Interview with Isaac Julien and Mark Nash
On the occasion of the New York premiere of Isaac Julien's newly restored 1995 landmark docudrama, Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Masks, programmer Melissa Lyde spoke with Isaac Julien and collaborator Mark Nash about the film's impact, future projects and a comparative reflection on the legacies of two revolutionary Black thinkers, Frantz Fanon and Frederick Douglass. The interview took place on March 10, 2019, at the Metrograph Cinema in New York City, US.
Isaac Julien is an installation artist and filmmaker born in 1960 in London. His 1989 documentary-drama, Looking for Langston (UK), about the American writer and activist Langston Hughes, received global acclaim; and his 1991 feature Young Soul Rebels (UK, FR, DE, SP)—about the1970s counter cultural movements in London, West Indian, and Black communities—went on to win the Grand Prize during Cannes Film Festival's Critics' Week. His extensive career as an installation and video artist, which takes the similar thematic preoccupations as film work—class, race, gender, and sexuality within Black communities—garnered him a Turner Prize nomination in 2001. His most recent piece, Lessons of the Hour—Frederick Douglass, a ten-screen video installation, was exhibited at Metro Picture Gallery in New York City and the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, New York, March 2019.
I want this to be a focus on re-imagining the Black image and reflective of your impact on Black cinema. [End Page 189]
As Frantz Fanon is being re-released, it's especially important today to reestablish what the Black image means through a Black artist's gaze.
I think one of the things to focus on is the way in which Stuart Hall, in particular, unpacks the notion of, well, the fact of Blackness.
Decolonization of thought?
In a way. I'm not sure that it's thought that needs decolonizing exactly, but that's a slightly separate conversation because in a way what Fanon did was reveal how complex the relationships of Black and white are when you start unpacking them philosophically. But also in terms of lived experience, and the book that he did as his thesis, Black Skin, White Masks, was about his dialectical relationships, picking up on the master slave dialectic that it wasn't Black folk over here and white folk over here. Black notions of whiteness on Blackness are really entangled. I think, like you say, the Black Lives Matter phenomenon just shows how things have not changed since the '60s, since desegregation, or even going further back.
But a lot of white folks in particular are fixated on—and they don't realize that actually their notion of being white and being privileged is tied into their connection to Black people—the image of Black people. Fanon helped to think about those issues in a different way. It's not essentialist, so it's not like there is a Black identity over here. We just have to clear away some of the bad thinking around it, and it can be assumed. It's a bit complicated.
I read a piece about identity by Toni Morrison. In this collection of essays she said identity of the Black person in America has been established not by the Black people who exist but white people. Even as we live today identity is still not of our own. Our identity is predicated on what other people have projected onto us.
Yeah. One of the things to say about this film, and in a way more broadly about the Black British art and film movement, is that Britain is a small country, the Black community is smaller, and they have a different history. The history, obviously the slavery, they still share with the US in many ways, but you've brought there the Fact of Blackness, the conference that happened at the ICA in London.
About the same time as we were making our film, Stuart also did a conference around that time too, around the question of white ethnicity, to try and stop the notion of white being used as an unmarked term, like the dominant unmarked [End Page 190] term. Thinking of white and Black in this more, as I said, dialectic relationship. A number of the artists, Isaac included, were very well received in the States in late '80s and '90s because there wasn't that level of sophistication of debate and discussion happening here. Now I think it's changed. Now I think there's a lot more of that debate and discussion going on.
I would love to explore the visual puzzling, if you will, of putting Fanon's book to film. What were the decisions and discussions about how Isaac layered in Frantz's life in this experimental way?
Well, there was this genre of faction, a combination of documentary fact and fiction. But in this case, Isaac had already made two or three television programs, films. A two-part series, Black and White in Color, and a film about homophobia called The Darker Side of Black. Isaac had made those films, and I'd been involved in those in different ways. Then we came to the BBC, who wanted to give Isaac a chance of doing something that expanded the range of voices available on British television. Channel 4 was in 1984; in 1994 they were still interested in expanding the range out here. More people of color on television, making projects, and so on.
If you look at that Back to Blackness you have, as Isaac pointed out, an image from an early Steve McQueen artwork. Having had that invitation, we pitched a number of topics to the television company and Fanon was one. They said, "Well, we remember Fanon from university days, but we don't think anybody else will." We went away and we did a script, which was originally much more experimental. More like Isaac's artwork today, I would say. They came back to us and said, "Well, actually we think the story needs to be told in a more linear fashion." That accounts for it's very simple "I was born in Martinique until death." It's an arc of his life; it's very straightforward in that way.
Who gave the green light for the film conceptually?
It was BBC Television. It was our idea to do this piece, but we had a discussion in which the piece became less experimental. Although now when you see it, it looks quite experimental; in particular it uses, as you see, still images like transitions between shots. One of the things that we did was, in the research phase, we went to Tunisia, primarily, and shot images that were then projected or used in other takes. When Stuart is discussing Fanon, we're interviewing him in a room in Paris, and you'll see images, still images, which we already shot in Tunisia. There's a way in which we're tying the work together through the use of these still images, I would say. That, I think, is quite experimental. Although a lot of Isaac's work uses this concept of the tableau. [End Page 191]
Here we are almost twenty years later; can you talk about your initial release with this film and the process now of people learning about Fanon? And do you feel that enough people have seen it?
You don't always have that much control over how things are released and picked up. As I was saying, in the '90s there was this interest in Fanon. Particularly in the Fanon of Black Skin, White Masks because people were interested in thinking of Fanon as a psychoanalyst, in a way. Part of our project was to complicate that, and to say he's not a Black militant hero in the way that people in the States wanted to have, but he's also not a psychoanalyst in any straightforward kind of way. He's a psychiatrist dealing with the paradoxes of colonial psychiatry.
For example, he didn't speak Arabic, so he always had to have a translator, and his focus was really on male hysteria rather than on women. Men had adapted much worse to colonialism than women, for whatever reasons, or at least that was the psychiatric argument at the time. And it fed into interest in Fanon in the States, in universities primarily. The film was distributed in a shortened version by California NewsReel.
We were just getting into the experience of the release and whether you two felt it was a controlled release. To clarify, do you think this film has encouraged a better understanding of Frantz Fanon? Do you think releasing it with California NewsReel might have added a sort of censorship; were there any difficulties with getting this particular film in theaters?
I wouldn't call it censorship, but I think they had a very old-fashioned notion of film distribution. They just provide the films to service the university departments. So they don't do it themselves.
Do a theatrical …
Yeah. So they're not really engaging.
But I think they're a little bit lazy, and they basically were comfortable with the fact that they made a lot of money by not having to do so many things apart from the things that they actually did in the educational circuit. They didn't really push it out there. Do you know what I mean? It was like a nice income for them, and it earned them something just by literally doing what they did.
What they know best. [End Page 192]
[End Page 193]
In a way they never had the impetus for really getting it out there, which is why we, and Mark, I think, especially, felt that with them we didn't want to do all the conservation work on it. One of the things we've been doing at the studio is conservation on all of our films. Looking for Langston, Frantz Fanon …
Young Soul Rebels, Territories.
Young Soul Rebels. Territories. We've done the conservation work on it.
It's just not available.
It's just not available, but the conservation work is done. If you wanted to release Territories, you could release at any time. We haven't done conservation work on The Passion of Remembrance.
Or Dreaming Rivers.
What about Who Killed Colin Roach?
Colin Roach? Well, the thing is, that's shot on video, so you can't really conserve video. Maybe there might be a new way of conserving video, but it has glitches in it because it was shot on video. It wasn't shot on film.
You two have really impacted Black cinema.
The two of you together. Let's talk about this amazing team. People really feel driven by the work that the two of you have put out. Maybe you could share a little bit about that.
I'm sure we'll say some of this after, as well, but in particular in relation to Fanon, there was this coming together of my being interested in The Wretched of the Earth because I'm a different generation. I'm post '68, more about socialist revolution, whatever. Isaac's generation was more interested in the psychoanalytic, in the psychological, and the inter-subjective dimension of Fanon. His work combines those two elements, and that was a way of us bringing our different interests and experiences together. [End Page 194]
What do you think of the reception of your recent ten-screen installation about Frederick Douglass?
I think it's been great, hasn't it? It feels like it's been good. I think people have really… In some ways I feel sometimes I'm at the limit of making my works in the art world, and that I shouldn't… I think I'd like to get a film like the Frederick Douglass film and do a cinema screen version. At the moment, it's half an hour long.
He deserves a biopic.
Yeah. He completely deserves a biopic. In a way, if I was going to do, say, a biopic like the Fanon film on Frederick Douglass, we would have all the imagery of him, and we could do the model of the Fanon film where we interview people talking about Frederick Douglass, and then we could… Do you know what I mean? In a way, do a drama documentary, I guess. That would be a way of making it more accessible to more people. What I really would like to do is I would like to do a drama of it. An episodic format and do moments of Frederick Douglass's life.
Like a Downton Abbey?
Yeah, maybe it would be Downton Abbey-ish. I think it could be maybe no longer than say …
Seventy minutes or something like that, but as a performed drama section of Frederick Douglass's life. I would need to have at least six stories and they would all be maybe ten minutes long. Maybe ten minutes long each, different episodes, and then I could make that into an impressionistic feature.
That would be amazing.
It'd be great to do that, and I could do it with the materials I've got. That's what I would really like to do, and then I'd like to lease that as a feature. A kind of art feature and that would be…
Would you also want to put that on a single screen?
I'd do it as a single screen, yeah. [End Page 195]
Frederick Douglass was one of the most photographed men of his era.
He was the most photographed man of the nineteenth century, yeah.
His image alone created a … I'm thinking his physical presence just re-certified this empowered Black image, not of slaves.
Do you have any opinions on that?
Oh, I feel very strongly. I think he's someone who was a slave that became a philosopher and an orator, and was basically someone who was the most important Black leader of the nineteenth century of the world, basically. In a way, what I would do is to bring out the women's stories on Douglass. Anna Marie Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, the Richardsons.
That's what you would do for the feature?
Yeah. I'd bring out those stories. It'd be the women in Frederick Douglass's life. I wouldn't want to do more Frederick Douglass necessarily talking, because we have him talking. He would be in it, but it'd be more like seeing it through their eyes.
I'm just going to go back to Fanon for a minute. One of the differences between the short version and the longer version was that we wanted to include more women's voices. So, in the longer version, we asked Maryse Condé, who was somewhat critical of Fanon's approach, for example.
We wanted to, as it were, add a feminist layer to Fanon. Fanon himself was very conscious of those issues, but he was a man of his time, one would say. Made some homophobic remarks, but that didn't invalidate everything he had to say. That was, sadly, what a lot of guys, and straight Black guys, would be thinking on those issues.
Well, let's talk about Frederick Douglass and Fanon. Now that you're the experts on them, visually speaking at least, what do you think these two men would think of each other?
What I think that they share is this inquisitive aspect in thinking about philosophical ideas. I think there's a relationship to knowledge, and the transformative aspect to knowledge, and there's an interest to some extent in occupying what [End Page 196] would be see as the domain of high culture. I think in both cases you have a fellow who's a psychiatrist, Frederick Douglass becomes a politician and ends up representing Haiti. Then you have someone like Fanon from a French colony going to Algeria. But they're both doing, in a way, governmental activities.
I think it's interesting to think about them as being interested in enlightenment and occupying those spaces that are seen as areas of high culture, essentially. I think that's really impressive, but I think, as Mark remarked, they are men of their time. I think there's always a gendered issue.
Then the relationship to Susan B. Anthony. I don't want to make it too symmetrical, but you have Fanon and Simone de Beauvoir. With Simone de Beauvoir, you get bits of correspondence. So there is this gender/racial correlation of cross-identification that I think takes place in certain instances, which is really interesting.
One of the issues, which again, it sounds politically incorrect. Let me say that before I say it. But one of the questions that comes up in the film is why these revolutionary guys have white partners/wives. One the one hand, Maryse Condé handles that very eloquently by saying desire isn't something that can be policed in that way. Then other people look at this and point out that because of the discrimination against Black women in Martinique and places, you would be more likely to meet educated white women than you would be to meet educated Black women.
The signifier of being white—a number of the leaders of these different African countries made a point of having a French, like a real French, woman as their partner. It's taken, I think, politically incorrect to say they should have…
Black women as lovers.
Yeah, they should have Black women as lovers.
Or Black women as wives.
You can't legislate that.
The question of desire, internalized racism, and what does that produce, I think, that question of desire and how policing desire doesn't really work. Do you see [End Page 197] what I mean? There's always the desire. That's when it goes into the whole Freudian thing. You desire what's meant to be not attainable.
Right, forbidden fruit.
That produces a desire. Do you see what I mean? I think there's also the aspect of the slave occupying the master's house or wanting… These are all the slave narratives, aren't they? The white mistress, the Black slave. The transgression of that, lynching was always the sight of interracial transgressions, imagined or real, or people being criminalized for them or criminalizing a whole Black community or killing Black men. A lot of that has to do with the kind of racial tension or racial terror that produced that anxiety around these questions of interracial relationships.
You can't police these things, so then you have to have a terroristic regime to make that become a reality, like lynching. Do you see that I mean? In the case of Frederick Douglass, he had a Black wife, but his second wife was white, and he had white lovers. He married, his second wife…
Frederick Douglass did, yes.
The point was that they were also very active in the anti-slave movement.
Yeah, they were abolitionists. She basically lost jobs, and she came from an abolitionist family. You have white women who are campaigners, who are against racism, against lynching. Generationally, their families are Quakers who are basically working politically against a system of racism. I think…
I don't want to focus too much on what happened in their bedroom, just because I don't know if that really…
I don't think it's about their bedroom. I think it's about a politics of solidarity that crosses racial boundaries, which goes against the grain of the political discourse, which is about policing desire or making things like symmetrically politically correct. Do you know what I mean? Racially. In a way, as I said, I don't think desire works in that way.
I don't think it's just about what people do in bed. Somebody like Helen, the work that she did as the second wife of Frederick Douglass with the Black community is the reason why that house can be filmed today. These are all debates which we had in the '80s and '90s around essentialism. What I see as a… I don't [End Page 198] mean to sound politically correct, but it's an ungenerous way of looking at the struggles for equality that are cross-racial lines. Let's put it this way, in England you had women, white women, who basically campaigned and bought Frederick Douglass's freedom to become a non-slave. That was white people. Do you know what I mean? You had white people who were basically fighting for Black rights.
And you got John Brown.
You got John Brown, precisely. That's why we need also white people to know that there were white people who were doing those things. I think it's very important. We're in a world now where identity has to divide Black and white people. I think it's very important to have that challenged somehow, and to show historically there have always been white people who have supported Black people in struggles, and I think that's an important message to get out there because we need that message now. The one that we have now is that we have an American president and we have a leader in our little island where they're just using whiteness and race to divide.
Not just divide but exploit. I think racism, for one, drives the economy, especially towards guns, the purchase of guns. I think that was even the initial design for a gun, to protect yourself against a slave uprising.
You approach these very strong figures in history. Can you tell a little bit about why? I know it's a simple question.
In a way, although we are interested in these great people, we're also interested in exploring contradictions within the way they think as well as the way they live. Just to make them, in a way, more accessible to people.
But if you put them too much on a pedestal… One of the issues with Frederick Douglass is that he's sitting on all these pillars. What has happened since 1850, or whatever, actually what he said then is just as valid 150 years later. And I think that's partly to do with the way we construct these heroes. In the case of Fanon, when it was originally released there was a part of the community that was a bit upset because…
And still are.
And still are.
The current Fanon interest, this was not the film that they want. They want a much more cardboard Fanon. They want an iconic kind of … in a way, without [End Page 199] being too critical, Black Lives Matter-movement type Fanon now to fit the bill, which can be very neat. I think we've always said no to that. We want complexity. It's only by complexity and also by contradiction—and also by contesting such narratives and images and, in a way, icons—that we can get to another place. If we don't do that we won't get to that other place. [End Page 200]
Melissa Lyde is a film programmer and founder of Alfreda's Cinema and La Critique du Film Noir, an online Black/POC film publication.