- An Interview with Isaac Julien
Consider the lyrics of “Boom Bye Bye,” a dance-hall hit song by Buju Banton: “Two men necking / and a lay down in a bed / Hug up one another and a rub down leg / Send for the ‘matic and the Uzi instead / Shoot them batty [gay] boy come let we shot them.” Followed by the sound of a gun shot. The song continues: “Girl bend way back / And accept the peg / And if it really hurt / You know she still no go fled / And some men still no want the panty red / Bare botty business them love . . . Send for the automatic and the Uzi instead / Shoot them now / Come let me shoot them.”
Now consider the lyrics of “Punks Jump UP to Get Beat Down” by the rap group Brand Nubian: “Well, I can freak, fly, flow, fuck up a faggot. Don’t understand their ways and I ain’t down with gays.”
On June 3, 1994, I met with Isaac Julien, director of such films as This is Not an AIDS Advert (1987), Looking for Langston (1989) and Young Soul Rebels (1991), to talk about his latest film, Darker Side of Black (1993), which examines nihilism in black popular culture; specifically, the homophobic and violent lyrics in hip-hop and Jamaican dance-hall music. Shot in London, Jamaica and New York, Darker Side of Black was produced for British television. “It’s really not a cinematic experience. It’s more televisual,” says Julien. “There’s just been a big demand for it in festivals and such.” Darker Side of Black has been screened at the 1994 Berlin Film Festival, the New York Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, the International Gay Film Festival in Turin, Italy, the South African Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. The film contains interviews with rap musicians such as Ice Cube, Buju Banton, Brand Nubian, Shabba Ranks and Monie Love, and social critics Cornel West and Trisha Rose.
Julien made his first films while studying painting at the St. Martin School of Art in London. It was his rhapsodic homage to the Harlem Renaissance, Looking for Langston (1989), which brought him international attention when the Hughes estate refused to give Julien the rights to use any of Langston Hughes’ writing in a film about homosexuality. Little did they know the ensuing controversy would make Julien a cause célèbre. [This Is Not An AIDS Advert and Looking for Langston will be included in the exhibition, “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art” at the Whitney Museum, November 10, 1994, to March 5, 1995.]
After his first (and only, thus far) feature film Young Soul Rebels won the 1991 Prix de la Critique at Cannes, many critics compared Julien to Spike Lee. The comparison is surely based on race alone; while Lee’s films fit easily within the Hollywood marketplace, Julien’s films have been more experimental, pushing the formal boundaries of documentary and narrative filmmaking. Erroll Morris, the director of the brilliant documentary Thin Blue [End Page 406] Line, or Derek Jarman, the director of such films as Caravaggio and Edward II, would be a better match.
Tucked away on the fifth floor of a nondescript building on 14th Street, Julien’s office at Testing the Limits, the production company of a four-part documentary series on the gay civil rights movement in America, is small and crowded but well organized. There are towering stacks of neatly labeled folders strategically placed all over his desk. Yellow Post-its, storyboard drawings, scheduling charts, promotional posters (for the films Tongues Untied and Darker Side of Black) and eye-catching pictures cut out of popular magazines line the walls. Casually dressed in a blue denim shirt, khakis and brown suede loafers, Julien is pleasingly plump and very charming. His sleek-looking portable computer is always on and he’s constantly sending and receiving e-mail messages.
Before we start, while Julien works on his computer, I stare at one particular picture: of two handsome white men, arm in arm, face against face—twin brothers or lovers, possibly, dressed in frosty sorbet-colored...