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1981: Margaret Thatcher is prime minister of the United Kingdom, while Ronald Reagan becomes president of the United States. Around the same time, two films about black music emerge on each side of the pond: Franco Rosso’s Babylon and Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style. Babylon, set in the world of dancehall DJ’s in South London, premiered at Cannes in 1980, but wasn’t released in the United States until 2019 due to its confrontation of racism, poverty, and police violence. It is a singular portrait of the UK during Thatcher’s reign, as well as a gripping chronology of the music scene at the time. Wild Style, released in 1982 and set in the South Bronx, is the earliest hip-hop film, introducing the sound that would take over the United States, and eventually the entire world. Following a crew of graffiti artists, the film is less direct in its socio-political critique, but serves as a benchmark for the artform that would come to be an influential voice for change. Directed by two white filmmakers, the films rely on the essential collaboration of their actors to form a snapshot of black culture and its artistry under the ever familiar conservative stronghold of the Special Relationship.

Babylon

Franco Rosso United Kingdom, 1980

Long suppressed due to its confrontation of racial oppression in Thatcher’s England, Franco Rossi’s crucial reggae drama remains as timely as ever. Brinsley Forde’s commanding performance, an astounding soundtrack, and stunning cinematography form an urgent portrait of racism’s impact on daily life.

Wild Style

Charlie Ahearn United States, 1983

Directed by Charlie Ahearn, this is the first true hip-hop film, capturing the early energy of the sound that would take over the world. Set in the early 80s Bronx, the film’s fictional plot yields to the real artistry occurring in its setting, simmering with a cultural revolution about to emerge.

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