Young Soul Rebels (YSR) is an ambitious attempt to make a statement about an African-Caribbean-Briton’s role in society at the time of the Queen’s Jubilee in 1977, in the framework of a whodunit thriller. The central characters, the DJs Chris and Caz, run a pirate radio playing funk and soul music, in contrast to the white rebel’s music of choice at the time, punk rock. Chris has ambitions to break into mainstream radio but finds he’s too ‘black’. Chris is gay and the film opens with their friend, TJ, being murdered in a park where gay men meet.
It’s a thriller that considers what it meant to be gay and black before Britain recognised itself (as far as it actually does) as a multicultural society (and the position of women) all on a low budget British Film Institute (BFI) production. Although 1970s Britain was deeply racist, it was the decade when debates about radical politics and identity were common, in academia at least, and Isaac Julien, who directed YSR, was one of the founder members of the radical Sankofa collective (which was one of the co-producers of the film). Channel Four Films was also involved in the production, and the film exemplifies the channel’s commitment, in its early years, to minority groups.
One thing that hasn’t changed since YSR was made, is the dearth of films by black British filmmakers. The BFI has retreated from its cultural remit and no longer supports production, leaving that to the market-orientated UK Film Council, and has even hived off its book list to Palgrave Macmillan. Gurinder Chadha was another ‘ethnic-minority filmmaker’ to have benefited from BFI support with her short I’m British but . . . (1990).
The October (2008) edition of Sight and Sound listed 12 ‘vital’ productions supported by the BFI Production Board: The Bill Douglas Trilogy (My Childhood, 1972, My Ain Folk, 1973, and My Way Home, 1978); Pressure (1975); Radio On (1978); Burning An Illusion (1981); The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982); The Gold Diggers (1983); Caravaggio (1986); Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988); London (1994); Under the Skin (1997). Although the BFI managed to survive the philistine onslaught of Thatcherism, it’s clear that Blairite politics’ embrace of the market has destroyed meaningful state support for alternative voices in cinema. It is important that all minority voices have the opportunity to speak about their lives and the medium of film offers the possibility of a long shelf life on DVD (unlike ‘minority’ television) and even distribution worldwide, on the festival circuit at least.
For many reasons, then, YSR is an important film however although I enjoyed it when I first saw it (probably on Channel 4) a couple of years after it was released it now looks to be a worthy but inept film. There are two central problems: the performances of the lead characters, Mo Sesay and Sophie Okonedo excepted, and the film’s failure to integrate the generic elements with the political project.
The unconvincing performances are partly due to the cliché-ridden script where lines pop into your head just before characters speak them. Every time the ‘thriller’ narrative comes to the fore, ‘sinister’ music appears as if ‘on tap’. Some of the film is so bad that I wondered whether it was an example of Brechtian distanciation, but there’s no indication that this was intended. The use of contemporary music, however, is very successful ranging from Funkadelic’s One Nation Under the Groove, Culture’s When the Two Sevens Clash and X-Ray Spex’s Identify. They help evoke the era that is very successfully recreated by costume, location and the Jubilee celebrations.
The ‘staging’ is, on occasions excellent, such as the neo-fascist riot at the climactic concert; however this is immediately followed by the risible death of the villain who somehow manages to pull himself into a fire-filled hole in the stage.
While there’s nothing wrong with being ambitious, Cyril Nri is probably correct when he writes:
Perhaps the “sexuality, gender and national identity” of the black gay British male needed to be explored on a smaller scale. (Nri, no date)
Julien’s previous film was Looking for Langston (UK, 1988) an ambitious ‘performative’ documentary about Langston Hughes. His subsequent career suggests he’s more comfortable working on the artistic margins. However, it is an indictment of British film culture that we don’t have a number of films that address questions about British identity, black or otherwise.
Cyril Nri (no date) Screenonline, http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/497077/, accessed October 2008