And you thought Romeo and Juliet had it rough. At least they were the same race; the same nationality; hell, they were practically neighbors. Then again, so are Sol (Tariq Trotter) and Sara (Karen Goberman), although their worlds, though geographically just across the street from each other, are almost infinitely far apart.
Sol is a charismatic rasta rapper fronting the up and coming hip-hop group “King Sol and the Lions.” Sara is a ravishing young Jewish woman with an independent streak, chafing at the restraints of her culture. They meet in an automobile collision right on the unofficial border which divides Crown Heights, Brooklyn into its African-American and Hasidic Jewish neighborhoods. This crash re-ignites racial tensions in a flashpoint neighborhood already infamous for its 1991 race riot. It doesn’t help that zealots on both sides of the divide, led by Sara’s hothead thug of a fiance Judah (David Vadim) and Sol’s less-than-squeaky clean manager Scratch (Bonz Malone), intentionally use the accident to escalate the tension and embark on a pattern of increasingly violent reprisals.
Yet, the accident also brings Sol and Sara together in a forbidden interracial, intercultural romance that could either engulf two mutually hostile peoples in another racial conflageration…or serve as an example of hope and understanding for their respective communities.
Though one can most obviously compare “Brooklyn Babylon” to “Romeo and Juliet” or “West Side Story,” the film is actually a hip-hop take on the mystical biblical story of Solomon and Sheba. Sol and Sara are both fascinating characters, thanks to exceptional performances by Trotter and Goberman. The rest of the characters, however, are little more than cartoonish stereotypes and caricatures; possibly an inevitable result of the film’s improvisational nature.
In spite of the literally explosive issues director Marc Levin’s film explores, it’s a surprisingly by-the-numbers film. It delves into this time-bomb world, then doesn’t quite seem to know how to get itself out of it. Levin resolves Sol and Sara’s story, at least, but only by placing them in a virtual vacuum, ignoring the larger issues their relationship inflamed. An excellent soundtrack by The Roots covers for some of these problems, but in the end, one can’t help but feel like this film ends just as it should be getting started.
When a film generates as much pre-screening publicity as did “Brooklyn Babylon” — Artisan Entertainment yanked the film from Slamdance two days before the festival opened — it had better live up to the inevitable hype. It doesn’t quite.
Yet, what this color-blind love story does do, is remind the audience that while we read every day about the seemingly never-ending Isræli/Palestinian struggle, a similarly dangerous potential conflict simmers largely under the radar right here in the U.S. By focusing the public eye on these issues, “Brooklyn Babylon” is a very noble, very near miss.