The films of Isaac Julien
Look back and talk black

by José Arroyo

from Jump Cut, no. 36, May 1991, pp. 98-107, 10
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1991, 2006


"All discourse is placed, positioned, situated, and all knowledge is contextual. Representation is possible only because enunciation is always produced within codes which have a history, a position within the discursive formations of a particular space and time."
— Stuart Hall (1988:29)

Black British cinema comes out of a highly charged context. Intense black uprisings against police repression and rightwing groups in Britain throughout the 70s and into the 80s are the root and some of the subject matter of Isaac Julien's films. Coco Fusco has called the 1981 uprisings, "a watershed moment in the history of race relations" (1988:21/n.5). According to Paul Gilroy the suspicious deaths of 13 young blacks in 1981 set off a chain of events that led to explosive rioting in the area of Brixton, spread throughout industrial centers of London and "provided a means to galvanize blacks from all over the country into overt and organized political mobilization" (1988:102). Kobena Mercer has argued that, "the eruption of civil disorder, encoded militant demands for black representation within public institutions as a basic right (and)...many public institutions hurriedly redistribute(ed) funding to black projects" (1988a:6).

Isaac Julien was one of the filmmakers who benefited from the formation of the black film workshops that were one of the results of the 1981 uprisings. As young, black, working class filmmaker it is questionable whether he would have had access to such an expensive form of communication/ expression as film if Sankofa, the workshop he operates from, did not exist. Because black communities to a certain extent enabled black filmmaking in Britain, filmmakers have often been held accountable to them, though not always by the communities themselves.[1] [see notes in new window ] Their task has been seen by some to speak to and for the black communities. Many filmmakers, however, claim only to be speaking from a black experience in Britain rather than for one (Julien and Mercer, 1988:4). However, questions of filmmakers' personal expression, when they have come up, have been deemed of secondary importance.[2]

One of the implications of such discourse is that black filmmakers must communicate via a "language" which their constituencies can understand, i.e. that of dominant narrative forms. Yet, all of Julien's films eschew traditional film narrative. TERRITORIES (1984, 25 min.) is a short experimental documentary. Recurring, discontinuous images interact with an intoning voice over and various types of music to deconstruct, and find meaning in, Carnival and its context. PASSION OF REMEMBRANCE (co-directed with Maureen Blackwood, 1986, approx. 80 mm.) is a feature which goes against dominant forms. Characters appear out of the blue. The film relies on expressionistic devices such as the indication of an audience through aural, rather than visual means. Characters look into the camera and address the audience directly. Scenes such as that of the protagonist and her friends dancing do not contribute to plot development. And the main narrative is interpolated at various intervals with lengthy montage sequences. THIS IS NOT AN AIDS ADVERTISEMENT (1988, 13 min.) is a lyric experimental film. LOOKING FOR LANGSTON (1989, 40 min.), Julien's latest film, creates a non-linear narrative through the combination of archival footage, photographs, poetry, and re-enactments, to evoke the ambience, and some of the people, of the Harlem Renaissance.

Julien, along with the rest of Sankofa and the Black Audio Film Collective, has been criticized for his choice of film practices. For example, in "Two Kinds of Otherness: Black Film and the Avant-Garde," Judith Williamson obliquely pounces on this issue when she states, "Audiences do matter ...If you're practical you do want to reach people beyond your buddies" (111). The implication is that, because of their form, films like HANDSWORTH SONGS, PASSION OF REMEMBRANCE, and by extension, the rest of Julien's work, are not reaching audiences.[3] Williamson then juxtaposes these films with MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE: "(Audiences) love it! ...It's been a highly enjoyed film" (111). She notes that one needs a certain amount of cultural capital in order to understand and enjoy "avant-garde films," a cultural capital that is presumably not readily available to the black films' "natural audience" — blacks.[4]

Williamson's piece raises several important issues. First of all, it illustrates the degree to which minority filmmakers are marginalized through a double bind of expectation/ obligation due to how little access blacks have to the means of production. As Sankofa member Martina Attille notes, "Sometimes we only get the one chance to make ourselves heard" (cited in Pines 1986:101).

Second, Williamson notes the hesitancy with which critics engage with black films. To these points we can add that these filmmakers are excluded from the mainstream, burdened with low budgets, accountable to communities, restricted to certain forms; and their films am often condemned to minimal distribution. Black filmmaking is marginalized from within by discourses of accusation/ prescription. It is marginalized from without by a racist, market-driven film establishment.

Black filmmakers, however, have good reason to reject traditional narrative. To begin with, mainstream forms are most palatable when accompanied by mainstream budgets. Julien's films, with the possible exception of LOOKING FOR LANGSTON, are made on budgets substantially below those of even British independent films like Stephen Frears' LAUNDRETTE, Derek Jarman's CARAVAGGIO or Terence Davies' DISTANT VOICES/STILL LIVES.[5] Moreover, if we agree with Stuart Hall that "all discourse is placed, positioned, situated, and all knowledge is contextual (p. 29)," then new discourses need a combination of new places, new positions, new situations, new contexts. If dominant cinema is characterized by depictions of blacks as Mammies, Toms, and Coons, and if that is the "knowledge" that that form/ context evokes, then perhaps it is not the best one to use. Likewise, following this line of reasoning, one can argue that other accepted forms of narrative have yet to represent black people as other than Other.

Salami Rushdie has written, "If you want to tell the untold stories, if you want to give voice to the voiceless, you've got to find a language."[6] This search for new "film languages is not just characteristic of fallen or other young, black, British filmmakers. Feminists have been experimenting with innovations with language since the 70s. In her now classic essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Laura Mulvey argued that since classic Hollywood cinema condemned women to Otherness even as it created pleasure, this new feminist "language" should be one that creates unpleasure (1988:58-59). This is a strategy that Julien rejects.

His work, however, does reveal various attempts at experimenting with lyric as well as documentary and fictional narrative in order to make blacks, women, gays, and sometimes black women and black gays enunciators rather than mere enoncés.[7] I hesitate to use the term avant-garde to describe the work. The Oxford Handy Dictionary defines the term avant-garde as meaning "innovat(ions) in art, literature, etc." (p. 48), which I think fits it well. However, in film, the term has often been associated with difficult, often formalist, "apolitical" work such as that of Fernand Léger, Germaine Dulac, Michael Snow and Joyce Wieland. Julien's work is art cinema in the sense that he often does not incorporate a linear cause-effect relation between narrative events. Its use of montage and distanciation may be considered formalist. In that it challenges dominant cinema in terms of both form and content, it is a counter cinema.

After seeing his work many times, I have come to suspect that new kinds of work demand new kinds of criticism. Julien admits to having been partially influenced by avant-garde work:

"There are some avant-garde filmmakers, such as Ken McMullen and Sally Potter, whose work I am interested in. But if I were going to cite direct influences, I would look to Haile Gerima and Charles Burnett" (quoted in Fusco 1988:31-32).

I am not familiar with the work of the latter two U.S. black filmmakers. This realization made me think that there is probably a whole culture of references in Julien's work that I and other white critics, don't understand. It also made me realize that we often resort to our already acquired frames of reference rather than expand and acquire new ones to deal with new work.

With these limitations in mind I will now attempt to look directly at the films. My purpose is not to provide a "comprehensive" critique. The films are of different lengths and in different modes, and they raise many questions that will not be dealt with in this piece. What the different works have in common is that they engage with representations of race, sexuality and nation and that they are either directed or co-directed by Isaac Julien. In the films, the otherwise marginal is made central. They make a subject of various forms of Otherness. It is these strategies of representation, and their manifestation, that are the object of my gaze and the subject of this paper.


"We are struggling to begin a story," say different voices over throughout Isaac Julien's TERRITORIES, "a history, a her/story of cultural forms specific to black people." Sometimes this line will be repeated almost as a chant by a woman's voice, followed a few beats later by a male voice. At other times two women will say it in unison, followed again by a male voice.

The Notting Hill Carnival, a three-day event held annually in August since 1958, is the point of departure for the film's exploration of various contested territories. Carnival has been the site of various "race riots" beginning with the year of its inception. During the 70s riots erupted in 1976, 1977 and 1978 but it is the '76 one which is most famous. That year Scotland Yard out 1500 uniformed men to police Carnival. Such massive surveillance resulted in a riot in which black youth fought back and won. According to Paul Gilroy, the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival was "a watershed in the history of conflict between blacks and the police and in the growth of the authoritarian forms of state planning and intervention during the 1970s" (1987:93). Gilroy also writes that a concept of criminal public disorder is "central to today's racist ideology" (p. 82). The widespread media coverage of Carnival, when it did not equate blackness with exotic spectacle, equated it with crime. Both equations were widely disseminated, reinforced racist ideology and are sharply scrutinized in TERRITORIES.

The story TERRITORIES is trying to tell is not just about Carnival. Rather, it is a deconstruction of Carnival and what it represents. According to Homi K. Bhabba,

"In order to understand the productivity of colonial power it is crucial to construct its regime of 'truth,' not to subject its representations to a normalizing judgement. Only then does it become possible to understand the productive ambivalence of the object of colonial discourse — that 'otherness' which is at once an object of desire and derision, an articulation of difference contained within the fantasy of origin and identity. What such a reading reveals are the boundaries of colonial discourse and it enables a transgression of these limits from the space of otherness" (1983:19).

In TERRITORIES, Julien precisely tries to reconstruct that regime of truth. However, he simultaneously tries to transcend it both by deconstructing it and by creating an alternative regime of truth. The film knows a silenced truth, which cannot be expressed by the old language, thus, "the struggle to tell the story."

Julien's strategy for telling the story is to make the gaze black. He attempts to do this by having black people, whose faces are not visible but who speak from a diegetic space, give us their reading of the images. He also try to defamiliarize images by manipulating them in a different way: he uses freeze frames, he reverses the images, tints them, turns them upside down.

The film begins with the word TERRITORIES, marked out in yellow on a black background. The outer limit of each of the letters in the word contains images, as if through a prison bar. The camera zooms into the word, explodes its limits, and gives the viewer access to what it signifies, what it contains. Then, a quasi-choral voice over of a male and a female speaker is heard, superimposed over an image of a black man huddled against a ruin. This combination of sound and image further explores the notion of "territory" even as it sets the agenda for the film. The camera tilts down in close up from the ruin and then tilts up to reveal a black man, excluded even from the ruins, huddling to keep warn,. The film will also end with images of ruined, bricked-up buildings. If one can read these ruins as a symbol for Britain, the place of blacks in it is then clarified by the initial voice over, also to be repeated at various times throughout the film. The voice-over tells us,

"A new context for the political struggle for the disseminated mass of unwanted labour is provided by the streets of civil society. Its territories: the contradictory spaces which are the geographical expressions of a city. The territories of class, labour, race, sex relations. Territory. The holding of one class' privilege in a declining system of crisis. Territories of desire, the control of one space, carnival, territory of resistance, sound systems, territories of surveillance of the mind. Territory of sexual expressions (of the body). The contradictory spaces, the geographical expressions that cohabit a city. The territory of the look. Territories of the body, conflicting with dominant demands. Behind each conflict there is a history a her/story. We are struggling to tell a story, a her/story, a history of cultural forms specific to black people."

The story is told in an experimental documentary form. The film distances itself from traditional documentary, which it claims contains Carnival as, "an aesthetic spectacle." It distances itself from documentary convention by, among other devices, having two black women look at a video monitor showing these images of carnival. The spectator is made to align his/her gaze with theirs. We relegate our look as the carnival footage is reversed, freeze-framed, examined in ways which we are not used to. This image manipulation is accompanied by a woman's voice that tells us,

"Colonial fantasy requires a fixed image of the black person or the Other. But it is based on a complex kind of fixedness. The Other signifies both fear and desire and disorder due to the way in which blackness evokes both fear and fantasy on behalf of white society."

The film uses repetition and juxtaposition to shatter that fixedness. It divorces images of Carnival and of riots against the police from those images' traditional dual meaning: depicting blacks as fetishized into primitive, erotic "Other" and depicting blacks as problem.

TERRITORIES provides an incantation of sound and images. The film is layered so that images become repeated and acquire different possible meanings in different contexts. But the range of those meanings are limited through continuous reference to black voices and black looks. Close ups of sound speakers and eyes and faces staring back at the camera are edited in at intervals throughout the film. The gaze into the audience seemingly both questions and testifies to the viewer's witnessing and interpreting.

The film conveys "a history of black forms specific to black people through explanations of the tradition of carnival, of dancing, of music. The scenes of dub versioning provide "a deconstructive aesthetic which "distances" and lays bare the musical anatomy of the original song through skillful re-editing which sculpts out aural space for the DJ's talk-over" (Mercer 1988b: 54-55). Such scenes can be seen as metaphoric for what the film itself is trying to do through similar editing and through the use of discontinuous gaps between image and sound, frequent fades to black and the preponderant use of jump cut montage.

The second part of the film visually introduces sexual difference, in the form of homosexuality, as one of the territories being contested in Britain. An image of two men embracing is superimposed over a burning Union Jack. At other times, a close up of one of the gay men looking at the audience from the right side of the screen will be frozen as a close up of a stern policeman is superimposed onto the left side of the screen. The dominant musical accompaniment has Joan Baez singing "The Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti":

"Against us is the power of police...
Against us is the gold...
Against us is the law..."

TERRITORIES is a film that invites viewers into critical interaction. It is open-ended and amenable to various interpretations. But it also builds boundaries through which spectatorship cannot cut. The foundation of those barriers is the periodical looking back at the audience by black subjects. It would be easy to consume the images of oppression depicted in TERRITORIES as our daily dose of misery, easily digested and functionally excreted. Many of us do that daily as we switch from the evening news to GOLDEN GIRLS or another sitcom. TERRITORIES resists such easy dismissal by catching us in the act of looking. The look back has the effect of transforming us from passive voyeurs into conscious witnesses, however unwilling.


PASSION OF REMEMBRANCE, which Julien co-directed with Maureen Blackwood, extends many of the concerns expressed in TERRITORIES. Or rather it makes the agenda more inclusive. At times PASSION OF REMEMBRANCE seems crammed with every possible issue of importance to black filmmakers: racism, sexism, homophobia, police brutality, the decline of industrial society, links to civil rights struggles in the United States etc.. But unlike TERRITORIES, PASSION OF REMEMBRANCE is a feature film, one with two directors at that; and in view of its length and its aspirations it uses different formal strategies.

Oddly enough, in spite of being a fiction film, PASSION OF REMEMBRANCE well fits Grierson's dictum for documentary: "the creative treatment of actuality." The phrase is perhaps vague enough to fit all film and photography. However, if we note that PASSION OF REMEMBRANCE is involved with representations of social processes, that it relies heavily on montage, that it is concerned with social change and that it experiments with form, the comparison might seem more apt. That is perhaps the limit of the resemblance, however. Griersonian documentary has been criticized for hiding the worker behind the machine. In PASSION OF REMEMBRANCE the individual is at the center, the form is fiction, and the point-of-view is female.

PASSION OF REMEMBRANCE's narrative is woven through different strands. There is "The Woman's Story," which is metaphoric. "She" represents black women activists. "He" represents black male activists. They exist in a mythical place called "Here" where "She" arrogantly reproaches and accuses "Him" for his phallocentrism and self-absorption. There is also Maggie's story. Maggie is young, black, British and working class. Her struggle is to negotiate her needs and her vision of a movement with a legacy of black activism in Britain which she finds both inspiring and, to the extent that that inheritance is also accompanied by a measure of machismo and homophobia, oppressive.

Maggie's story particularizes the debates the mythical "They" are arguing about. Each picks up the slack from the other when the form of each section seems unable to contain articulation. Maggie's story is one of the lived experiences that make up "Her" story. However, "She" is also a generation older than Maggie. "Her" history as an activist encompasses subjugation and exlusion from active decision-making by black men within the movement. Maggie's struggle is partly in honor of "Her" history, partly a struggle against that history being repeated in a new generation of black women activists. The complementary stories of Maggie, "Her," and Maggie as part of "Her" are bounded by a rich family life, an oppressive social situation, and the death and funeral of a young black man.

PASSION OF REMEMBRANCE attempts to reconstruct and activate a memory of a black history in Britain. This is done through a mosaic structure in which difference is marked even as the elements of the mosaic make up a whole. There are links to the civil rights movement in the United States ("the real struggle was on the other side of the Atlantic") even as the British and U.S. movements are seen as different struggles for different futures:

"she knew the site of any struggle was real…
[we are] staking a claim for the future [in Britain]…"

Black is divided from white (as shown in "His" anecdote about Sergeant Kendall) even as black and white are linked through class: "They're being treated like blacks," says Maggie about footage of police harassing coal miners. The monologues between "He" and "She" denote a gender barrier within a common struggle, while at a meeting Gary and Michael, Maggie's gay friends, bring up the question of homophobia within the Movement.

The idea of nation in PASSION OF REMEMBRANCE is just as important as it was in TERRITORIES. Here Britain is depicted in similar terms. After a montage of padlocks, ruins, broken windows, deserted buildings, dirt, and robber tires, Tony (an activist involved in the Movement since the 60s) tells the unemployed Benjy (Maggie's father) that the younger generation has "grown up with this." England is shown to be a country riddled with class conflict, racism, sexism, unemployment "This can't be my England," mocks Maggie's friend Louise, "not the England my grandfather's father fought for."

The very first shot of the film shows archival footage of black women demonstrating, their fists raised in protest. Footage of demonstrations reccur throughout the film; the various montages of that footage indicate that the range of grievances citizens have against the state may be a common link. However, differences between black and white are not diminished: "Get out of our flicking country!" yell some thugs to a black family while the police witness and, through inaction, condone the abuse. As "He" tells us,

"We've woken up to a situation, a country, a time, a system that is so frightening, so all embracing in the way that it lives our lives for us, or changes them or obliterates them, that we don't believe this is reality."

PASSION OF REMEMBRANCE is just as concerned with trying to tell its story as is TERRITORIES. In its attempt it uses similar strategies. The archival footage of demonstrations and police brutality are always filtered through a black gaze, mostly a black female one. Maggie gazes into the monitor, and we follow her gaze as the film cuts to the footage. Or Maggie and Louise together guide our gaze, or Maggie's memory of her introducing a tape to a meeting sets the guidelines to our viewing. In the one instance when Tony, Maggie, and Louise watch footage together, Maggie and Louise afterwards critique Tony's interpretation of it.

Like in TERRITORIES we are distanciated from familiar interpretations of familiar footage by having it presented in different ways: faster, slower, upside down, drained of color, with extra color added. PASSION OF REMEMBRANCE, however also attempts to introduce new representations, ones that fit in uneasily with traditional narrative's use of plot. For example, images such as that of Michael swimming are held for a longtime. They do not further the plot. They just revel in the beauty and sensuality of black bodies in motion. Such images are unusual in the sense that in traditional dominant modes of narrative, black male sexuality is usually avoided (as in most of Sidney Poitier's films) or is presented as threatening (black exploitation films). Likewise the reason for lengthily prolonging the scene of Louise and Maggie dancing while making up and getting dressed is to depict black women reveling in each other's company, enjoying each other's sensuality.

The most interesting aspect of PASSION OF REMEMBRANCE is how it succeeds in making both "black" and "woman" — two perennial kinds of cinematic "otherness" into a single enunciator. This is the only instance in Julien's oeuvre where this occurs. PASSION OF REMEMBRANCE is also the only film he co-directed. One can thus, without resorting to essentialism, impute that the film's privileging of a female point-of-view must in great measure be due to Maureen Blackwood.

Alter the initial shot of women demonstrating, the camera cuts to "Her," who addresses the audience directly. She narrates that story which is acted out mostly by Maggie. Though male characters are sometimes subjects of particular scenes in the film, their subjectivity is delegated either by "Her" (as in the case of "His" monologues) or by Maggie. In the cases where males are given a voice or made subjects without the previous benefit of female consent, women are given the last word. For example, there is a scene in which Benjy and Tony talk about unemployment and later dance together; this scene ends with Maggie telling the men off. As she closes the door on them, the film cuts to a new scene. Finally, the last shot of the film is a freeze-frame of "her" gazing at "Him" as he disappears into the mist of the mythic "here."

"Who will hear me now as I remember and talk of remembering," wonders Maggie at the beginning of the film. The film provides its own answer near the end — black British people. As Gary gazes at a coffin of a young black man who's been murdered, he "thinks" to him, "The media may choose to forget while we do not." The voice over then changes its address to the audience:

"His memory lives with us. We're in a war that's bleeding liberation. Ghosts of people who come back again and again questioning, questioning the mockery and fictions held by centuries of traditions based upon bankruptcy and lies infested in Englishness at its worst."

PASSION OF REMEMBRANCE offers a black woman's point-of-view directed at a black male and female audience (a rarity, though perhaps more likely from a collaborative effort co-directed by a woman and a gay man.) In PASSION OF REMEMBRANCE the "us" and the "we" refer to black people. Whites are not addressed. They serve merely as the grain against which a black identity is formed, as blacks' "Other."


THIS IS NOT AN AIDS ADVERTISEMENT is a short Super-8 film, Like TERRITORIES, it was made as a reaction to a specific situation: In TERRITORIES it was Carnival; in THIS IS NOT AN AIDS ADVERTISEMENT it was homephobic safe-sex ads. The dominant message in the latter is, "Feel no shame in your desire? The formal strategy to convey the message is an extension of that employed in TERRITORIES.

THIS IS NOT AN AIDS ADVERTISEMENT, like TERRITORIES, relies on accretion of images, their repetition, variation, and juxtaposition to create meaning. Unlike in TERRITORIES, the first part employs no voice over, The second part is accompanied by a kind of rap song made up of fragments from various sources arguing against guilt — It's the heart afraid of breaking that never learns to dance; it's the dream afraid of waking that never learns to chance" — and for love — "Some say love it is a razor that leaves your soul to bleed; some say love it is a hunger, an endless aching need; I say love it is a flower and you its only seed."

The salient images in the first part are these:

  • low-angle shots of waves, their caps changing color from shot to shot high-angle shots of skies framed by trees;
  • a black youth and a white youth hugging as they look at the camera, extend to it a bouquet of flowers and then bring the flowers to their chest;
  • a face, seemingly dizzy and pained, on which is superimposed a shaft of light coming into a room;
  • police boots running up steps to stomp on the flower.
  • In the last image, the couple laughingly kiss.

The images are amenable to various interpretations. Mine is that the filmmaker is trying to express males-loving-males as an activity that is deep, vast, ancient (there is a recurring shot of an ancient Roman relief depicting a male). And one which, in spite of official attempts to deny and stomp it out, persists. The representation of the interracial gay couple is significant in that as Kobena Mercer argues, in the war against AIDS, both blacks and gays have been labeled a threat:

"Racism and homophobia activate similar psychological defense-mechanisms whereby people avoid their inner fears by projecting them externally onto some Other" (1988c:152-153).

The second part begins with a male head turning, trying to face the audience as if struggling to materialize. It finally does so and stares blankly at the audience. This section is characterized by the accretion of images introduced in the first section juxtaposed against new ones. The images are cut to the beat of the soundtrack's rap. The figures in the frame invariably look back at the audience. They are aggressive objects who gain subjectivity through the matching of their gaze to that of the audience. A recurring image in the first section of a blindfolded man unblocking his eyes and gaining sight makes more forceful the power of their gaze. The film's message becomes underlined through a kind of video aesthetic of synchronously superimposing the different words that make up the phrase, "Feel no shame in your desire," onto various images. This section, like the first, ends with the laughing kiss of the interracial mate couple.

"There is a Third World in every First World," writes Trinh T. Minh-ha (198617: 3). If we take that statement metaphorically, we can see in Julien's work a cinematic mapping out of different "Third Worlds." In TERRITORIES oppressed groups are the State's Third World. In PASSION OF REMEMBRANCE the black gay couple and black women can be seen as black heterosexual male activists' "Third World." In THIS IS NOT AN AIDS ADVERTISEMENT a disease is the cause of the First World's combined condemnation of race and homosexuality. Trinh, however, also notes that "'looking back' and 'talking back' form a necessary step to the unsaying of what has been said and congealed" (1986/87:3).

I have tried to show that talking back is an integral part of Julien's work both in the discourse he creates and, integrally interlinked, in the form through which he conveys the discourses, with particular note of the device of "looking back" at the audience as a cinematic form of "talking back." I have also tried to show that TERRITORIES and PASSION OF REMEMBRANCE also engage in a historical "looking back" in that they both try, to different extents, to unearth and reconstruct a history of black British culture. LOOKING FOR LANGS'TON, Julien's latest film, takes this "looking back" and "talking back" a step further.


"A party of whites from Filth Avenue
Came tippin into Dixie's to get a view
Came tippin into Dixie's with smiles on their faces
Knowing they can buy a dozen colored places.
Dixie grinned. Dixie bowed.
Dixie rubbed his hands and laughed out—
While a tall white woman In an ermine cape
Looked at the blacks and
Thought of rape,
Looked at the blacks and thought of a rope,
Looked at the blacks and
Thought of a flame
And thought of something
Without a name."
— Langston Hughes (1942:60)


"Hello Sailor Boy
In from the sea!
Hello, sailor
Come with me!

Come on drink cognac,
Rather have wine?
Come here, I love you,
Come and be mine."
— Langston Hughes (1926:74)


There is a certain kind of poetic justice in Isaac Julien's making a film about Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance and dedicating it to James Baldwin. Hughes and Baldwin were black homosexual artists.[8] Like Julien, Hughes and other artists of the "Harlem Renaissance" were drawing on a history of black culture to try to create new forms that would contain and communicate new representations. Hughes tried this by creating a blues language for poetry.[9]

Speaking of some of the visual artists of the Harlem Renaissance, Mary Schmidt Campbell writes,

"Each developed a vital aspect of the Renaissance ethos — be it glorification of the Black American's African heritage, the tradition of Black folklore or interest in the details of Black life. Each broke dramatically with earlier Black art and earlier representations of Blacks in art. They were among the first Americans to celebrate Black history and culture and they were the first artists to define a visual vocabulary for Black Americans" (p. 13).

In trying to evoke Hughes, Julien "looks back" and finds a history of black art, a history of representations of blacks, and a history of black homosexuality. In LOOKING FOR LANGSTON he "talks back" these histories by collating them, interpolating a stylized critique of some current representations of black men as fetish. He sets this evocation against a mixture of '20s U.S. blues and 80s British blues. Thus, Hughes' lines of poetry, "Why should it be my loneliness, why should it be my song, why should it be my dream deferred overlong?" is followed by Blackberri, a black British singer, answering back with, "Whatever happened to a dream deferred? Things haven't changed much, I still find power in your words," Julien thus links black British culture and black American culture through time and space as a diaspora culture.

LOOKING FOR LANGSTON fries to affirm a black gay identity. If the Harlem Renaissance was one of the golden ages of black diaspora culture, the film tells us that slot of its brilliance came from homosexuals: Countee Cullen, Alain Locke, Bruce Nugent, Harold Jackman and others. The film links the Harlem Renaissance to contemporary Britain when a black British voice over tells us. "We were linked by our gay desire." The same voice over also warns that not to discuss the "moral significance of Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, choosing in the main others of their kind to love, is to emasculate and embalm their society as a whole."

In History of Sexuality, An Introduction, Michel Foucault writes that, in Western society, "it is through sex…that each individual has to pass in order to have access to his own intelligibility…to the whole of his body...to his identity" (1984:155-56). LOOKING FOR LANGSTON tries to chart a course through this discourse. But in order to finish the movement from sex to identity, it must first reappropriate the image of the black male body.

The black man has often been depicted as civility's absolute "Other." As Kobena Mercer writes,

"Classical racism involved a logic of dehumanisation in which African peoples were defined as having bodies but no minds" (1988c:137). Black males were often not even seen to have bodies. According to Fanon, "One is no longer aware of the Negro, but only of a penis; the Negro is eclipsed. He is turned into a penis. He is a penis" (cited in Mercer 1988c:150).

In the regime described by Foucault as power-knowledge-pleasure, the black man is powerless, he is excluded from knowledge, and the pleasure his body represents to white society is one that is simultaneously imbued with danger. If we agree with Foucault that such a regime is what "sustains the discourse on human sexuality in our part of the world" (p. 11) and that such a discourse is necessary for identity, then the black mm has to be empowered, given access to knowledge, and made to take pleasure in his own body. LOOKING FOR LANOSTON attempts just that in order to topple the privileged regime.

In LOOKING FOR LANGSTON Julien acknowledges the dominant discourse on black masculinity and simultaneously refutes it. Verbally this is done through a voice over reading of U.S. black gay poet Essex Hemphill's poetry in two consecutive stages. The first offers an accusation to whites: "You want his pleasure/ without guilt or capture. You don't notice many things about him." The second Hemphill reading offers a refutation: "He doesn't always wear a red ski cap/eat fried chicken/fuck like a jungle."

Visually the same effect is achieved by showing white pleasure in black bodies. A montage shows as a white man in close up.[10] A cut then shows the same man caressing the photographs as they are projecled onto sheets. We then see the white man give a black man money. Throughout this montage a voice set to music accusingly queries the white man's activities and motives:

"I don't suppose you ever HEAR him clearly?/ You're always too busy/ seeking other things of him/ His name isn't important/ It would be coincidence/ if he had a name, a face, a mind./ If he's not hard-on, he's hard-up."

As Julien recuperates the colonized image of the black man, he tries to infuse it with new meaning. The sexuality of the black men presented is divorced from any violence, except perhaps the one imposed by the white psyche. Moreover, the images aren't so much concerned with representing sex but with representing desire. A substantial part of the film is concerned with affirming the concept of black beauty and making it, and those who posses it, an object of desire. As the lyrics for one of the songs used in the film tells us,

"Look at me, beautiful black man
I'm just like you
You know that I face
discrimination too
Got here about ten
I walked into this place
But nobody here would look me in the face
You're such a beautiful black man
Don't you walk with your head down bending low
Don't you do that no more."

Beauty is depicted through a process of fetishization, and it is made desirable by making it the object of both the spectator's and the film's gaze. The latter is effected through the camera and also is designated to various characters within the diegesis.[11] The mythical "Beauty" in the film is given special lighting that delineates his cheekbones, the camera tilts and pans across his body. We are shown a close up of his eyes that indicate his eyelashes have been perfectly curled. A poem tells us how Langston dreams of him and describes different parts of his body.

"Beauty," however is only one kind of black beauty. The end of the film shows us an image of him with his face resting on a mirror, an image of Narcissus. In the same montage, we are shown another black man, darker, stouter. He too looks into a mirror and makes a gesture as if to indicate that he's woken up, gained a consciousness of his own beauty, acknowledged his own worth.

As in his other films, Julien often prevents automatic suture.[12] The viewer is often made conscious of his/her absence through a self-conscious narration which, among other things, looks back at the audience: Langston looks straight at the audience before we enter his dream. A man looking at porn stares directly at the audience as if they were the porn. Beauty undresses the white man and laughingly looks at the camera as he throws it a shirt. A shot of a man dancing and laughing while looking straight at the audience will be intercut into the film's final montage three times.

Stephen Heath asserts that the viewing subject's break with the initial relation to the image is "essential to the realization of image as signifier" (1985: 88), and the "suturing function includes the spectator as part of an imaginary production (p. 90)." Such theoretical concepts point to: how the way that Julien instigates and underlines a break with the image affects cinematic signification. If LOOKING FOR LANGSTON's form of fusion of poetry, music, archival footage and new images were not already enough, such a strategy of rupture makes the viewer think about the kind of signification s/he is helping to construct.

"Obviously, an Afro American spokesperson who wished to engage in a masterful and empowering play within the minstrel spirit house needed the uncanny ability to manipulate phonic legacies. For he or she had the task of transforming the mass and its sounds into negotiable discursive currency. In effect, the task was the production of a manual of black speaking, a book of speaking back and black." — Houston A. Baker, Jr. (1987:24)

Baker is talking about another country, another culture, another medium. But the need to talk back and to talk black is ust as evident in the films of Issac Julien. I say need: because Julien's cinema is clearly a political cinema. Whereas others are moaning about the waning of affect (not realizing just how privileged one has to be to be able to feel that way), Julien's cinema underlines race, class, gender and sexual orientation. Its hard to take the notion of free floating signifiers seriously when black as the color of your skin or a Hispanic name on your application form consistently means denial of work, or when two men kissing in public consistently means license to beat them up.

Western culture has for centuries provided the ideological rationale for imperialism, racism, and other forms of oppression, The present "crises of cultural authority, specifically of the authority vested in Western European culture and its institutions" (Owen 1983: 57) is no big loss for people who have historically been excluded from participating in Western meta-narratives. Marginalized peoples, especially diaspora people, brought, formed and reshaped other récits, grand ones made mini only by Western culture's devalorization of them as "primitive," "savage," "Other." As Paul Gilroy notes,

"Who is it that people like Fredric Jameson are talking about when they say, 'Our grand narratives are collapsing'? Some of us, who have been denied access to some of the diachronic payoff that people like Jameson take for granted are just beginning to formulate our own big narratives, precisely as narratives of redemption and emancipation." (1988:46)

"Now that, in the postmodern age, you all feet so dispersed," writes black British theorist Stuart Hall, "I become centred" (Quoted in Meter 1988a: 5). Though 1 find Hall's comment interesting to think about, I doubt its sentiment is widely shared. However, I do think relations between the margins and the center are dynamic. I think that the way Julien demonstrates dominant depictions of race, refutes them, and offers new alternatives is a means of visualizing and helping to promote a positive shifts. However, whether the strategies Julien uses to "look back and talk black" — his use of montage, non-classical continuity, direct address, his attempts at deconstruction previous imagery and the self-conscious narration of his narratives — succeed in negotiating a discursive currency is another question, one that only time and research into audiences will answer.

Notes on page 2