Young Soul Rebels

UK/France/Germany/Spain 1991, 100 mins
Director: Isaac Julien

Isaac Julien on ‘Young Soul Rebels’

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.

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.

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.

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.

Young Soul Rebels is in a sense 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.

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.

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.
Isaac Julien interviewed by Amy Taubin, Sight and Sound, August 1991

Director: Isaac Julien
Production Companies: British Film Institute Production Board, Sankofa Film and Video
In association with: La Sept
Production Companies: Film Four International, Kinowelt Filmverleih, IberoAmericana Films
Executive Producers: Colin MacCabe, Ben Gibson
Producer: Nadine Marsh-Edwards
Production Executive: Angela Topping
Production Manager: Joanna Beresford
Production Co-ordinator: Winnie Wishart
Location Manager: Michael Kelk
Post-production Co-ordinator: Eliza Mellor
Technical Supervisor: Andy Powell
Assistant Directors: Ian Ferguson, Peter Heslop, Stephen Robinson, Ian Hickinbotham, Bill Rudgard
2nd Unit Assistant Directors: Jonny Kurzman, John Withers
Assistant Director (2nd Unit): Steve Millson
Casting: Gilly Poole, Suzanne Crowley
Screenplay: Paul Hallam, Derrick Saldaan McClintock, Isaac Julien
Director of Photography: Nina Kellgren
2nd Unit Photographers: Steve Tickner, Mike Metcalfe
Camera/Steadicam Operator: Andy Shuttleworth
Special Effects: Any Effects
Special Effects Supervisor: Tom Harris
Editor: John Wilson
Production Designer: Derek Brown
Art Director: Debra Overton
Scenic Artists: Joanna Craze, Annie Lapaz
Storyboard Artist: John Hewitt
Costume Designer: Annie Curtis Jones
Costume Advisers: Joey Attawlia, Debbie Little
Wardrobe Supervisor: Caroline Pitcher
Wardrobe Master: Anthony Black
Wardrobe Mistress: Lisa M. Johnson
Make-up Artist: Yvonne Coppard
Titles: Neville Brody, Frameline
Opticals: Studio 51
Music: Simon Boswell
Music Supervisors: Bonnie Greenberg, Ian P. Hierons, Jill Meyers
Choreography: Foster George
Sound Recordists: Ronald Bailey, Martine Couche
Sound Re-recording: Aad Wirtz
Sound Editor: Zane Hayward
Dialogue Editor: Patrick O’Neill
Additional Sound Effects: Steve Farrer, Nigel Heath, Simon Fisher Turner, Marvin Black
ADR Editor: Shirley Shaw
Foley Artist: Jack Stew
Stunt Co-ordinator: Clive Curtis

Valentine Nonyela (Chris)
Mo Sesay (Caz)
Dorian Healy (Ken)
Frances Barber (Ann)
Sophie Okonedo (Tracy)
Jason Durr (Billibud)
Gary McDonald (Davis)
Debra Gillett (Jill)
Eamonn Walker (Carlton)
James Bowyers (Sparky)
Billy Braham (Kelly)
Wayne Norman (Bigsy)
Danielle Scillitoe (Trish)
Ray Shell (Jeff Kane)
Nigel Harrison (CID man)
John Wilson (park policeman)
Brian Conway (policeman)
Mike Mungarvan (policeman)
Sayan Akaddas (Asian punk girl)
Shyro Chung (TJ)
Adam Price (bouncer)
Michael Mascoll, Freddie Brooks (soul boys)
Rodreguez King-Dorset (Irvine)
Lloyd Anderson (barber)
Adam Stuatt, Astley Harvey (men in barber shop)
Peter Harding (radio producer)
Richard Jamieson (football supporter)
Mark Brett (stallkeeper)
Joan Harsant (blue rinse woman)
Verona Marshall (Trish’s friend)
Frankie Palma (Trish’s friend)

UK/France/Germany/Spain 1991
104 mins

A BFI Release

Young Soul Rebels
Continues from Fri 28 Apr
The Passion of Remembrance
Continues from Fri 28 Apr
The Three Colours Trilogy
From Fri 26 May

Return to Seoul (Retour à Séoul)
From Fri 5 May
Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power
From Fri 12 May
Plan 75
From Fri 19 May

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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