Where many black directors have made music an important part of their films Babymother (d. Julian Henriques, 1998) is the first truly Black British musical. Despite the strong tradition of British musicals in the 1960s and '70s, by the 1990s the form had virtually disappeared. The main reason was the box-office disaster of Absolute Beginners (d. Julian Temple, 1986). Babymother, alongside Alan Parker's The Commitments (UK/US, 1991), was one of the few British musicals of the period.
Like Henriques' well-received short, We the Ragamuffin (Channel 4, tx.7/9/1992), Babymother is set in the world of reggae dancehall promotion and council estates, among the poor black youths who live in the latter and find pleasure in the former.
Teen mum Anita (Anjela Lauren Smith) has style, energy and attitude. Her ambition is to become the local Dancehall queen. But she lacks confidence and is overshadowed by Byron (Wil Johnson), father of her two children and a successful singer in his own right. When Byron steals some of her lyrics, she is determined to make her own mark. But the realities of single motherhood - no money, trapped in a dreary high rise estate - hold her back. Her plans are also momentarily derailed by a personal crisis.
Supported by her 'rude girl' friends, Anita emerges a black feminist icon, overcoming many obstacles to forge a recording career. Eventually her path crosses the now hostile Byron, angry that she is not home with the kids and dares to compete with him. At a major 'sound clash', where deejays and singers battle for the Dancehall crown, Anita and Byron go toe to toe - with surprising consequences.
Using reggae and the conventions of the musical, Babymother uncovers the energetic culture beating at the heart of Harlesden's streets and estates. Alongside veterans Corinne Skinner-Carter, as Anita's mum, and Don Warrington, as ruthless promoter Luther, the film introduces many unknown actors and musicians from this world.
Although it captures the vibrant black dancehall culture of Harlesden, it does so in a strange vacuum, where no white faces intrude, and no attempt is made to engage with the wider world. Some critics identified this as the film's greatest weakness, removing an important level of conflict. Babymother remains a very traditional British musical. Like Tommy (d. Ken Russell, 1975) and Oliver! (d. Carol Reed, 1968), it uses music to accurately explore a sub-culture and raise wider social issues.