Making His Move Into the Mainstream : Movies: Isaac Julien’s latest film had its local premiere Thursday at a benefit for Gay & Lesbian Media. ‘Young Soul Rebels,’ a prize winner at Cannes, cuts across sexual, racial lines in its appeal.


Last year British filmmaker Isaac Julien created an international stir with “Looking for Langston,” his elegant, 42-minute meditation on black gay sexuality that outraged the administrators of the estate of Langston Hughes because it depicts the late poet as being homosexual.

This year Julien has completed his first mainstream feature, “Young Soul Rebels,” which had its local premiere Thursday, at the Pacific Design Center as a benefit for Gay & Lesbian Media.

(Gay & Lesbian Media was not able to obtain the film for its film and video festival last July. The organization also was denied permission by the Hughes estate to show “Looking for Langston” at its 1989 festival. It has since had fairly wide exposure in theaters and on TV.)

“Young Soul Rebels,” which took the Critics Week prize at Cannes and which opens today at the Beverly Connection and the Los Feliz, cuts across sexual and racial lines in its appeal. It’s a suspense thriller involving two black pirate radio disc jockeys, one straight (Valentine Nonyela) and the other gay (Mo Sesay), who have been lifelong friends.


“The main reason for making the film was to celebrate cultural differences in a fun way,” said Julien, who was in Los Angeles briefly late last month to promote the film for its American distributor, Prestige, a division of Miramax. “It also speaks to the danger of keeping secret your sexual orientation.”

Short and stocky, Julien, 31, is a witty, relaxed man who at 16 came out to his family, which he said has always been supportive of him. “The other major reason for making the film was the music of the era. It was the time of the Soul Boy, Soul Girl movement, of Roy Ayers and ‘Runnin’ Away,’ which I use as a theme song--referring to running away from your responsibilities, of people running away from each other and of the need to seek your own cultural identity.

“I was a Soul Boy myself in 1977, and I always wanted to make a film about being a teen-ager in London. It was an exciting time, a pivotal year, There was the rise of the National Front and other crypto-fascist groups, and also the anti-racist movement. Racism in Britain is a little more discreet in the ‘90s, but the film is very contemporary for France and Germany.

“I was also always slightly jealous of the attention paid to punk rock while the black and gay music scene was never really documented. And I wanted to make a film about a friendship between a straight man and a gay man--you never see that taken as a kind of norm on the screen.”


Julien, a London native who began as a painter, is developing a screenplay involving a series of stories about black intellectuals that take place in London and New York and “have a lot to do with sex.” He also hopes to do a film about Sir Roger Casement, an eminent British government official and one of the principal martyrs in the Irish revolt against British rule--and also the purported keeper of homosexual diaries. He also would like to do a film of James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room.”

Julien stressed that both black American music and black American independent filmmakers have been crucial for the emerging black British culture.

“In politics and music everybody looks to America for inspiration--and still does,” he said. “In 1977, British black culture was nowhere to be found within the dominant culture. With Thatcher things started turning to the right, yet oddly enough, we were able to produce a counterculture in the ‘80s, something like the Harlem Renaissance with black filmmakers, painters and photographers emerging. Channel 4 has been responsible for a whole generation of black young people doing lots of different things.

“But I’m pessimistic about the ‘90s. It would be difficult for me to try to make ‘Looking for Langston’ now. It has meant that I have had to become more commercial, but then I’m interested in pushing my ideas into the mainstream. So-called marginal films have become more central, haven’t they? Look at ‘Paris Burning’ and ‘My Own Private Idaho.’ I hope ‘Young Soul Rebels’ can be part of that.”