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Young Soul Rebels

Director: Isaac Julien (UK, France, Germany, Spain). Year of Release: 1991

London, 1977. The Queen’s Silver Jubilee. A young black man is walking through a park with a beatbox playing the local pirate radio station. He presses the record button and heads towards the cruising area, where he meets an equally young white man. When the man asks his name, he is coy at first, asking “are you a cop?”, then saying “I’m Terry, but my friends call me TJ”. There is a bit of a kerfuffle, then we see someone running off with TJ’s beat box.

The next day, Chris and Caz are hanging around in the home of Chris’s white mother. We’ve already seen Chris and Caz hosting the pirate radio. Now, they are coming to terms with the news that their friend TJ has been murdered. The police have sealed off the part of the park where the murder happened, and are visiting local young black men and asking hostile questions. They don’t seem to be paying too much attention to the groups of skinheads who hang around the streets.

It’s the tun up to Thatcher taking over, when disillusionment was growing with Jim Callaghan’s Labour government. We see graffiti for the National Front next to walls covered with swastikas. The coming Jubliee celebrations mean that people are starting to hang Union Flags on the walls. And yet there is also visible resistance. The local punks are organising a Fuck the Jubilee concert. The working class black kids are a bit suspicious – isn’t punk white people’s music?

Chris and Caz are starting to clash about how they can get regular work from their music – and by God, they need the money. Caz hustles some money to get them a bigger ariel. Chris, meanwhile, has his heart set on getting a job DJing at the local radio station, Metro Radio. But Metro already has one black DJ, and one hour of soul is already too much for some of the audience. Nonetheless, Chris persists, urged on by Tracy, a young Black woman who works for Metro as a dogsbody.

Chris puts Tracy and her mate Jill on the guest list of one of the discos he does with Caz. As a result, Chris and Tracy start seeing each other, even though Caz says, with some justification, that she is way out of his league. Meanwhile Caz stops his lingering glances at Chris, and starts a relationship with a dark haired punk, who Caz calls Blondie. As Chris and Caz continue to drift apart, Blondie persuades Caz to perform a DJ set with him at the Fuck the Jubilee concert.

Almost as an afterthought, TJ’s murderer is exposed about two thirds of the way through the film. We move on. Chris and Tracy, Caz and Blondie, all have run ins with the local skinheads who may be dangerous or may just be being dicks. There’s a Jubilee party full of middle aged white people dressed as yeomen and pearly kings and queens. Everything is leading up to the open air concert, which is fire bombed by neo-Nazis (actually, as this is set in 1977, maybe they’re just Nazis).

It must have been three decades since I saw Young Soul Rebels on Channel 4, probably enthused by the Dexys’-inspired title. I had never seen a film like this before – a film about racism and gay sex, about Socialist Worker sellers and Fuck the Jubilee concerts. In a time when British cinema was in the middle of its Merchant-Ivory Poshoes in Frocks period, this was a film about working class black lads on a council estate. For a while it was one of my favourite films evs.

Watching it 30 years later, it’s still great, but it’s no longer quite as special as it was. It wears a little at the seams. The central Maguffin – a cassette tape that somehow switches from recording the radio to nearby conversations – does not really work. Some of the acting is under par, although this entirely fits the mood of a film about the DIY ethos of both pirate radio and the nascent punk movement. And maybe I’ve since seen films which have done all this better, like La Haine, say.

Nonetheless, this is a significant film – both for me personally, and for the history of British film. It showed that another way of film making was possible. One of the reasons why it was so important to me was the soundtrack – a mixture of George Clinton, Junior Marvin, Sylvester and X-Ray Spex. For a film about soul and funk music, there’s an awful lot of X-Ray Spex, and I’m not complaining one bit. A band led by a troubled half-Somali woman entirely fits the mood of this film.

It was also a moment of serendipitous fortune that the film, which had been scheduled for a while, was shown tonight in the middle of the madness following the Queen’s death. The tackiness of the jubilee – from the life-sized model queen with a waving arm in the foyer of Metro Radio to the enforced jollity at Jubilee parties – show just how far invented royal pageantry is from the everyday lives of Chris and Caz, our representatives on screen. It shows how their lives are different.

If you want to judge Young Soul Rebels as a film critic, it’s all a bit scattershot. It introduces too many characters then doesn’t give them enough to do. If you want to view it as a young person who’s interested in activist politics and doesn’t know too much about film (and I was that person once) it’s a film that speaks to your soul. It captures 3 moments – pre-Thatcher 1977, 1991 – the year it was made, just after she was removed, and a possible, much more progressive future.

Maybe Young Soul Rebels is more of a symbol that a fully functioning whole, but even this symbolic value makes it much more relevant than most other films.

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