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


This paper derives from a course on British Cinema taught by Andrew Higson at the University of East Anglia and a presentation at the 1990 SCS conference in Washington. I would like to thank Andy Medhurst, David Hall and Deborah Regula for their feedback during the writing stage, and Chuck Kleinhans, Julia Lesage and Mark Reid for their helpful editing suggestions.

1. Marine Attille admits that "there was a sense of accountability imposed on us by our community to produce certain types of images." (Fuseo. p.26) Nevertheless, black filmmakers and perhaps any minority filmmaker, are charged with the extra responsibility of community accountability no matter who or what enabled their filmmaking. See, for example, Mahmood Jamal's "Dirty Linen," one of the many tirades against MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE.

2. All of these issues are clearly presented through a wide range of articles collected in Mercer, Black Films, British Cinema.

3. I find Williamson's piece asked many incisive questions. But I also found certain aspects disturbing. I have yet to see any white political group get the degree of flack for their choice of film practice that Sankofa and Black Audio are subject to. The form/ audience equation I find particularly tiresome. Old classic realist versus avant-garde debates ignore that there is a whole generation who has grown up watching music videos who have access to, and derive various pleasure from, many forms. Practices previously the privileged domain of "High Culture" are now a flick of the switch from WHEEL OF FORTUNE. I find a large portion of vanity sprinkled with an equally large dose of condescension in the experts' harping about how inaccessible these films are, Moreover, I think there is an unwarranted assumption in a lot of the criticism that a more "accessible" form would automatically translate into larger audiences and thus greaser political effectiveness.

I don't have access to British box-office or television ratings, but were other Workshop films more popular? And how many were less? Certainly in North America, and I don't understand why this is such a sore point with British critics, these films' form is greatly responsible for the distribution they did get. As to political effectivenss, one can't talk about the films in isolation from the body of critical work that has stemmed from them. For Julian, for example, the writing and the filmmaking seem a to be part of a singular politic. Others like Stuart Hall, Jim Pines, and Salman Rushdie have contributed to very important political debates that are the result of the films. And I would argue that the work of Kobena Mercer, without which this paper could probably not have been written, has shifted some of the ground on which notions of race, representation and cinema are debated. (See the references).

4. I am not trying to impute essentiality by my usage of the term "black films." I merely mean films by black filmmakers.

5. This is a paraphrase of information given to me by Isaac Julien in March, 1989. The budget for LANGSTON was approximately 100,000 pounds.

6. Rushdie doesn't know the score, at least as regards film. The quote is taken from a piece in which he paradoxically and confusedly criticizes HANDSWORTH SONGS for not attempting to create a new language when in fact the problem is that he doesn't know the old one well enough to recognize the contributions SONGS makes. See "SONGS Doesn't Know the Score', Black Film, British Cinema, p. 16.

'7. Lea Jacobs (pp. 157-161) defines enunciation, as the attitude of the speaking subject in the face of his (son) enoncé, this taking part in the world of objects, The process of enunciation, thus envisaged, is described as a relative distance that the subject puts between himself (lui-même) and this enoncé," Thus the term enunciator, as I use it in the paper, refers to the person who has the right of speech within the film.

8. I would like to follow historian John D'Emilio (pp. 110-116) in his usage of "homosexual" to denote homosexual behavior and "gay" so denote homosexual identity. Julien commenting on black homosexuals has written, "If one looks to the United States, from the perspective of a diaspora culture, one can look to Langston Hughes or James Baldwin — they're the most visible figures of our continuity in black history." See "Interview," 1988.

9. According to Arnold Rampersad, "(Hughes') finest poems ... remained those saturated in blues language, the idiom of the black folk that Hughes had pioneered in literacy verse in 1923 with his poem "The Weary Blues," then developed to its zenith as art in Fine Clothes to the Jew in 1927. Blues was a way of singing but above all a way of feeling, when the pain of circumstance is transcended by the will to survive — of which the most stylish token, aside from the blues song itself, is the impulse to laughter."(p. 20)

10. Speaking of Soviet Cinema, David Bordwell notes that "the relentless presence of montage in these films aims to keep the spectator from constructing any action as simply an unmediated piece of the fabula world." (p. 239) The same could be said for the use of montage in Julien's films.

11. Metz has written, "The fetishistic prop will become a precondition for the establishment of potency and access to orgasm (jouissance), sometimes an indispensable precondition (true fixation); in other developments it will only be a favourable condition, and one whose weight will vary with respect to the features of the erotogenic situation as a whole." (p. 70) In LANGSTON, Beauty's fetishization is an almost metaphoric manifestation of the latter, in the sense that it is used almost as a pre-condition for the film as erotogenic situation.

12. According to Stephen Heath, the process of reading a film takes us from sheer jubilation in the image to an awareness of the frame that breaks this initial relation. We, the spectator, recognize an absence, the discontinuity, of the image, its production as signifier. We then fill in the absence, sew up the shots, suture the discourse. Heath writes, "The major emphasis in all this is that the articulation of the signifying chain of images, of the chain of images as signifying, works not from image to image but from image to image through the absence that the subject constitutes...Thus the break in the initial relation with the image is sutured…across the spectator constituted as cinematic...subject, essential to the realisation of image as signifier and to the articulation of the shots together" (1981: 76-113).


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Cambell, Mary Schmidt (1987) Harlem Renaissance Art of Black America. (New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem, Harry N. Abrams Inc.

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Gilroy, Paul (1988) "Nothing But Sweat beside My Hand: Diaspora Aesthetics and Black Arts in Britain." In Kobena Mercer (ed.) ICA Documents No. 7, Black Film, British Cinema (1988). London: A BFI Production Special.

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Hughes. Langston (1942) "Death in Harlem," Shakespeare in Harlem. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Hughes, Langston (1926) "Port Town," The Weary Blues. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Jamal, Mahmood (1988) "Dirty Linen." In Kobena Mercer (ed.) (1988:21-22).

Jacobs. Lea (1988) "NOW VOYAGER: Some Problems of Enunciation and Sexual Difference." In Thomas Elsaesser (ed.) American Cinema and Its Genres. Norwich, UEA: 157-161.

Julian. Isaac (1988) "Interview," "Race, Sexual Politics and Black Masculinity: A Dossier (by Isaac Julien and Kobena Mercer), in Rowena Chapman and Jonathan Rutherford (eds.): Male Order: Unwrapping Masculinity. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Julien, Isaac, and Kobena Mercer (1988a) "Introduction — De Margin and De Centre." Screen 4(29):2-12.

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Mercer, Kobena (1988b) "Diaspora Culture and the Dialogic Imagination: the Aesthetics of Black Independent Film in Britain." In Cham, B. Mbye and Claire Andrade-Watkins (eds.) Blackframes: Critical Perspectives on Black Independent Cinema (1988): 50-41. Cambridge, Mass.\London: the MIT Press.

Mercer, Kobena (1988c) "Aids, Racism and Homophobia" and "Territories of the Body," "Race, Sexual Politics and Black Masculinity: A Dossier (by Isaac Julien and Kobena Mercer). In Rowena Chapman and Jonathan Rutherford (eds.): Male Order: Unwrapping Masculinity. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Metz, Christian (1985) Psychoanalysis and Cinema. London: The MacMillan Press.

Mulvey. Laura (1988) "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." In Constance Penley (ed.) Feminism and Film Theory. London, BFI: 57-68. Originally published in Screen 3(16). Autumn 75.

Owens, Craig (1983) "The Discourse of Others: Feminism and Postmodernism." In Hal Foster (ed.) The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays in Postmodern Culture (1983: 57-82). Seattle: The Bay Press.

Pines, Jim (1986) "The PASSION OF REMEMBRANCE: Background Interview with Sankofa." Framework 32/33:92-99.

Rampersad, Arnold (1988) The Life of Langston Hughes Vol. I & II. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rosen, Phil (1986) "Introduction: Text and Subject." In Phil Rosen (ed.) Camera, Apparatus, Ideology. New York: Coumbia University Press.

Rushdie, Salman (1988) " Songs Doesn't Know the Score." In Kobena Mercer (ed.) (1988) Black Film, British Cinema. London: BFI: 16.

Trinh Minh-ha T (198617)" Introduction," "The Inappropriate/d Other," Discourse 8:3.

Williamson. Judith (1988) "Two Kinds of Otherness — Black Film and the Avant-Garde," Screen 4(29):106-113.

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