Soul to soul: Isaac Julien on Young Soul Rebels

On Young Soul Rebels’ return to cinemas, we revisit this 1991 interview with director Isaac Julien – a time when hopes were high for the creation of a more diverse filmmaking culture in the UK and beyond.

Young Soul Rebels (1991)
This feature first appeared in the August 1991 issue of Sight and Sound

Worlds collide in Isaac Julien’s Young Soul Rebels. Or at least that’s how it looks from a New York perspective. The celebrated new wave of Black American films – from Spike Lee’s punchy studio-financed Do the Right Thing to Charles Burnett’s magical realist, arthouse To Sleep with Anger – are strictly heterosexual and implicitly, or in the case of Lee’s latest, Jungle Fever, explicitly, nationalist. Young Soul Rebels, on the other hand, explores and celebrates from a Black point of view the pleasures and dangers of interracial and gay sexuality. (“Sex is transgression,” Julien has claimed on more than one occasion.)

Unlike Julien’s previous film, Looking for Langston (1988), a lyrical meditation on the gay closet within the Harlem renaissance of the 1930s, Young Soul Rebels is geared to more than film festival audiences. Its genre underpinnings (murder mystery crossed with buddy movie), lush cinematography (the look is future/past, Alphaville, but in colour) and American funk/British soul score have crossover potential. In the US, where the film will be distributed by Miramax’s Prestige division, this audience has been primed. Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingston’s documentary about Black drag ‘vogueing’ competitions, grossed $500,000 on a single screen at the Film Forum in New York; Poison, Todd Haynes’s hybridisation of white-bread suburbia and Jean Genet, broke house records in its opening week.

Set in London during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee year of 1977, Young Soul Rebels focuses on the friendship between Caz, who is Black and gay, and Chris, who is half Black/half white and heterosexual. Buddies since childhood, the two run a pirate radio station that plays Black import records. Caz’s sexual involvement with a white Socialist Workers Party punk and Chris’s desire to break into mainstream broadcasting and his sexual relationship with Tracy threaten both friendship and work.

The Chris/Caz story is framed within a police investigation of a murder. During the first minutes of the film, TJ, a young Black male friend of Caz, is murdered by a white man during a sexual encounter in a park. Intent on finding a Black suspect, the police try to pin the murder on Chris. Chris, however, finds a tape in TJ’s boom box that reveals the identity of the murderer. The climax of the film takes place during the Jubilee day ‘Stuff the Jubilee’ concert. Pursued by both the police and the killer, Chris broadcasts the truth about the murder to an audience of thousands. The pirate station survives, as do the romances and friendships, and everyone gets together for a song-and-dance finale.

Young Soul Rebels was produced by the BFI for £1.2 million. It was shot by Nina Kellgren, who shot Looking for Langston as well as the earlier films Julien made with the Sankofa workshop, produced by Sankofa co-founder Nadine Marsh-Edwards, and edited by John Wilson, who also edits Peter Greenaway’s films.

I have taken the liberty of rearranging some of Isaac Julien’s remarks. I have not, however, put a single word in his mouth that wasn’t his.

Isaac Julien on the set of Young Soul Rebels (1991)

Isaac Julien: I suppose Young Soul Rebels is a film which tries to deal with a number of questions that people would rather sweep under the carpet at this moment, especially in Europe because of 1992 and the reformation of European cultural identity. There are new barriers being put up symbolically and psychically – around national identity, racial identity, nationality and citizenship. All this brings up a number of anxieties for people like myself who are Black and were born here in Europe, the new Europe.

Young Soul Rebels is set in London in 1977, a time when questions of national identity came to the forefront of British consciousness because it was the Queen’s Silver Jubilee year. And there was a counter-narrative postulated by the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’. There’s an interesting quote from Johnny Rotten’s single: “There is no future in England’s dream. Don’t be told what you want. Don’t be told what you need.” I think that needs to be repeated at this moment.

The other reason Young Soul Rebels is set in 1977 is because I was a soul boy at that time and Nadine Marsh-Edwards, the producer, was a soul girl. And we were interested in 1977 as the moment in Black British culture when you witnessed Black style becoming a social force – a kind of resistance through style, if you like. You can recognise those things much more in Black music corning from Britain today – Soul II Soul and Neneh Cherry – and the way those things have been culturally exported to the US.

So we wanted to talk about where that began. At that time there were no examples of the signifying practices of expressive Black culture in the dominant media in this country. So we used to listen to a lot of American R&B – funk jazz, it was called. It filled a gap because there were no radio stations playing Black music here except Greg Edwards on Capital radio three hours a week on Soul Spectrum.

Amy Taubin: Not even Donna Summer?

Donna Summer was huge with the gay, urban audience in 1977 and 1978. There were a number of clubs that were starting to play that music, but I think it’s only now that you can see the fruition of those influences from the Black diaspora, if you like. Now you have something which I think you can call ‘authentic’ Black British funk, which is a hybrid, in the same way as American rap is.

Young Soul Rebels (1991)

What did you do when you were a soul boy?

I suppose I did very much what Caz and Chris or Tracy do in the film. You were very interested in style, in American music, and in questions around national identity and Britishness, although you couldn’t really articulate it clearly. It was very much like a gap, a lack. When Chris in the film runs through the estate and everybody is listening to the Queen’s speech on television, you are totally enveloped in those discourses of high British nationalism. It was very difficult to articulate any alternative reading of being British – being Black and British were almost incompatible. Hence Paul Gilroy’s witty book title, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack.

Where were you born?

I was born in East London, which is the working-class area.

And where is the film set?

In East London. Your equivalent in New York would be Queens.

No, I don’t think it is. New York is a much more segregated city than London. One of the most scary things in the film for me was to see the two Black guys – Chris and Caz – walk past those four white guys sitting on the wall. I see that and I think, “They’re going to be dead in a minute.” How do they negotiate that daily encounter?

I think that’s where you see the idea of Black style becoming a social force. The masquerading of power was signified through how you walked, the clothes you wore. The UK is a very small island and there’s a lot of masquerading and parodying at street level. I think that becomes a source of both envy and attraction for whites. Both things are at work in Ken [the murderer in the film]; as a character, he embodies those ambivalent desires. Young Soul Rebels is set in 1977, so some things have changed now.

Young Soul Rebels (1991)

In New York there has been a major shift in Black culture during the fourteen years since 1977. It has become increasingly nationalistic. The new Black nationalism involves separatism and the first target of that separatism is sexuality. You can see that in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, which for all its ambivalence comes out strongly against interracial sex.

I am very interested in opposing the different essentialisms which are fashionable at the moment. Part of the new wave of Black independent filmmaking – represented by Hanif Kureishi in Stephen Frears’s My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), or his view in London Kills Me (1991), or by films like Handsworth Songs (1986), or The Passion of Remembrance (1986), or Looking for Langston – has tried to grapple with this question of identity, which seems to be at the crux of the emerging debates around cultural representation and political representation. So it’s quite difficult work trying to think through the complexity and multiplicity of cultural and racial and sexual differences. One of the underlying themes of Young Soul Rebels is that ‘difference’ does make a difference, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to enter into the tunnel vision of essentialism to provide answers. I think something is happening which is more hybrid and complex.

Some people may think that in Young Soul Rebels I’m trying to do this ‘family of man’ number. I don’t think I am, but I am articulating ‘difference’ and people trying to live with ‘difference’ and people trying to love with ‘difference’. We all discuss ‘difference’, but living with difference appears to be really difficult. Some of the work ACT UP has been doing around the Aids crisis has been interesting. In their new film, Without Frontiers, you can see that the crisis has thrown up a number of problems in the Black community and the Latino community where people have to meet across difference with the gay community. This work represents the cutting edge for me.

The reason I find Young Soul Rebels so disturbing – and I don’t mean that negatively – is that there is a connection made in the opening scene between sex and death. A Black man – who not incidentally has a remarkably sympathetic screen presence – goes to the park to hang out. He’s drawn into a sexual encounter with a white man, who at this point for the audience is no more than a voice and a hand, and the white man kills him. It sets up a threat – in terms of gay sex and interracial sex – that hangs over the entire film. The ominous visual and musical motifs that come into play around that killing, the ‘Sapphire’ hang-over as it were, are repeated throughout. So that when Caz gets together with the white punk, Billibudd, that relationship seems threatened as well. It’s not merely sexually and racially transgressive – it seems positively death-defying.

The film in a sense is about marginality and about transgression in those marginal spaces. The park is interesting as a symbolic space because it has a dual function. In the daytime, it is the site of family pleasures, heterosexual pleasures, and at night it is a space that takes on a different excitement. The characters who go there – TJ and Ken – aren’t ‘out’. I imagine these characters as people who would have sex and then would turn back to their respective communities – not ‘out’ at all. But Ken has problems with his desire, in reconciling his own drive. Ken killing TJ was not premeditated, it’s more about him freaking out.

Caz knows that he’s gay. The kind of questions he puts forward in his debate with the Black garage owners – “Do you still care about TJ’s death in the same way now that you know he was gay?” – are the kind of questions I want to put forward to the Black community because I think they’re very important questions. In a way, it’s a bit of a back door to questions about Aids and the Black community, because there is a constant denial and disavowal of these issues. The ACT UP slogan “Silence = Death” has resonances for the Black communities too, because proportionally Aids is on the increase faster in these communities. But I didn’t see the film as being upsetting, as you seem to do.

Young Soul Rebels (1991)

What moved me in the film was the expression of sexuality – a mixing of pleasure and danger that you don’t often see on the screen. But even that’s disturbing. What kind of film did you think you were making?

We pursued a number of different questions and they led us to those particular ends. The question of having the murder is slightly autobiographical: one of the screenplay writers, Derek Saldaan McClintock, was wrongfully suspected of a murder in 1977 and was questioned by the police. Derek McClintock is mixed race; the other writer I worked with, Paul Hallam, is white and gay, so these issues came up. Can you rely on police accountability around gay people being murdered? Is it important to the community? We think it should be, so we tried to draw a narrative that would seduce audiences to those questions which might not be sympathetic. I think different genres have different apparatuses for seducing audiences. And in some ways, the film isn’t of the thriller genre at all. It’s a murder mystery, a coming-of-age movie – a buddy movie, if you like.

I think there’s a flaw in the narrative structure. Caz’s relationships – to the straight men in the garage, to his white punk lover, to TJ – and his sense of himself as a Black gay man are very compelling. On the other hand, Chris’s romance with Tracy and his desire to break into mainstream radio are handled quite perfunctorily.

I think you may find the gay relationship more compelling because you don’t have much access to those kinds of representations in the cinema. It could be a question of performance as well. The force of Mo Sesay [the actor who plays Caz], his emotional drive in relation to the character, is something a lot of people hook up to. He models himself on De Niro; I wish more young Black actors would do that.

Then I suppose the murder has reverberations that are more disturbing for Caz than for Chris. Chris has a slightly more easy-come, easy-go attitude. I think the young Black audience for the film will be more like Chris, in a way. I don’t know; maybe I’m assuming too much. I suppose we thought about these questions in terms of identification – making a film that would be seen by a wider audience than we have had access to in the past. I’m into making some intervention in the marketplace because the cultural spaces have shrunk considerably. Thatcherism has killed off a number of them very successfully. So it’s important to try to build an audience for your work. I suppose that’s why Young Soul Rebels is a narrative and not an experimental film.

Young Soul Rebels (1991)

Do you have any theories about why at this moment, at least in the US, the audiences for both Black and gay films are increasing?

I think many people are bored with heterosexual stories. Difference is in. When I was writing the script, I went to see a lot of Hollywood cinema. I saw these different fetishes at work in the representation of heterosexual lovemaking. In Ghost, there are hands going over a clay pot. In Something Wild, there’s a slightly eroticising exoticism, a kind of racial displacement through reggae music and ethnic dressing. In Wild at Heart and Blue Velvet, it’s very sadistic sex. I think it’s about different sorts of transgression, in a way.

But how do you feel about the primary burden of sex as transgression being carried by representations of gay men? For example, the ritual spitting scene in Todd Haynes’s Poison, which is about forbidden body fluids, and violence, and sex as humiliation.

I thought it was an incredible film. I thought [that moment] was horrible, but it’s a very sexually charged moment as well. It’s ambivalent. It’s that dual thing which I think one is able to achieve in cinema. These questions were brought up in Britain in 1986 around Black Audio Film Collective’s tape, Signs of the Empire. In the representations of slavery and colonialism there were a number of disruptive strategies which were about displaying ambivalence and psychic imbalance. I was quite interested in that – in trying to say things that are not just about pleasure. Maybe they’re about a certain kind of unpleasure, or something that has a dual function.

On the other hand, someone might say that the white racists in Young Soul Rebels come across as quite one-dimensional.

White envy towards the Black subject is something I’ve tried to explore visually in the film, and also white desire in relation to Otherness. Why do white men commit these deeds against Black men? Why do they want to hang Black men? Is it something to do with Freud’s castration complex, or is it to do with what Frantz Fanon has spoken about – the way that white subjects in the neo-colonial moment play out these different fantasies in their own minds and then have to use violence to repress them in themselves? These are some of the questions buried in Young Soul Rebels and in the film I want to make about Roger Casement.

Who is Roger Casement?

It’s a very complicated story. Basically he ended up being executed by the British. He was gay. He was born in Ireland, but he spent a lot of time in Africa and Latin America. He wrote against colonial violence and the atrocities that were happening in the early 20th century. They found diaries about his sexual activities. The person who put him on trial put Oscar Wilde on trial as well. I want to bring these things up because at the moment in Britain we have new bills like Section 28, which is against the promotion of homosexuality in education, and Section 25, which is an attack on civil rights. So I think Roger Casement would be an interesting character. In a similar way, Derek Jarman is bringing up this question around Edward II.

Will this be a BFI film?

I don’t think so. I think its budget is too big for the BFI.

So you think there’s other money available to make such a film?

Maybe not. A number of Black filmmakers had a meeting with [BFI head] Wilf Stevenson to talk about the way the infrastructure of Black filmmaking is now being dismantled because of the change in BFI policy or because of the non-policy decisions around culture, race and representation in the BFI as an institution. And we are very cynical about whether it’s possible to deal with all these questions outside the cultural remit of the BFI, because there is nowhere else. In terms of the marketplace, everything is closing down. It’s very difficult. But maybe after Young Soul Rebels, people might be interested in me doing some more films.

The new issue of Sight and Sound

In this 21st-century cinema special: 25 critics choose an era-defining film from each year of the century, and J. Hoberman asks: what is a 21st-century film? Plus: ten talking points from Cannes – George Miller on Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga – remembering Roger Corman with a never-before-seen interview.

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