- 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...