crown Heights; this footage is grainy and blurry, as is intended. The rest of the movie looks very good, with colors faithfully rendered and solid blacks. The only flaws I noticed were some occasional noise in solid surfaces and some occasional moiré/shimmer in the exteriors of brick or stone buildings.
The soundtrack is presented in Dolby 2.0 Surround. It is adequate but lacks three-dimensionality that would have added to the realistic feel of the neighborhood. The rear surrounds are used very little, although there are some nightclub scenes later on in the movie that make better use of them for music and crowd sounds. The audio is clear and easy to hear, but nothing remarkable.
Note that I said "easy-to-hear," not "easy-to-understand." There are some characters in the movie who speak with heavy Jamaican accents or in heavily accented slang that I found hard to understand at times. The inclusion of English subtitles would have helped this situation a lot, but they are nowhere to be found on the disc. There are Spanish subtitles included; fortunately, I speak Spanish and was able to use these to interpret some of the more difficult bits. I suspect many other viewers of this disc might not be so fortunate.
Extra content is limited to cast and crew biographical information. There are six actors and seven behind-the-scenes types, including director Levin. The profiles vary quite a bit in length; in particular it struck me that Karen Goberman was shortchanged with only about half a page of text.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Being neither Jewish nor black, I feel a bit like a fish out of water in criticizing this movie. However, it seems to me that both cultures are represented only with the broadest, most stereotypical brushstrokes. The only complete characters in the movie are Sara and Sol, with everyone else around them existing as ciphers. In Sara's family there is the clueless trendy liberal who can't understand why the two groups can't just get along; after all, she notes, they've both been slaves, both experienced genocide. There is the father figure who counsels patience, but rejects the idea of actually mingling with his black neighbors. In Sol's world there is the almost offensive stereotype, his rather large Jamaican mother who just wants him to work hard, be gainfully employed, and forget all that hip-hop music stuff. His friends are also uncomfortably stereotypical images of young black men: people with violent tempers and irrational hatreds who can't complete a sentence without using a certain four-letter word of obscure Anglo-Saxon origins. Sol's only interesting friend is an older man, a Rastafarian record store owner who acts as a mentor to Sol, teaching him peace and wisdom. Even this character seems to slide a bit into the expectations of the role, however, and rather than giving any insight into the Rasta faith Levin and Malone are content to have him smoke ganja and spout peaceful platitudes. Some of these stereotypical words and images may be due to the improvised nature of much of the script; one imagines that the actors, often with no specific lines printed on a page, went with what felt the most natural and perhaps didn't dig deep enough to come up with anything particularly fresh.
When watching the movie it is easy to get lost in the skillful camerawork and the enveloping atmosphere and miss the fact that there really is not much plot here, apart from the standard story of two lovers separated by birth and the people around them. The movie fails to create a real sense of the tension between the two groups, in part because the hostile actions between them are so petty and feel so contrived. Even the love story is overly Hollywoodized; the couple bonds in painfully silly ways, from Sol teaching Sara to "bust a rhyme" to Sara smoking marijuana for the first time. (She has the fastest reaction to it in the history of the world.) They share a romantic evening together at Coney Island after dark, in a scene clearly lifted from Springsteen's "Born to Run." Then, this being a movie, they have sex after knowing each other for a whopping 48 hours. Ahh, romance. The one area where the movie does succeed is in creating a believable sense of place, but even that is undermined by the choice to include lame hip-hop narration complete with mouthed sound effects.
Finally, there were some technical flaws with the copy of Brooklyn Babylon that I received. I had difficulty from time to time in getting my DVD player to recognize the disc when inserted. When loading up the opening menu, there are often some major sound problems and lots of video problems, including major blocking problems; it reminds me of those commercials that compare lousy Internet service to poor-quality TV service. These problems do go away after a bit, and are not always present. Also, the video does appear to pause or "catch" slightly during chapter transitions in the early part of the movie. I am unable to say whether these problems are unique to my disc or are more widespread.
Brooklyn Babylon desperately wants to be an "important" film and make a statement about race relations, but it's really just a trite production of Romeo and Juliet with Brooklyn sets and costumes. In that respect it might make a semi-satisfying love story. However, if you are looking for insightful social commentary, move along, this is not the film you are looking for.
Brooklyn Babylon isn't really guilty of anything other than missed opportunities, so it is free to go. Artisan is to be commended on a nice DVD of an indie film that probably escaped everyone else's notice.
We stand adjourned.
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