Babymother (1998)

One of the great public services in recent internet history is the Instagram account @firefitsneworleans, a “New Orleans Street Style” archive that highlights “the best looks on the streets of our beloved city documented by a group of friends.”  Not only is it just a beautiful collection of D.I.Y. fashion stunts, it’s also a vital record of the incredible visual art of local Black style – especially home-made outfits designed to draw attention at second lines.  Of course, New Orleans’s second line tradition is its own unique cultural niche, but I was thinking a lot about @firefitsneworleans while watching the low-budget musical Babymother, set in the dancehall reggae scene of late-90s West End, London.  Babymother is a distinct work in many ways, not least of all in its billing as “the first Black British musical.”  I was most impressed by it as a lookbook of dancehall fashion stunts, though, as every scene-to-scene costume change dropped my jaw.  What’s most incredible about the film’s D.I.Y. Black fashion stylings is that most of the outfits would feel perfectly at home on the @firefitsneworleans page two decades later, without feeling retro or costumey.  We’re in the exact sweet spot where late-90s nightclub fashion is hip again instead of feeling passé, and Babymother is itself an excellent snapshot of that moment in Black fashion history.

This is my favorite kind of musical: one with catchy pops songs I’d listen to in my free time anyway, ignoring musical theatre tradition.  The titular babymother is an aspiring dancehall M.C., Anita, whose dirtbag boyfriend is already a minor celebrity on the reggae charts.  Anita’s boyfriend wants her to abandon her dreams of starting her own music career so she can focus on raising their kids while he disappears on tour for months on end.  She defies his demands and starts a small, all-girl reggae group with her friends, renaming themselves Neeta, Sweeta, & Nastie.  The only problem is that all three members of the group are single mothers who struggle to find babysitters so they can perform at nightclubs or record singles, while their knucklehead boyfriends enjoy a much greater freedom outside the home.  As wonderful as Babymother is as a vintage reggae musical and Black fashion lookbook, it’s also a surprisingly complicated drama.  The movie starts with sitcom-style opening credits where every person in Anita’s life is introduced by their relationship to her: “her friend,” “her rival,” “her mother,” etc.  That turns out to be a helpful guide, since the movie often swerves into shocking family secrets & betrayals that force Anita to overcome much more internal, complex conflicts than merely sneaking around a controlling boyfriend.  The movie is set up to be A Reggae Star is Born, but it’s something much thornier than that.  There’s a quiet exchange of glances during the inevitable battle-of-the-bands climax that genuinely choked me up, which is hard to do in a musician’s rise-to-success story this narratively familiar.

Even if Babymother weren’t an emotionally fulfilling drama, it would still be Essential Cinema just as a late-90s fashion lookbook.  I love the 90s NYC club-kid relic Party Girl, but I can’t claim that its half-invested romcom story template means all that much to me emotionally.  That movie’s charms rest entirely on Parker Posey “finding herself” while looking cute and modeling outrageous outfits.  And it rules.  Familial drama aside, Babymother is a similar pleasure, just with a different nightclub soundtrack and a different cultural context for its fashion stunts.  In a better world, both films would’ve been hits, and we’d have a modern New Orleans-set indie drama following in their dance steps – this time with a bounce soundtrack, duh.  As fabulous as it is, I don’t know how permanent of a local fashion archive @firefitsneworleans can be in the long-term, since the social media serververse is still untested when it comes to decades of cultural longevity.  Meanwhile, even as a movie that bombed in its time, Babymother was recently restored in crisp HD detail by The BFI and presented on The Criterion Channel as part of their streaming collection “Roots & Revolution: Reggae on Film.”  Cinema has a way of preserving niche pop culture iconography in a way other mediums cannot, and I am grateful that Babymother is still around as a snapshot of West End dancehall fashion even though it was not well seen or respected in its time.

-Brandon Ledet

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