Where to begin with Isaac Julien

With a major exhibition of his work currently on at Tate Britain, we plot a path through the radical, sensuous cinema of British artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien.

Looking for Langston (1989)

Why this might not seem so easy

Encompassing and integrating documentary, dance, drama, music, photography, sculpture and essay film, the work of Isaac Julien is best described as transgressive – in form, content and political commitment, all of which are also intimately intertwined. 

Julien’s work blurs barriers between time periods, between modes of art-making, between practice and theory, between original and archival material, the poetic and the political, as well as between the desires and identities of its diverse protagonists. It is an art of radical juxtaposition, evolving from an early ‘bricolage’ aesthetic to deluxe multi-screen gallery installations which encourage a fluid look across images – always alerting spectators to new possibilities of connection.

This approach has much to do with Julien’s cultural and educational background. Born in London in 1960 to parents from St Lucia, he graduated from St Martin’s School of Art with a BA in Fine Art Film. He was still studying at St Martin’s when he co-founded the Sankofa Film and Video Collective in 1983, one of several such ’80s initiatives that sought to develop an independent ecosystem for Black British cinema.

The Passion of Remembrance (1986)

The ongoing relevance of Sankofa’s projects can hardly be overstated. They include Julien’s debut documentary Who Killed Colin Roach? (1983), a reflection on the young Black man’s suspicious death in police custody and the ensuing protests; the experimental exploration of carnival in Territories (1984); and the boldly intersectional The Passion of Remembrance (1986), co-directed with Maureen Blackwood, which examines Black feminist activism and the exchange between British and American gay culture.

Since those early days, Julien’s output has grown ever more expansive in scope while returning to particular themes and retaining its commitment to, in his words, “contesting dominant media”. If that sounds dry then think again: Julien’s work is often swooningly sensuous, as his superb major survey show, What Freedom Is to Me, currently at Tate Britain, fully demonstrates. Meticulous in its approach to montage, colour and sound design, and always full of surprises, Julien’s is an art of serious pleasure. 

The best place to start – Young Soul Rebels

It wouldn’t be remiss to begin a journey with Julien’s work by watching the aforementioned Sankofa films. For most viewers, though, the best place to start is surely 1991’s Young Soul Rebels. Awarded the Cannes Critics’ Week prize, it’s the most accessible of Julien’s features. Set in 1977, the focus is on friends Caz (Mo Sesay) and Chris (Valentine Nonyela) – the former Black and gay, the latter biracial and straight – who run a pirate radio show, and whose partnership is complicated by different ambitions, new love interests and a murder investigation. 

Young Soul Rebels (1991)

Juxtaposing the official national narrative of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee with the intersecting subcultures of 1970s London, the vibrant Young Soul Rebels boasts a straightforward narrative that mobilises murder mystery and buddy movie tropes, but is also deeply subversive in its celebration of multicultural mixing and interracial queer contact. 

Pair it with Julien’s 1987 short This Is Not an AIDS Advertisement, a counter to moral panic featuring the filmmaker and his partner Mark Nash that similarly exhorts guilt-free liberation. 

What to watch next

A throughline across Julien’s diverse output has been portraits of cultural figures (re-)constructed via a mixture of archive footage, interviews, quotations and dramatic reconstruction. This approach was initiated with Looking for Langston (1989), the next vital step on a Julien journey. An impressionistic, lyrical and loving monochrome meditation on the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes that also nods to wider gay histories, the film was an international breakthrough for Julien, winning a Teddy at Berlinale and gaining considerable arthouse recognition beyond. 

Frantz Fanon: Black Skin White Mask (1995)

Langston might be followed up with Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask (1995), made by Julien and Nash, which features Colin Salmon as the Martinican intellectual whose writings are foundational works of post-colonial theory. No simple hagiography, this compact film does justice to the complexities and contradictions of Fanon’s texts and admits dissenting voices, with contributors including Julien’s long-time collaborator Stuart Hall. 

An intimate reflection on another of Julien’s associates, Derek Jarman, Derek (2008) is also worthwhile, and so is Lina Bo Bardi – A Marvellous Entanglement (2019), which casts the real-life mother/daughter duo of Fernanda Montenegro and Fernanda Torres as the Italian-born Brazilian architect, and demonstrates Julien’s use of choreography to express and develop themes. “Time is not linear,” Bo Bardi remarks, “it is a marvellous entanglement, where at any moment points can be chosen and solutions invented without beginning or end.” 

Also from 2019 is the extraordinary Lessons of the Hour, a 10-screen installation starring Ray Fearon as the 19th-century abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass. Investing heritage tropes with a fresh sensibility that subtly draws out contemporary resonances, this gorgeous film is particularly revelatory on Douglass’s time in Scotland and his awareness of photography as a liberationist tool, and has its screens artfully arranged to emulate a “salon-style” hang from Douglass’s era. 

Indeed, the museum and the archive, particularly as they relate to Black cultural production, have been vital spaces in Julien’s work. They have been explored in a varied set of dreamy, provocative pieces that complement each other, from 1993’s The Attendant, through the Turner Prize-nominated Vagabondia (2000) (choreographed by Javier de Frutos, with whom Julien also collaborated on 1999’s The Long Road to Mazatlán) up to his most recent installation, Once Again… (Statues Never Die) (2022). The latter is another multi-screen piece that, among other fascinatingly interwoven elements, dramatises an encounter between Harlem Renaissance theorist Alain Locke (played by André Holland) and Alfred Barnes (Danny Huston), an early US exhibitor of African art. It’s a work of intense beauty and great depth. 

Where not to start

With film financing increasingly difficult to attain, Julien turned to gallery work from the late 1990s, finding a more hospitable space for artistic experiment. He also produced several TV documentaries, including BaadAsssss Cinema (2002), a reflection on Blaxploitation; these docs are serviceable but lack the innovative stylistic elements that distinguish his best work, making them less compelling for beginners. 

On the other hand, some of Julien’s intricate installations may prove too formally challenging for novices. In particular, Western Union: Small Boats (2007), an elliptical evocation of migrant experience, and Ten Thousand Waves (2010), a response to the 2004 Morecambe Bay cockle picker disaster that interweaves contemporary Chinese culture and ancient myths (with Maggie Cheung appearing as the sea goddess Mazu), are best experienced after engagement with other selections from the “marvellous entanglement” that is Julien’s body of work. 

The Passion of Remembrance and Young Soul Rebels are both available on BFI Player. Young Soul Rebels will be released on BFI Blu-ray on 7 August.

Isaac Julien: What Freedom Is to Me runs at Tate Britain until 20 August.

BFI Player logo

Stream hand-picked cinema

A free trial, then £4.99/month or £49/year.

Get 14 days free