Thursday, September 16, 2021

Isaac Julien | Young Soul Rebels

magic quintet

by Douglas Messerli

Isaac Julien and Paul Hallam (screenplay), Isaac Julien (director) Young Soul Rebels / 1991

Although they incorporate entirely different racial and cultural events and represent characters from very different times in London history, Isaac Julien’s important 1991 film Young Soul Rebels is reminiscent in many ways to Julien Temple’s 1986 musical with Edie O’Connell and David Bowie Absolute Beginners, based on the fiction by Colin MacInnes.

      Temple’s work features the Noting Hill Race Riots of 1958, while Julien’s film ends with local park riots occurring in connection with Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee celebration in 1977. But in between there are similar battles between various cultural elements including in Young Soul Rebels groups of skinheads, punks, and soulboys along with internecine verbal battles between black groups such as the soulboys and rastas, as well in Julien’s work the struggle of its young black heroes, Chris (Valentine Nonyela) and Cas (Mo Sesay), who as bi and gay men do not fit in to any of the heteronormative values of those around them. Yet for all that, there is an enormous sense of joy and possibility that youth offers that dominates both these different films made just five years apart from each other. And finally, as in Absolute Beginners music seems to be the link that holds everything together in Young Soul Rebels.

      Long time close friends Chris and Caz work as DJs in their pirate radio station run out of a block tower in Dalston, East London. They are about as close as friends can be except, as Caz has discovered during a period in which Chris moved in with him, his friend is perhaps more straight than gay, and we perceive that Chris is clearly more emotionally tightly wound, in part because he has yet another “outsider” designation as a black man to face with a white a mother whose closest relationship with her son appears to be her need for him to provide with weed. 

      Chris is also somewhat naively determined to transform their rebel broadcasting activities into a legitimate radio gig without quite realizing that the local struggles within the community between the skinhead toughs and the hippie-like political punks are played out in the wider sphere of London and Britain in far more pernicious racist attitudes, as we discover later in the film when we’re shown that his hero, successful black DJ Jeff Kane (Ray Shell), is provided only a small empty, windowless room as his office. Even his intern, the classy Tracy (Sophie Okonedo) wants out and seeks to make her own way through backdoors and her beauty into the broadcasting industry.

      Most importantly, Chris does not quite comprehend the extreme homophobia from both the white and black community that daily faces his close friend Caz. To emphasize this fact, Julien begins his film with the murder of a black gay man in the local park that is central to the community members’ lives. It is that park which black and white gay men nightly cruise, allowing them, outside of the few bars which allow blacks entry, to meet one another for sex; the man who was murdered, TJ was a close friend of Caz, the loss of who he cannot fully share with Chris or the others around him.

      Yet Chris is pulled into the vortex of this murder of a black gay man by, presumably, a white boy in ways he might not have expected, most notably by the fact this younger sister discovers the dead man’s portable radio in the park into which he had just put in a tape a few moments before meeting his killer. When Chris, recognizing the radio, takes it from his sister, accordingly, he has unwittingly involved himself in the death since on that tape is the voice of the murderer himself.

      It’s little wonder that through this swirling chaos of events in the days leading up to the national celebration of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, the two young men who make such beautiful music together are quite literally pulled apart, Chris falling in love, metaphorically speaking, with his vision of new career opportunities, and literally with Jeff Kane’s intern, Tracy, who promises to help him partner a break for the two of them into commercial broadcasting.

      At the very same time the duo has promised to do a gig for a local white gay dance club where the morose Caz falls for a young punk kid, Billibud (Jason Durr, whose character is obviously named after Melville’s innocent, Christ-like hero).

      You might say the two are being torn away—in the tumult of social and political issues  that surround them—in totally opposite directions despite their deep love for one another.

       Furthermore TJ’s murder keeps pushing them further into a dangerous zone, as suddenly Chris is arrested by the police as a suspect for the murder, apparently turned in by the murderer himself, the police using the evidence of burned radio as proof. Unable to reach Caz, he must turn to Tracy for help, extending their relationship. With the help of a lawyer she frees him temporarily from police arrest, but not without some complaint about his behavior.

       Meanwhile, meeting up with Billibud in the park late at night, Caz nonetheless insists something doesn’t feel right, and makes a date for another time and place by writing his telephone number on his chest. We almost wonder, like he must, if even the kid might be a possible suspect; and, if nothing else, his actions help us to empathize with the sense of paranoia that Caz must carry around with him as a badge of survival. In fact, it is not the cute punk, with whom he later has enjoyable sex in his own bed, who is responsible for TJ’s murder, but another of their mutual white friends, connected with the skinheads who threaten both Caz and Chris whenever they are ready to head off their studio for late night broadcasts.

       A short while before, the two have symbolically separated permanently when, attempting to tape up a new antenna so that they might broadcast to a larger audience, Chris trips and almost falls to his death from the high roof of a building, Caz saving him, but warning him of the dangers that stand between them. And when he leaves, Chris meets up with Tracy as the two have sex.

      In short, the two friends have each gone their separate ways. And the day of Jubilee, when Caz has promised Billibud and his group to DJ a show in the park, Chris finding the station itself having been torched—apparently in a search for victim’s tape—nonetheless attempts to broadcast, breaking down in tears, without his friend. For those listening, he is strangely cutoff from the airwaves mid-song.

      We witness the murderer returning to kill the only one who has actually heard the tape recording with his voice. Chris escapes, but cannot find Caz or anyone else to tell them that they may be in danger.

      By this time even Tracy has grown tired of Chris’ immature and unrealistic aspirations, she showing up to the park with her lesbian friend along with the numerous other celebrants of the day, including Chris’ mother and sister.

       Chris finally reaches the park at the very moment that a small riot has broken out as members of the National Front attack anyone and everyone who represent outsiders to the Jubilee celebrations, meaning all blacks, all punks, and anyone who may be perceived as gay or lesbian. Soon after a Molotov cocktail is lobbed onto the disco stage, as Caz and Billibud jump down trying to save the vinyl records from the growing fire.

       Chris breaking through the riotous crowd, attempts to warn of the murderer’s presence by leaping on stage and announcing it through the microphone, the murderer joining him on the dais. The fire becomes so intense that Chris must dive into the brawl to escape but it is too late for the murderer who dies as the upper banners come crashing down upon him.

       In the last scene, a few hours later, we witness Chris and Caz playing records, while Billibud, Tracy, and her lesbian friend rub and dry the damaged vinyl’s, passing them on as they finish. The two DJs hug one another in a testament to their brotherly love as one by one, the others begin to dance, all of them ultimately interacting with one another in a kind of line dance, making it clear that they have created their own small community of lovers under the umbrella or their personal relationships, serving as a symbol of viable love in the larger world around them.

    We can easily argue that the final moments of Julien’s film have seemed to have wrapped up the film’s chaotic inferno far too predictably, filling it with coincidence and forgiveness, but nonetheless it remains true to the behavior of this likeable quintet who have provided one another the various modes of survival that each has needed throughout, the often espoused ideal size of the post-World War II family—made up, incidentally, of two blacks, one a gay man and one a bisexual woman, two whites, one a gay man and the other a lesbian or bisexual woman, and one bisexual, biracial male. 

Los Angeles, September 16, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (September 2021).

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