Babymother (1998) is widely considered to be the first truly Black British musical…
As it follows ragga singers and ragga girls who express themselves freely through their music. It’s grounded in the late-1990s Harlesden Black dancehall scene – the hardcore of British reggae. Babymother’s authentic feel exudes throughout the film through the vibrant energy of Black British youth culture found in London’s NW10.
The film follows Anita (Anjela Lauren Smith) – a stylish and energetic young Black woman whose ambition is to become the local dancehall deejay star. Along with her ‘rude girl’ friends Yvette (Jocelyn Esein) and Sharon (Caroline Chikezie), Anita has to prove herself capable in the masculinist world of reggae and as a mother bringing up two kids on a Harlesden housing estate. Anita has some growing up to do, and the film follows her navigating her relationships with her mum (Corinne Skinner-Carter), sister Rose (Suzette Llewellyn), and her baby father, Byron (Wil Johnson) – a singer with his own ambitions. Don Warrington plays the ruthless promoter Luther.
Newly remastered in 2K by the BFI, Babymother is released on Blu-ray for the first time on July 26th. Extras include director Julian Henriques’ We the Ragamuffin (1992, 26 mins), a musical short set in Peckham that formed the inspiration and was expanded on for Babymother. As well as newly filmed interviews with Julian Henriques and producer Parminder Vir (2021, 44 mins), actress Anjela Lauren Smith in conversation with Corrina Antrobus (2021, 49 mins), and music consultant Carroll Thompson in conversation with Rōgan Graham (2021, 32 mins).
We talked to Anjela Lauren Smith to reminisce about the film and her journey to becoming Anita….
Please introduce yourself…
I’m Anjela Lauren Smith, British born to Barbadian parents here in London. My family span the diaspora so let’s say a broad ancestry that includes Cuban and a touch of Irish. My siblings have Jamaican Husbands, so that is also a huge part of my family life. I’m a Mom, Actress, performer…I’ve had my hand in a few pies so to speak, so l now just say ‘Creative’.
Please share a word or sentence which best describes your life right now.
What was your life like as an actress during that time and how did you get the role of Anita?
l had gone backwards to go forward if that makes sense….(Laughing) I had been in the entertainment industry since the age of 17 years both sides of the camera. By the age of 19, l had stopped doing runway and modelling jobs. I wasn’t sure that l wanted to live in the UK anymore, as l had spent a lot of time in Italy. With very few pennies in my pocket, l decided at 20 to do evening courses in acting, join a youth theatre group and do an A level in Performing Arts. I did this all for a few years while assisting a very well-known casting director.
Before Babymother l grafted as l knew l really wanted this. The graft never stops, but l was determined that if l didn’t go to a formal drama school, then l would train by any means. My Canadian tutor in my Stanislavski class, Rodney Archer gave me a nudge- he told me to either apply for drama school grants; or to go find an agent. I did the latter.
I had some work prior to Babymother as an actress, l managed to get a film role on a no-budget film, playing a fiery community activist. I worked with a lot of lovely people and also a workshop at The Royal Court of a new play, alongside Ray Winstone. I don’t call it luck, more serendipity with most of my early life in entertainment. I blossomed in my teens from being a very shy Academic to someone who wasn’t going to be told she can’t, because of how she sounded, because she’s black and then ultimately because she was a Mom. My son Fabian, was around 5 months old when l first auditioned for the role of ‘Anita’. This was via the traditional route and casting director, Carol Dudley.
This includes many auditions, screen tests, dance/music group auditions. I put up a fight, as l wanted the role and l almost knew if l could do this….Then my heart could do anything. The pledge of youth! When you’re determined you can learn, you can push but you also have to convince the many people that make up the production of a film.
How did being in this film impact you and your mindset going forward especially with how it resonated with the audience?
Wow, everything was a learning curve for me; hitting marks, behaviour on set, pacing myself, forming bonds and so on. I didn’t really understand the gravity of a lead role, but this was formative for me. It wasn’t like a performance in a music video, so my camera experience was solidified right there. My mindset was- you can have all the talent in the world, but professionalism is what gels your place
in the industry.
The audience is the beginning and the end, if people understood Anita with all her brashness and sometimes naivety, then my job was done? Not so simple, but the fact we are still talking about a film that’s 23 years old….Brings me joy and pride. At a time where black-led projects were not in abundance, l feel happy that many women of all races have loved the film. So many have contacted me in the last 5 years, told me how they saw it as their Mum would watch it. My Great Niece was coming home from school and wanting to watch the film every evening; that touched me as it is fun, it’s a musical and a colourful huge slice of a world- where women didn’t sit down and wait to be asked for a dance.
Okay, let’s talk fashion. The vibrant style of dancehall is of course prevalent in the film, with Anita and her ‘rude girl’ friends displaying great looks throughout. Could you tell us why this was a huge component of the film?
Music and fashion go hand in hand, across all genres. There’s so much cross over; Even Punk with the rips in tops and jeans, are effervescent in Dancehall. I’m thinking carnival, West Indian culture, African culture and showgirls….l can see lots of references. Hip Hop even, as Anita wears a sneaky pair of Timbaland’s. I grew up a lot around both reggae and Hip Hop, but the Bashment scene had girls wanting to be original, loud, sexy and the competition was high!
The Costumes were the baby of Annie Curtis Jones (Rest in peace)…l loved every minute of it. This is a movie (Baby) we had to go hard or go home, the outlandish costumes added to the vibe. I’m sure Julian, will have more to say on this. I think a few trends were set and if we look at Pop culture today, a lot of Bashment looks are in the mainstream from nails to hair and styles.
What was it like filming in 1990s Harlesden for both of you and have you taken a walk down memory lane in recent times?
I used to be around there years ago, as l had friends living off the High St. Filming was cool, as there were a lot of locals involved in filming.
What do you think the re-release of Babymother means for the younger generation who may not have seen the film in the 1990s, but are involved with today’s evolution of dancehall?
I’m thinking that for everyone from Afrobeat lovers, Grime and the previous Junglist, Garage, Funky House… It’s a film about women, relationships, motherhood, ups and downs, drive, hope …So l hope any new viewers will see that too.
It means this was something that although it came a while ago it can still be enjoyed and relevant. We live in a fast turnover in terms of music and fashion, I hope it means they can understand the relevance of the past as Babymother hasn’t dated for me, but of course, I’m biased! I just hope they are go-getters, fierce girls, hot Gyals, confident, intelligent and creators of the new stories.
As we enjoy somewhat of a British Black creative renaissance when you reflect on your journeys as Black creatives through a time when opportunities were there, and then disappeared – what do you hope for the new generation and for those who’ve managed to stick it out and are still working today?
With no ego, l continued to play lead roles, for a bit. The opportunities definitely changed and l have been close to giving up on a few occasions. In terms of ‘Sticking it out’…. I have done, but l kinda can’t speak for others. A lot of people broke big, who l worked alongside; many of us didn’t.
Ageism in the industry- The USA still seems to have more work for black actors, especially in my age. Writing is the way forward as Michaela Coel has done. It’s also a ballgame of funding etc. I look out there and see that there is change and for the new generation. I love the trajectory of many young actors. The industry is not for the faint-hearted. My son is a musician and l see his heart and graft. Talent isn’t always enough, but l also refuse to feel too negative.
I’ve done 31 years in the industry itself, no one owes me anything- But l know, my career could’ve been different. I’m Self -Taping, a lot! …. It’s not easy, but my Agents are the stars and keep me encouraged. When the ‘Yes’ comes, I’m ready, match fit and l hope that l won’t disappoint.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU…
A book you have to have in your collection? The Souls Code – James Hillman.
A song/album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date? The Miseducation of Lauren Hill.
A film / TV show that you can watch/have watched repeatedly? Carmen Jones (1954)
The first stage production you saw and what it meant to you? My sister took me to see UB40 at Wembley when l was 8 years old. I felt like an adult.
What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week? Sad- Someone telling me their life story. Mad- A guy calling a girl ‘Bunda’ in the street. This was late night….Grrrr l got vexed! I gave her some Sista love as he was renk (Rude). Glad- Looking at ideas for my wedding- no date yet!
Released on Blu-ray, iTunes, Amazon Prime and BFI Player Rentals from 26 July 2021
Photo credit- Jim Grover