Do The Right Thing (1989). Boyz n the Hood (1991). Straight Outta Compton (2015). All key Black films, but like so many of the fundamental films in the Black canon, they tell American stories. The catalogue of Black British films is woefully thin. Unlike films of their American counterparts, the great features of Black British cinema face the challenges of being ignored when released and then erased from memory.
Directed by Isaac Julien Young Soul Rebels (1991) is one of those fundamental films which is rarely mentioned. Despite winning the Semaine de la Critique prize for best film at the Cannes Film Festival in 1991, Young Soul Rebels does not have nearly the level of cultural currency that it deserves. Still painfully relevant today, the film explores the cultural tension between soul boys, skinheads, and punks in Britain in the 1970s.
Young Soul Rebels takes place in the summer of 1977 as the nation celebrates the Queen’s Silver Jubilee (25 years on the throne). As London prepares for festivities, the streets are decorated with union jacks but the people of colour are left out of the party. The film follows soul boys Chris (Valentine Nonyela) and Caz (Mo Sesay), a pair of young Black pirate radio DJs who broadcast their show from a friend’s garage. For them, the soundtrack of the summer has little to do with the nationalism which comes with the Jubilee and all to do with the burgeoning punk, soul, and funk scenes that they blast through their speakers. Yet they face the omnipresent threat of racism from local skinheads and violent police which looms around them. But when a Black gay man is killed at a local cruising spot, tensions in the community reach a boiling point.
In 2020, we have seen political protests supporting Black Lives Matter across the world. The injustice of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others have imprinted on so many people’s conscience. The coronavirus pandemic has also had a disproportionate effect on marginalized communities. Many films today are presented as having a duty to represent the hardships that Black people face. But seeing the Black bodies killed by law enforcement on video and then facing no consequences is damaging enough; seeing it in fictional stories in films can sometimes feel like overkill. With the last 4 years of Trump and the 10 years that the Conservative Party has been in power in the UK and the centuries of abuse that came before, it almost makes sense that blackness on film is, more often than not, paired with anger rather than joy. Yet Young Soul Rebels somehow walks the line of showing the fear and danger that the Black people face on a daily basis but also the moments of glee, between friendships, burgeoning relationships, and career triumphs.
Throughout the film, the unrest in the community grows; skinheads and members of the far-right party National Front continue to subject Chris and Caz to their vitriol. The police looking into the murder wrongly suspect Chris of being the perpetrator just as he is attempting to further his professional career in commercial radio without selling out. Meanwhile, as a gay man, Caz is struggling to deal with the murder of his friend. He and his boyfriend, Billibud (Jason Durr), a non-conforming socialist punk rocker, face racism and homophobia from both the West Indian and white British communities. Throughout it all, Chris and Caz try to promote soul music against the prevailing punk scene, the popular music of the time. Young Soul Rebels taps into the culture wars we still see today. When it comes to cultural appropriation in the UK, it’s always been clear that it is Black Brits music that is synonymous with cool. And while there have been many attempts to rewrite the musical history of Black Brits, the film proves that even through guerilla channels, the music lives on to be heard by the community who have always appreciated it.
Young Soul Rebels is one of the few British films which explores Black queer narratives and its existence in the 1990s is nothing short of radical. At the time, fears of Black immigration and concerns about the moral decline of Britain’s youth converged around sexuality. In 1991, it was illegal for homosexuality to be discussed in positive terms by anyone working for local authorities. Under Margret Thatcher’s Conservative party, racism continued to grow and was further inflamed and endorsed by the people at the top for over a decade. The combination of queer, Black, and punk aesthetics in Young Soul Rebels goes against the language of colonialism, weakening British standards as well as defying the heightened nationalism of the environment. Like many films deliberating on the “Black existence,” Young Soul Rebels is hyper-aware of the way that Black lives are devalued and taken. Sadly, this has been the truth in the 1970s, when this film was set; in the 1990s when it was filmed; and today in 2020. Young Soul Rebels depicts how violence surrounds Black lives, in their work, in their romantic relationships, in their passion projects, and everywhere else. When speaking about Black Lives Matter, the conversation often sees racism in places other than America as an afterthought.
There is often this idea that racism in the UK is simply not as bad, as if the lived experiences of Black and brown can be debated and questioned. Young Soul Rebels is violently aware of how even in polite and cordial England, Black men still have a target on their back. The characters are continuously reminded of how little their lives matter under the law, as Caz is plainly weighed down by his friend’s death and Chris is interrogated by police for this murder that he didn’t commit.
In the age representation, it is clear that the media’s definition of Blackness desperately needs to be broadened. The heroes of Black British films, many working-class people, are almost celebrated in the same way as their American counterparts. Film allows us to see life through another person’s eyes and there is symbolic power in that. It is the sad and mournful truth that Black British cinema never had its due, and so many filmmakers never had their day in the sun. When referring to Black movies, the film industry is generally hesitant to both make Black British stories and the community is hesitant to include the great films already existing into the canon. We are told that there is limited space; the few mainstream black films that do exist are made to compete with each other to get the top spot. We can only have a certain number of Black auteurs and they are almost always male. All these false dichotomies are placed on us in a way that is both limiting and ultimately suffocating.
There are so many wonderful and important Black British films out there; from Horace Ové Pressure (1975), Burning an Illusion (1981) by Menelik Shabazz, and more recently Amma Asante’s Belle (2013). While these films are often left out of the conversation, it is our job to let them back in. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, there has been more of a concerted effort for audiences to diversify their media diets. We have to explore all the great art that is out there and demand that the important works are remembered and revered as they ought to be.