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Young Soul Rebels (1991)


Main image of Young Soul Rebels (1991)
35mm, colour, 105 mins
DirectorIsaac Julien
Production CompanyBFI Production Board
 Film Four International
ProducerNadine Marsh-Edwards
ScreenplayPaul Hallam
 Derrick McClintock
 Isaac Julien
PhotographyNina Kellgren

Valentine Nonyela (Chris); Mo Sesay (Caz); Dorian Healy (Ken); Frances Barber (Ann); Juliet Hustler (Jubilee party reveller)

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Caz and Chris run a pirate radio station in East London. When a gay man is murdered while cruising in a London park, Chris is arrested for the murder.

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In his first narrative feature film, Young Soul Rebels (1991), director Isaac Julien aimed to champion "black independent cinema which deals with questions of sexuality, gender and national identity".

But too often, the script (co-written with Paul Hallam and Derrick Saldaan McClintock) uses its characters' relationships to make political points, a serious mistake in a thriller, a genre that relies on cause-and-effect rules.

The film raises several questions that it fails to answer. Why does the murdered boy TJ not know his killer, while his childhood friends Caz and Chris turn out to know him well? Why would anyone venturing into the furtive world of illegal and anonymous sex bring a ghetto blaster? Why is Cas, who seems so confident of his sexuality, so tortured by his feelings for Chris, TJ and Billy? Why does a black soul boy fall for a white punk rocker?

Julien is undoubtedly a serious artist, as his recent Turner Prize nomination attests, and he captures the colour palette of the period perfectly; sun bleached summer is evoked through the washed out greens of park grass and the vivid costume choices. But too many themes are packed into the film. London in 1977 is recreated on a broad canvas, but although Socialist Worker was sold on almost every street corner, pirate radios stations were set up and raided regularly, punks, soul heads, skinheads and glam rockers didn't mix anything like as much as Julien would have us believe.

The film touches too briefly on the tension created between an 'out' black gay man and his family, on the way the notorious "sus" laws impacted on minority communities, and the dilemma of a mixed-raced youth hanging out with racist skinheads. Julien also sidelines the 'lost love' subplot where Cas has to come to terms with the fact that his straight best friend Chris is growing into his sexuality, threatening the innocence of their childhood friendship. Given Mo Sesay's beautifully-shaded performance as Cas, it is a pity that this angle was not explored more fully.

Where the film really scores is in the beautifully judged soundtrack, which slips seamlessly between Junior Murvin, X-Ray Specs, Parliament and Slyvester. The music presents the period and its diversity far more effectively than the narrative's awkward social groupings and storylines. Perhaps the "sexuality, gender and national identity" of the black gay British male needed to be explored on a smaller scale.

Cyril Nri

*This film is available on BFI DVD.

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Video Clips
1. Chris and Caz (4:24)
2. The police visit (4:11)
3. The interview (3:37)
Original Poster
Production stills
Julien, Isaac (1960-)
Okonedo, Sophie (1968-)
Black British Film
Channel 4 and Film
The BFI Production Board: The Features
They Started Here