In his third feature, Marc Levin invokes equal parts “West Side Story” and his Sundance prize-winning “Slam” with mostly bombastic, melodramatic results. “Brooklyn Babylon” was shown as a “surprise” opening-night attraction at Slamdance over the objections of distrib Artisan, and while it’s not a terrible stretch to say that the controversy is more interesting than the film’s content, pic is not without modest commercial potential, particularly with urban auds.
Set amid the often violent cauldron of differences between blacks and Jews in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, “Babylon” is a case of means exceeded by ambition. Levin seems to want to examine any number of provocative questions about the difficulty ethnic cultures face in maintaining their traditions, and the conflict between those traditions and personal liberties. But no sooner does the helmer/co-scripter raise these issues than he abandons them in favor of unchecked histrionics.
Structurally, pic is reminiscent of “Slam,” which also placed an unlikely love story against a backdrop of edgy, urban poetry. Here, hip-hop musicians the Roots stand in for the slam poetry readings of the earlier film, appearing as the members of a band headed by Rastafarian rapper Sol (Tariq Trotter, aka Black Thought, who is frontman and chief lyricist for the Roots). In a number of extended musical performances, the group fires up a furious fusion of blues, funk, reggae and rap that serves as the film’s politically aware Greek chorus. As an introduction to the Roots and their prodigious talent, “Brooklyn Babylon” is more than apt.
Pic begins as two independent narratives: one following Sol and his band as they try to navigate their way toward a musicbiz career, the other following Sara (Karen Goberman), a young Jewish woman from a conservative family, and her fiance, Judah (David Vadim), in their everyday lives. A car accident between Judah and Scratch (Bonz Malone), Sol’s childhood friend and de facto manager, sets the stage for a rather forced meet-cute between Sara and Sol, who somehow manage to find love at first sight amid the chaos of the near-riot incited by Judah and Scratch.
About three-quarters of the way through, there’s a scene of such tenderness, intimacy and unfettered, in-the-moment truthfulness that you sit up, take notice and, for a moment, forget the meandering hour or so of narrative that has preceded it. As Sara and Sol sit beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, she leans over and caresses a strand of his dreadlocked hair with an awe that acknowledges she has never touched such hair before.
But Levin’s semi-improvisational style yields as many (or more) moments of acting-class awkwardness as it does of raw dramatic power. Thesps react to this loosely structured working environment with varying degrees of success. Goberman ranges from overzealous to ineffectual in scenes that are critical to developing a chemistry between her and Trotter — which, as a result, never really takes hold. Trotter, on the other hand, has a rare, mesmerizing screen charisma and credibility.
Unfortunately, outside of the two leads, there’s nary an even-keeled depiction to be found. Judah and Scratch, in particular, are stereotyped as one-dimensional militants, hellbent on firebombing each other into extinction. Given that Levin hails from Brooklyn, there’s a temptation to give him the benefit of the doubt that perhaps this kind of panic in the streets is representative of the contemporary situation in Crown Heights. But if that is indeed the case, Sol and Sara come off as exceedingly naive about the potential ramifications of their intimacy.
Levin’s strength lies in the moments of essayistic, non-narrative observation, drawn from his documentarian roots, that juxtapose black and Jewish rituals, evoking their fundamental similarities (for example, one of Sol’s raps intercut with the recitation of a section of the Torah) in a series of crisply edited montages. But within the lean running time, the helmer shortchanges his disparate attentions, ranging from Sol’s continued struggle to land a recording contract to Sara’s increasingly tumultuous family life.
Pic seems desperate to convey the same sort of immediacy about the corrosive power of prejudice and hate as Spike Lee did in “Do the Right Thing.” But while Levin’s evocative, handheld images demonstrate a great familiarity with the physical landscape in which his story is set, he ultimately seems naive on real matters of race politics, preferring to show the effects of black-Jewish tension rather than its underlying causes.