Watching a black man in the shower

Michael Wood

The heart of Young Soul Rebels, visually and dramatically, is a scene in an East London club, noisy, cheerful, full of glitter and bounce. Punk and soul music alternate on the disco deck; punk and soul styles are jumbled on the dance floor. Men and women, black and white, gays and straights, mix easily if loudly, having a good time. Two men are seen kissing, but only a newcomer, and our camera, linger over the event. The general effect is raucous and chaotic, but not strident or violent. The punks don’t really dance, they just jump heavily up and down. The soul brothers and sisters have all the rhythm and elegance that cliché awards them; but then one of the suggestions of this film is that clichés have to be worked with, that there is no way round them, and (at present) no place beyond. The time is the summer of 1977, the year of the Queen’s Jubilee, but the real celebration is here, every Saturday night: a festival of plurality.

The film has two later echoes of this scene, one a rough denial of its promises, another a small reconstruction of them. The denial is a riot in a park at a punk and soul anti-Jubilee demonstration. Skinheads fight, the crowd is littered with disguised policemen and agents provocateurs. Children get trampled, petrol bombs are thrown, the stage goes up in flames. Loudspeakers fall, records are scattered in the mud. This last item may seem pretty minor in a context of such horror and confusion, but it is shot and situated – we see the disc jockeys eager to save their records rather than themselves – in a way that makes the records stand for much else that is scattered here and could be broken. A little later, the disc jockeys and their friends cluster in the garage from which they operate their pirate radio station, wiping the mud off the records, checking them for scratches, trying them on the turntable. The music settles into soft, up-tempo soul, and the five of them get up and dance, separately at first, then in formation, a small-scale model of what a community might be: three men, two women; three blacks, two whites; two gays, three straights; one punk, two soul, sympathisers. The dance and the music are cheerful, light, but the smallness of the scale reminds us of the world outside the garage, where the National Front and old-fashioned prejudice are still making weird alliances. These people are starting again; but may just have to keep starting again.

Young Soul Rebels is an intelligent and thoughtful, if uneven film. Its main scenes are full of energy, and Isaac Julien knows how to get images to ask difficult questions. The acting is rather self-conscious, but its awkwardness has charm, and individual performers, particularly Valentine Nonyela, Mo Sesay, Sophie Okonedo and Jason Durr, are appealing as persons:or rather, not quite as persons, but as interesting, hesitant phantoms, caught between their own lives and the script. Or between now and 1977. This sort of ambivalence about identity, although more marked and disorganised than Julien can have wanted, is in any case very much one of the film’s topics.

The plot, though, is a problem. It was a good idea to centre the film on a murder. At the beginning a young black is killed in a park where gay men gather after nightfall. Before he is attacked we see him leaning against a tree, listening to the pirate soul station on his portable radio/cassette-recorder, smiling, his face and the whole park lit with a curious violet effect. An interviewer in Diary of a Young Soul Rebel thinks of David Lynch and Hitchcock in relation to this scene, and certainly those names evoke the right sort of frozen ceriness. But there is excitement in the shot, too – a sense of sexual adventure. The mood is lyrical rather than frightening, and it is into this mood that murder breaks like a transgression, a betrayal. Talk of the murder, worry about the murder, haunt the film, write the always possible violence of this world into the story.

Unfortunately, someone concerned with the film – writer, producer, backer – felt a whole lot more ‘writing in’ was needed, and we are hauled through a tacky, truly embarrassing story development concerning the victim’s tape-recorder, an incriminating tape and a frame-up. Eventually we’re told that the murderer was the screwed-up guy we knew he was all along. He dies in the fire at the riot, conveniently but meaninglessly, a narrative prop to be chucked out when his time is up. None of this laborious stuff, including heavy-breathing inserts of action seen from the (still unrevealed) murderer’s point of view, is worth the single frame of the murderer’s face as he watches a black man in a shower. His whole look goes glazed with wonder and baffled desire, sheds its mask of ordinariness. This is the sort of moment movies are for: we know the man through his yearning, see that he will never allow himself to want what he wants, and consequently can never have it.

In 1977 the most visible and violent and British resistance to the British cultural mainstream was punk. Soul by comparison seemed glossy, commercial and American, the smooth and sentimental opium of the (black) people. When one of the young disc Jockeys acquires a new Donna Summer album, he says he had to fight half the gay disco DJs/in London to get it. The disco world and the gay world: hardly the vanguard of the revolution, musical, moral or political. But what if that is precisely where the revolution is, or might get a start? What if punk is merely a white middle-class rebellion, the luxurious anger of people who don’t know how privileged they are? ‘Anarchy courtesy of EMI,’ as someone in the movie suggests, ‘So rebellious ... so St Martin’s School of Art.’ What if young blacks manage to remake a language of pleasure and liberation out of the canned sentimentality they are offered, to turn emotional clichés into emotional realities? To be gay and black in such a context would be to know something about the tyranny of ‘normality’, and the difficulties of dilference.

This is an argument which doesn’t do justice to the working-class contribution to punk, indeed which implicitly treats all whites as members of an honorary middle class; which doesn’t face up to the real manipulations of the music industry; and which glances only fleetingly at the conservatism of many homosexuals. But it reflects what Paul Willis and others have suggested is happening with youth culture generally – namely, that apparently passive consumers are often engaged in radical and stylish reorganisation of the material they are given and it makes sense of a cultural politics which is not simply confrontational.

The scene which earned the film its 18 certificate – two people in front of me in the cinema, both well over 18, walked out once it got going – is a sex scene between two men, one white and one black, punk and soul. The scene is fairly restrained and delicate – no shocking nudity, no buggery – but it is important that it should not seem evasive, that the camera should not go coy on us. Even so, what matters in the scene is not the photographed flesh but the flurry of signs. The punk’s music plays, a thumping X-Ray Spex number. Then he looks sheepish, realises the sound is not right. This is a romantic encounter after all, not a demo. He riffles through his discs, finds a lonely soul album, puts it on the record-player. The black man grins. The punk, too, realises how condescending and eager the gesture is. The black man says: ‘How about quiet?’ They turn the music off, and get down to what the script calls serious pleasure. The script says no more, and the implication is that we have arrived at cultural peace and harmony, the truce of silence. The film, though (I don’t know whether this is a subtle tilting of the argument or a ‘political’ slip), allows the soundtrack to invade the silence with quiet but unmistakable soul music. The truce was a secret victory; silence, too, is full of the sound of soul.

Diary of a Young Soul Rebel is a bit of a mixed bag – shooting script, interview with Isaac Julien, diaries of Julien and Colin MacCabe, executive producer of the film – but it’s not just advertising. It gives the film a context, tells us something about its BFI and European funding, allows us to see its place in a debate and Julien’s dedication to differences which do make a difference. MacCabe suggests that many film-makers have backgrounds in theatre and in criticism but that a background in theory is rare. Theory here is a codeword. It doesn’t mean system or conception: it means a particular politics of film and literary study, a familiarity with certain key terms like ‘desire’, ‘gare’, ‘construction’, otherness’, and the assumptions crowding into those terms. There are plenty of possibilities for cant and hocus-pocus here, and they flicker in the interview with Julien, not so much in Julien’s answers as in the questions put to him. The interviewer is genuinely shocked at the thought that someone could be shocked at the depiction of homosexual acts on the screen: a right-on form of parochialism. The only harm ‘theory’ seems to have done the film itself is to encourage the belief that mere mention of a target is enough – you don’t have to hit it. The Queen’s Jubilee, for instance, appears simply as cardboard cut-outs and ratty flags, offers no sense of anything you could support or oppose. For the rest, it is good that desire, however ill understood, should be allowed back into the dour zones of political argument; good to be reminded that a gaze is(gender-)specific, that films are full of spying, gloating visions of people who don’t know they are being watched; that (to an important degree) we construct other people through the way we look at them. When we have seen this, as Wittgenstein remarks on another occasion, there are many things we shan’t say.