Isaac Julien’s British coming-of-age drama centers Black and Queer people in all their complexities.
When you look at the British film canon, it’s hard to find anything that exists outside of the conventional hegemony. Most of the output of British cinema is far whiter than the increasingly diverse country that these movies are made in, and stories about queer people are few and far between. This lack of support was glaringly obvious at the BAFTAs, in a year of rich talent, every acting nominee was white. Isaac Julien’s Young Soul Rebels is a thriller which flies in the face of that, creating a story that centres on Black and Queer people on their own terms.
Young Soul Rebels takes place in London in 1977 in the days leading up to the Queen’s silver jubilee (25th year on the throne), where the streets are filled with union jacks and racist skinheads are a constant threat. We follow a pair of young Black pirate radio DJs as they navigate this world after a Black gay man is killed at a local cruising spot. In the context of British cinema, that this film even exists feels radical.
In 1991 when Young Soul Rebels was released, it was illegal for homosexuality to be discussed in positive terms by anyone working for local authorities, and the Conservative party had further enflamed racism for over a decade. Even if it came out today, it would be nothing short of a miracle in a country where the number of films in the canon centring Black Queer people can be counted on one hand.
Whilst Young Soul Rebels has a specific sense of place and time, much of it feels eerily similar to our present circumstances. We’re in a moment where people are hyper-aware of the way that Black lives are devalued and taken cheaply. The ease with which Black lives can be ended is never lost on Julien.
This knowledge visibly weighs on its characters – something particularly visible in the performance of Mo Sesay as Caz. In response to the murder, you can see in him that all too familiar feeling for marginalised people. The feeling that this victim could’ve been you. If you hadn’t stopped at the corner shop to get food. If you’d taken a different route. If you’d looked that stranger in the eye instead of keeping your head down. You could be harassed, or assaulted, or even killed and most of the world would just move on.
This extremely grim and prescient idea is at its sharpest when Chris (played by Valentine Nonyela) is being interrogated by police for this murder that he obviously didn’t commit. Again, in this painfully claustrophobic space, there’s a confrontation of the fact that in the eyes of the law and the state, Black lives are disposable. Nonyela’s flamboyant and cheerful performance becomes increasingly fearful and angry. As the police officers (played by Mike Mungaravan and Brian Conway) threaten him, the real terror doesn’t come from their racist slurs, or violence. The terror comes from everyone in the room knowing that this racism comes with the backing of an institution and a society that is more than willing to imprison Black people for less than nothing.
We’re in a moment where people are hyper-aware of the way that Black lives are devalued and taken cheaply.
Whilst Young Soul Rebels is grounded in struggle, there’s a persistent resistance throughout. This is visible through the aesthetics of each character. From string vests to leather jackets, to bandanas as chokers, the combination of queer, Black and punk aesthetics exist in firm defiance of the heightened nationalism of the environment. This same feeling of resistance runs through the music. In the use of songs from groups like Parliament, Funkadelic, and The Blackbyrds, the soundtrack is infused with musical histories of Black resistance in an incredibly hostile industry – some of which is explicitly touched upon on screen.
Perhaps the most important part of this resistance is how joyful it is. All of the cast bounce off of each other and there’s a playfulness you see in all of them – especially with Nonyela. Some of the most fun parts of the film are just people dancing to music and having a good time. There’s a real understanding that joy is an act of resistance too, and in the face of a system that constantly seeks to steal joy from us, those little moments are essential.
Whilst Young Soul Rebels brings differing groups together, there’s a constant and deliberate awareness of the ways in which the stakes of resistance are materially different for Black people. You can see this in the conflicts between Caz and his white boyfriend Billibud (Jason Durr). Billibud is more willing to directly disrupt things, like the celebrations of the Jubilee on the estate, without really thinking about the consequences. He can be more brazen because of the protections his whiteness affords him – even if that power is complicated by his queerness.
Once again there’s a real parallel between current events and the way in which well-meaning white leftists often act in ways that run counter to the POC activists on the ground. At the same time, there’s a constant sense of solidarity that runs through the central group, which I think is incredibly important. There is a fundamental recognition that leftists, queer people, Black people and those who sit at the intersections of these identities all have a common enemy in fascism – even with the stakes being different between people.
Crucially this isn’t just done through empty statements and shallow ‘black square on Instagram’ style allyship. It’s feet on the ground, bodies on the line and fists thrown when necessary. It’s real solidarity – which is something we need now more than ever.
Black and Queer liberation has always been intrinsically linked, with both groups being the frequent targets of reactionaries. Often, the people leading these movements sit at the cross-section of these identities, including figures like Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, and the founders of Black Lives Matter movement. Young Soul Rebels fully understands that and uses it to form a powerful narrative of resistance which is essential watching in current times.