Julien, Isaac 1960–
Isaac Julien 1960–
Through the work of filmmakers Spike Lee, John Singleton, Matty Rich, and others, the African-American experience has received authentic form on cinema screens. The American cultural and historical psyche has been infused with a truer spirit by the startlingly realistic and often grim depiction of black life. Similarly motivated, gay filmmaker Isaac Julien is spearheading a cinematic focus on the ethnic and cultural politics of Great Britain, where “black culture in the cinema remains largely confined to the margins of what is itself an increasingly marginal film industry,” Peter Keighron noted in New Statesman & Society.
Industry size and accessibility, however, are only two distinctions separating American and British black filmmakers. “The [main] difference is virtually the same that divides other European filmmakers from their American counterparts—an art versus entertainment approach to film,” Armond White wrote in Film Comment. Critics argue that Julien and his filmmaking colleagues extend the scope of social and personal representation beyond that of their American cousins. “Black British filmmakers propose the intercessions of race, class, politics, and sex as major issues and assay it aggressively,” White pointed out. “Gay rights and women’s rights are part of [their] fundamental race-based challenge to orthodoxy.”
The son of West Indian parents who immigrated to England during the 1950s, Julien grew up in a working-class neighborhood in London’s East End. He began as a visual art student at St. Martin’s School of Art in England before switching to the study of filmmaking. Because British film activity since the early 1970s “was limited to television production and, more significantly, to the intellectual study of film aesthetics,” according to White, there was very little money available for independent filmmakers at the time Julien completed his studies. So in 1983, along with four other film students, he founded a black film collective, Sankofa Film and Video, named for a mythological bird that looks into the past to prepare for the future.
By forming collectives that practice integrated film production, distribution, exhibition, discussion, and training, black British filmmakers were able to receive financial backing from the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) Channel 4, which in 1982 was mandated to help fund those previously unheard innovative voices. With additional monetary support from the British Film Institute, Sankofa gave
Born in February of 1960, in London, England. Education : Attended St. Martin’s School of Art, London.
Founded Sankofa Film and Video, a black filmmakers’ collective, with four other film students, 1983; made films for Sankofa, including Territories, 1984, The Passion of Remembrance, 1986, and Looking for Langston, 1989; made independent film Young Soul Rebels, 1991; has created documentaries for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and music videos that explore racial, political, and sexual orientation issues.
Addresses: c/o Miramax Films Corp., 375 Greenwich St., New York, NY 10013.
its members, mostly university-trained, the chance to eschew commercial filmmaking in favor of experimental pursuits that best fit their intellectual and political conceits. Julien explained the collective’s approach to Gerald Fraser of the New York Times: “We try to grapple with several questions at once: images, sexuality, identity, and gender…. There are a multiplicity of issues and a number of questions that need to be commented on. It’s like trying to connect different oppressions together.”
Julien’s first film with Sankofa was the 1984 experimental short work, Territories. It explores the collective’s issues of sexual and racial representation by having, against an artistic array of images, male and female narrators chanting: “We’re struggling to sell a story of black people. A history, a herstory, of cultural forms specific to black people.”
Two years later a more complex feature-length film, The Passion of Remembrance, continued to explore similar issues. Directed by Julien and Maureen Blackwood under the Sankofa aegis, the film follows a black British woman, Maggie Baptiste, as she composes a video documentary about civil disobedience and rioting in England. Interspersed throughout the film are “dramatic encounters between allegorical figures,” Fraser noted, male and female spirits contesting ideologies against backdrops ranging from studio sets to desert-like infinities. “This effort to do ‘everything’ makes Spike Lee’s School Daze look like a comic strip,” White asserted. “This is really radical filmmaking which may mean these collectives are a folk art movement educated beyond the sophistication of the average audience. But it also means the filmmakers intend to raise the intelligence and consciousness of their audience.”
Julien’s 1989 piece, Looking for Langston, less radical in approach than The Passion of Remembrance, but not in tone, “kicks down the closet door to provide a lush testimony to the power of understanding your own history. A meditation on the work of the black American poet Langston Hughes, the film glides between the twenties and the present day to examine what it meant and what it means to ‘sin against one’s race,’ to be both black and gay,” Suzanne Moore explained in New Statesman & Society. Julien’s overt suggestion that Hughes, one of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance period in American literature, was homosexual angered representatives of the Hughes estate, who threatened legal action before the film had its American premiere at the New York Film Festival in 1990. Because of a copyright dispute between the estate officials and the director, at the screening the Film Festival blocked out the sound in two clips where Hughes was shown reading his poetry on a 1959 television show.
Looking for Langston not only raises the topic of black artistic contribution to modern literary and art history, but also tries to expose the often taboo topic of homosexuality in black history. The film “organised itself beautifully around its subject matter of gay, black society, dealing sensitively with the social pressures to cloak such desires in silence,” Louise Gray wrote in New Statesman & Society. But Caryn James of the New York Times found the idea of Hughes’s poetry and black art obscured: “Mr. Julien’s film would have been much more honest and effective if it had simply left Hughes out from the start. Looking for Langston is not about the poet’s life or work; it is about Mr. Julien’s fantasy of beautiful, gay black men during the Harlem Renaissance.”
Julien’s first independent film, 1991’s Young Soul Rebels, was also his first attempt to capture a popular black British audience. Less experimental and more realistic than his previous works, its focus remains the controversial issues of sexuality, black culture, and identity in Britain. “The starting point, politically, for Young Soul Rebels,” Julien told Keighron, “is black style as a form of resistance and how that has been very important in constructing a new identity for young black people in [Great Britain].”
The film is set in London in 1977 during the Silver Jubilee, the pageant marking the 25th year of Queen Elizabeth II’s monarchical reign. It was also the beginning of the punk rock music movement in Britain, with such bands as the Sex Pistols vehemently denouncing the British establishment. Julien ties the punk rebellion in with the largely underground black soul movement that arose in dance clubs at the time. “Clubs are pretty important places for my kind of cinema,” he explained to Gerald Raymond in Premiere. “That’s where I learned the most about sex, race, class, and desires.”
The two main characters in the film, Chris (an effeminate, heterosexual mulatto) and Caz (a strong, black gay), both 17 years old, work together at night as disc jockeys on a pirate radio station and intermingle with gays, punks, skinheads, and other blacks at a dance club called the Crypt. Beyond highlighting black culture of the period, the film focuses on the murder of a black gay man and the subsequent police investigation and brutalization of Chris in particular, and the gay and black communities in general. The film also explores relationships—heterosexual, homosexual, and cultural—showing Chris’s involvement with a black female production assistant at a commercial radio station and Caz’s attachment to Billibud, a white punker.
Stephen Holden of the New York Times criticized Julien’s attempt at a murder mystery, pointing out that from the beginning there really is no mystery as to who the murderer is, thereby rendering the suspense ineffectual. The reviewer conceded, however, that “at its best, the film lays bare the schisms in London society in scenes of the local street life, where tensions are often on the verge of erupting into violence.” Holden also praised Julien’s courtship scenes that capture “the awkwardness and the excitement of youthful infatuation with a freshness and zest that avoids the high-gloss cliches of young love Hollywood-style.”
Julien’s main goal in making Young Soul Rebels was not to garner favorable critical reception, but to reach as large an audience as possible. “Then I can use it as an opportunity to bespeak the general condition of black filmmaking in this country, which is dire,” he told Keighron. Such an approach has earned Julien the label of “the British Spike Lee,” but he distances himself from his American counterpart. “I think there’s been a monolithic reading of what kind of black cinema there should be,” Julien pointed out to Laurence Jarvik in American Film, “and that’s been cast, through no fault of his own, by Spike Lee’s films.” Julien’s concerns are more encompassing than what he deems Lee’s “romantic engagement with black nationalism.” As he told Raymond, “I’m interested in dealing with identity in a pluralistic fashion.”
Territories, Sankofa Film and Video/BFI, 1984.
(With Maureen Blackwood) The Passion of Remembrance, Sankofa Film and Video/BFI, 1986.
Looking for Langston, Sankofa Film and Video/BFI, 1989.
Young Soul Rebels, Miramax, 1991.
American Film, June 1991.
Film Comment, August 1988.
Interview, January 1992.
New Statesman & Society, June 16, 1989; March 16, 1990; August 23, 1991.
New York Times, May 21, 1988; October 1, 1989; December 6, 1991.
Premiere, January 1992.
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