Outing the Rebels: Representations of black homosexuals in Contemporary British Cinema


The following essay was submitted back in 2012 for one of my MA Film classes. It’s a lengthy, exahustive exploration of a subject I find wholly engrossing. Hopefully some out there will too. Apologies that the formatting doesn’t really match the blog layout. Nevertheless, it’s still perfectly legible! 


            The search for difference is a permanent one [1]. John Akomfrah

Considering it’s post-Colonial roots and cosmopolitan present epoch, it comes as no surprise that contemporary Britain is often regarded as a paragon of diversification. With such an enthralling, idiosyncratic societal melting pot, it is with great dismay that films exploring the nation’s cultural heterogeneity are considerably lacking. This is no more apparent than in the tired, stereotypical rehashing of ethnic minorities; existing in a nominal, furtive position alongside the troglodyte mainstream, cinema screen. Inescapably limited, one must tread lightly when discussing Britain’s film industry and the integrity of its’ representations of minorities, which all too often fall into homogeneous realms. But why are these films and their subjects still untouched and unexplored? This delineation is still subject to both vast scholarly discourse and political scrutiny. At its crux, the absence and reluctance to climb these fascinating terrains is due to epistemological confusion, the approximated concept of identity and most crucially, what cultural theory doyen Stuart Hall suggests as ‘the burden of Black representation’ (Hall 1992: 13).

Questions of authorship and authenticity run paramount to this problem, where ‘minority voices are expected not only to present their views, but to present them as characteristic of a group – the representation must also be representative’ (Van Leer 1991: 158). Although proclaiming this twenty years ago, Van Leer’s problem with authored voices still prevails today, where films meddle with the absurd notion of an autonomous black community in which characters are forced to speak as spokesman from and for their ‘brothers and sisters’ (Rompf 2010: 3). This is an issue that one finds difficult to stomach. The fundamental problem British cinema has with portraying such minority figures is the incessant reliance that, particularly for film financiers, everything must be relative. Still a minority, albeit a growing one, representations of black communities in mainstream cinema have to be uniformed and relative to the ruthlessly right-wing news media, which excoriates them as ubiquitous vandals. Such valorization of Britain’s ethnic minorities has, on the most part, left behind a great deal of diversity as previously explored. Gareth Jones details the implications of race change’s absence in film and the crucial underpinning to the ethnic minorities themselves,

It is hard to assess the migrant and diasporic experience solely through the prism of films that have been made, because those films have not been the only representational versions of reality on offer. Indeed, they have already passed through an industrial process (the making of film) that may have powerfully compromised or relativized their author’s original plans and intentions. (Jones 2010: 281)

 So what is being left behind within the constraints of relativity? It is here where we can return to the opening statement from Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC) co-founder John Akomfrah. In this essay I intend to explore the contentious issue of difference within ethnic minorities with aplomb, looking at the paradoxical distinctions between reality and filmic representations of diasporas’ constant outsider. A doubly, permanently rebellious identity that struggles to find acceptance in both the mainstream and diasporic cultures it is birthed from, let alone the cinema screen itself: the black homosexual. With a body of commentary coming from queer theory, minority study and identity discourse, it is considered that queer migrants ‘comprise essentially impossible subjects with unrepresentable histories that exceed existing categories’ (Williams 2010: 196). Because of this, it is disappointing, yet not surprising, that films tackling this fringe-theme are scarce. It is appropriate therefore to explore the two most relevant and recent film texts Isaac Julien’s Young Soul Rebels (1991) and Adaora Nwandu’s Rag Tag (2006) as a means of mirroring the social issue today. Although these films are far from perfect, they are the only contemporary British-financed texts that wrestle with this subject[2]. Luckily enough, they are worthy of closer scrutiny and appropriate texts to help us unearth and out this taboo identity within British society, which rebels against the hegemonic ghettoization of black identity in film made prevalent in recent years.

It must be understood that these readings of black, British homosexuals in film does not intend to fall into the essentialist, tokenistic domain in which I am delicately tight roping above and attempting to cause friction against. Instead, the intention of this essay is to merely present how this hugely pertinent tripartite identity of black/British/gay is absent from our screens, making us reconsider the integrity and indexicality of contemporary British cinema and its ‘socio-realist’ claims for which it is so often revered.

The unyielding nature of difference on screen is both frustrating and fascinating. The subliminal subjects that our chosen films dare to tackle are crucially underrepresented elsewhere, both in filmic portrayals, and minority discourse. This essay will close with an attempt to unearth and relish this marginal identity, illustrating what is stopping this identity crises from oscillating within the cultural forum. This is key to the paradox at the heart of minority representation that tries to collectivize individuals solely on their skin colour, ethnicity, or social class. To borrow Russian philosopher Bakhtin’s terms,

Culture…cannot be enclosed within itself as something ready made, completely finalized, and irrevocably departed, deceased…the unity of a particular culture is an open unity…(with) immense semantic possibilities that have remained undisclosed, unrecognized and unutilized (Bakhtin 2004 [1979]: 6)

Although this essay has no intention to suggest an alternative, there is an aspirational point of departure which it strongly alludes to. Speaking generally, if black minorities wish to shake free the stagnant stereotypes of being dangerous outsiders, it is their very outside-ness and depth of minority history, which needs to re-embrace as a way of exploring new terrains, identities, and the open unity as described above.

Black-Britain: A contextual foreword

Considering British cinema and society altogether, it is worthy of note that dialogues of ethnic minorities and blackness have always been embellished in mystification. Unlike the theories of important critic Hamid Naficy and his accented cinema theory, it is crucial that we avoid a dialect which proclaims that ‘black film = black directors, black actors, black editors, etc.’, this is obfuscating, militant tokenism and devoid of any substantial worth with considerations of Black Britain and it’s complex makings from within. Moreover, it is important that we do not marginalize minority portrayals solely on visually semiotic terms of character, accenting and pigmentation. Borrowing African-American philosopher Tommy L. Lott’s theory on third cinema, we must look at a film’s ‘political orientation within the hegemonic structures of postcolonialism’ (Lott 1997: 92) to find most appropriate ways of discussing it. For the purposes of our discussion then, it is worthwhile to consider Blackness as an ideological construct, a question of ‘how it is said, rather than who is saying it’ (Cripps 1979: 9). Robin Cohen suggests that such topics are often mistreated,

race, nation and ethnic group are held to be constructed (not inherited) categories, shaped by political interests exploiting social antagonisms (Cohen 1995: 36)

Adhering to floating signifier discourse instead of biological and/or ethnological factors, Cohen agrees that such forms of stratification for communities are devised where individuals go through an inevitable motion of racialization (Malik 2010: 140). Considering these outsider positions as constructed identities, they have the ability to mutate and evolve both in and outside of the social climate simultaneously. This sense of mobility made way for vehemently political artistic movements such as Black Audio Film Collective, Sankofa and Ceddo. Starting inchoately, these workshop groups took stronghold as the impetus for a new wave of black representation in the British mainstream media. Consisting of art students, out-of-work actors and other bohemian figures, these groups were equipped with film council funding which enabled them to devise film projects exploring weighty concepts of race and cultural identity made available by influential scholarly peers such as Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy and Richard Dyer. Although films revolving around race relations existed previous to this movement, what made this time transitional was the new film language it adopted. Instead of representing black diaspora as a stand-alone discourse it was elevated to a formal identity that ran alongside the predominant white society, now with a newly found conscience  (Diawara 1993: 151). With this conscience and the newly obtained mainstream funding and outreach, films such as Menelik Shabazz’s Burning an Illusion (1981), John Akomfrah’s Handsworth Songs (1986), Isaac Julien’s Territories (1984), were able to question the nation’s portrayal of black essentialism and bring forth new subjectivities[3]. Writing in the period following these films, and perhaps as a proceeding notation to them, Stuart Hall cemented this,

Black popular culture…is more internally differentiated, by locality, neighbourhood, generation, ethnic background, cultural tradition, political outlook, class gradation, gender and sexuality…it is far less ‘collectivist’ (Hall 1992: 16)

Questioning not only ‘multicultural’ Britain as a hybridized whole[4], but distinctions within the diasporas from which they originated, such films laid the groundwork for explorative representations of minorities as complex, divergent and mixed.

Rebelling in the mainstream: Isaac Julien & Young Soul Rebels

With his multi-platform works as a director, alongside his turner-prize nominated recognition as a modernist artist, Isaac Julien could be considered an aesthetic-centric filmmaker. Working alongside the Sankofa collective contemporaries, he spent most of his career in the eighties adhering to the experimental traits of the avant-garde that moulded the movement. Alongside providing an anachronistic, socio-political commentary, questions and interpretations of sexuality have always been central to his work, being one of the most ‘out’ British filmmakers working in the period (Julien 1996: 23). Eclipsing his decade spanning, experimental tenure, Looking for Langston (1989) was a playful, intertextual (and intersexual) take on subterranean homosexual circles of the Harlem renaissance period, using the particularly provocative works of poet and political activist Langston Hughes as a prerequisite and a further thematic core. The film is entertaining, if a little ostentatious. Nevertheless, it further extended the parameters of minority representation from which Isaac Julien found himself engrossed.

Although Langston’s presentation of homosexuality is somewhat worthy of it’s own discussion, the film can only be considered as an adolescent precursor to it’s succeeding counterparts. Where Looking for Langston is purposefully created for the gaze of alternative, leftfield audiences, 1991’s Young Soul Rebels was Julien’s open-arm welcome into mainstream cinema distribution and nationwide audiences. Not willing to take on a compensatory route, this medium-sized budget film still tackles concepts of subversive selfhood with zeal.

Rebels, like many films dealing with marginal characters rebelling against a negotiated and formalized norm, could be considered as a ‘coming-of-age’ tale. Although I often find this schmaltzy classification difficult to swallow, it is perhaps a laconically apt way of addressing this film, due to it’s parallelizing display of 1977 London and its’ reflections in the present day. What is most significant about Rebels is that it acts as a pocket of anomalous diversity within an expansive, London metropolis. Although it is far too easy to adopt an ‘it was different back then’ mentality to the film’s bygone setting, if one takes Julien’s portrayals of such subcultures with the gusto that he is longing for, the anarchic out-ness of the characters on display are somewhat representative of an utopia that, with regret, has never truly actualized in modern history.

Although Chris and Caz, the film’s central characters, often face the brunt of criticism and abuse from the local council skinheads, the defiance of character on display in these quintessential soul-boys, clad in leather and all their colourful glory, is somewhat remarkable. Although these presentations could be hackneyed, it would be ignorant to suggest that such subcultures are no longer visible in contemporary culture, particularly within cosmopolitan urban communities, and even in a slight position. Gay pride marches aside; these subjects do exist (and one does assume receive a similar extent of public scrutiny), yet, apart from in this film, they remain invisible on our cinema screens.

Subordinately, Rebels suggests a struggle of macho patriarchy within the black, gay and rebelling communities, perhaps as a by-product of their unrivalled confidence. In the absence of any paternal figure in both Chris and Caz’s lives, they have compensated with flourishing relationships with matriarchal figures, most highlighted here with Chris’ white mother who is also some sort of rebel when she tears up the National Front press during the Queen’s jubilee. This male absence could also be an instrumental underpinning in the boys’ relationship together. Although Julien seems to only imply that the two soul boys are soul mates, their unified bond and solidarity, regardless of sexual orientation, makes it capable for them to exist here in an open unity (Bakhtin 2004 [1979]: 6, as above).

Looking again at Van Leer, in a discussion regarding the autobiographical work of Black, gay filmmaker Marlon Riggs,

Minority autobiographers do not stand as models or exemplars but only as counterexamples; they instruct dominant culture not how it can become “like me” but how it remains irrevocably “not us” (Van Leer 1997: 166)

Although Van Leer’s claim is wholly political and emotive, we can see echoes of such in Julien’s film, even though he has often felt uncomfortable with ‘us and them’/black vs. gay mentality[5]. Rebels is most interesting for it’s character portrayal and the relationship between our two central rebels Chris and Caz. It is here that, although they meet a stereotype in part as soul boys, they are unlike any subordinate character in the film, and outside it. Complex, beguiling characters whose relationship we are devoted to follow. When we greet the DJs, joyously spinning decks over their pirate radio show transmission, the proximity of the characters is by no means unintentional. Huddled around a single microphone and dancing, the two look harmonious together; a brotherhood is on display, one which is completely unsexualised.


Figure 1, left to right: Caught in the groove-act: Caz (Mo Sesay) and Chris (Valentine Nonyela)

Although I have previously stated that we cannot rely on stuffy, accented determinism, it is significant how the two central protagonists converse. Particularly for how they speak, rather than what they are saying. In the pair’s opening scene in the studio (still from above), they speak with generic, transatlantic accents, predominantly American and very much in keeping with broadcasting DJs – of mainstream and fringe appeal – in the seventies. Here the pair are adopting a unanimous identity as the confident soul-funk extraordinaire(s).

The following scene, sitting in a Reggae-roots barbershop, we see our two protagonists mutate again, with Chris speaking up in a thick Caribbean accent and Caz being transfixed by the stylistically opposing sounds of before, with dub reggae on the sound-system. In the first case, although it is later revealed that Chris has adopted such intonation (and, more importantly, a thick lexicon) as a way of formulating a playful banter and connection with his barber – a first generation Caribbean immigrant, one has to presume. Such a connection is essential for Caz too, turning up the music and embracing his musical roots as part of the Caribbean diasporic community. It is clear here, and in several other positions in the film, that Isaac Julien intends Chris and Caz to be considered as ephemeral subjects, as opposed to fixed identities. This element of identity transition is paramount to the theme of floating identities, aka signifiers, of blackness in the film. It is clear that this is a product of Julien’s defiantly loyalist devotion to the origins of black culture, the pride movement, and the equality of which was being carried forward by he and his filmmaking contemporaries. Although the film mulls over the devoted, jingoistic National Front fraternity, one can see the antithetical black-British pride on display with emblematic signifiers such as numerous portraits of Martin Luther King jnr., Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. Thus illustrating these diasporic communities have no attachment to the Queen’s jubilee, yet they do have quasi-religious, patriarchal connections with these universally renowned, black cultural icons which, regardless of creed and colour, everyone is able to acknowledge. In the words of Kobena Mercer,

(m)onolithic and monologic versions of black identity are therefore pluralized and relativized to create a critical dialogue among artists and audiences about the complex, multiple identities we each inhabit in the concrete experience of living with difference’, (Mercer 1994: 221)

Julien presents these cultural icons as a way of cementing the characters on display, regardless of how diverse they may be between each other. This is essential for the director as the film ran parallel to the nominative success of British sitcom Desmond’s – set in a south-east London barbershop, accompanied with various contrived, stereotypical presentations of Black communities (Julien 1996: 33).

Another symbol of divergence in the black community comes from the representation of brotherhood. Although I have highlighted the sibling-like, if slightly incestuous relationship of our soul boys, Caz’s relationship with his reggae-roots, mechanic brother Carlton is particularly noteworthy. Speaking with a thick Jamaican dialect against Caz’ comparatively ‘normalised’ English, Julien illustrates how such character furnishings adhere to the floating signifier discourse of Stuart Hall, as above. Later in the film, Caz confronts his brother and his mechanic colleague Davis, who criticize Caz for mixing with ‘the nastiness’ in the form of the gay white man. Not alone a debate about sexual orientation, the scene implicitly reveals territorial tension. Standing in Carlton’s mechanic workshop, this space also doubles as a drug den for his regular customers, plus it is the pirate home of Chris & Caz’ p-funk radio station. Although the brothers may have previously suggested towards a unity within this shared space, Julien now reveals a new dimension to their relationship. Aside from being drenched in homoeroticism, the bare chested Carlton’s intentions to break down his brother’s promiscuity are skewed. Caz is proud, loud, and most certainly out with his identity, and it seems that this strong thematic trait is unequivocal throughout the film. This presents a new development within these multifaceted, yet collectively known black communities, suggesting that the idiosyncrasies of character, although democratic and inevitable, are likely to cause friction and conflict from within societal groups, and in this case, consanguineous relationships. However, even in such friction, the community, and it’s singular representatives here, will not be shaken from their authoritarian positions, embodied identities, and selfhoods. This is a pride rooted within Black minorities that has been devoid of any major consideration on the British cinema, gay or otherwise.

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Figure 2. left to right: Rivalry within, Carlton (Eamonn Walker), Davis (Gary McDonald) & Caz (Mo Sesay)

As an audience, we can never completely determine how the brothers, who one has to assume had the same, absent-fatherhood upbringing, became divergent characters. Perhaps this in itself is a pragmatic statement of Julien’s – these varying characters just merely exist and shouldn’t be explored, for any more than what they are, and oppositely are not.  Although there lies an intrinsic, sibling rivalry and often vexation towards each other, the brothers are still able to be sanctimonious through heritage, with the potential for confluence at some undetermined point (Grossberg 1996: 89). This is also another interesting societal confusion that our director raises – as difference outside of prospective mainstream community exists, there lies deep dissension within, ‘where differentiation and condensation seem to happen almost synchronically’ (Bhaba 1996: 55).

Elsewhere, Julien does further represent divergence and a looser form of brotherhood in the form of a mixed race, skinhead. Diverting from adopting his ethnic roots, Rudy the skinhead is welcomed into the pugnacious and racist community, but only half way. Instead of being equal, he is in constant need to prove his National-Front impluses by bullying Chris & Caz, both of whom see his pledge as pathetic and a desperate attempt for Rudy to unstick himself from his familial history and ties[6].

Speaking more on the setting of Rebels, Julien presents an urbanized London far removed from the capital’s singular depiction within films of the same period. Here, the streets are hybrid locations, with subcultures loudly illustrating their independence and intrinsically non-comformist attitudes. Scrawled with punk graffiti on one corner, and Nazi paraphernalia on the next, the soul boys and girls carrying stereo systems, the dub Trojans smoke cannabis in the alleys. This is some form of quasi-utopian London that British society is yet to see the likes of in actuality. There might be friction in reality, the streets being covered with so many opposing murals illustrates that, although the subcultures may not mix together, there is space for all of them in Julien’s London, even if the capital is crumbling amongst the shibboleths of such characters. The scene of Rebels that presents such diversity most is also the one which receives most critical scrutiny- The Crypt nightclub. Whilst the Soul Brothers keep the club clientele happy playing ‘smooth grooves’, Chris’ love interest Tracy – a mixed race employee at Metro radio – asks her white friend Jill what she thinks of the place. This dialogue is particularly interesting to illustrate how, although not outwardly racist, such slip of the tongues are inevitable in these incongruous, subterranean settings.

            Tracy:   So what do you think of the Crypt then, Jill?

            Jill:        Oh, it’s good. I’ve never been to a coloured-err, black club before. Not to mention one that had blokes kissing in it.

            Tracy:   It’s only fashion Gill.

            Jill:         No?

            Tracy:   Nah, I’m only kidding.

Although this interaction has it’s own implications of racial tolerance, it is doubly jarring in the fact that Jill has failed to actually conceive the makeup of the club accurately, which is far from filled with an elitist, ‘Black Panther’ clientele. Adhering to Julien utopian portrayal of London as mentioned above, it is here at The Crypt that all subcultures are able to unify into what culminates in some form of voyeuristic escapade. This endeavor is most aptly explored in the usage of soundtrack. At first, listening firstly to London punk band X-Ray Spex[7], the punks ‘jumping up and down like (your) ass is on fire’[8]. Only thirty seconds later and the arrival of the fresh p-funk cuts of Chris and Caz’ record collection on the nightclub monitors, the punks disperse whilst the soul boys and girls count each other in to a formation dance. What is most significant about this sequence is that there is no sense of friction in the transition of musical styles. Although they have stopped bouncing, the punks still linger in the club, enjoying the music from the fringes whilst the figures of double otherness – meaning black, homosexual, or both – take over the dance floor. Evenmore surprise still is that aside from merely coexisting, Julien shows integration between the supposedly oppositional movements with couples kissing in the nightclubs cavernous nightclub corners, or as in full view of the auteur’s camera and Jill’s astonishment.

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Figure 3. Left to right: Jill (Debra Gillett), Tracy (Sophie Okonedo), and two promiscuous Crypt-clubbers

For the first time in the film, we see collectivism between the younger generations of metropolitan London, rather than them just existing-in-friction alongside them. Recounting Pascual on her examination of My Beautiful Launderette, she accurately suggests that ‘minority struggle requires cohesion’ (Pascual 2002: 59). Looking back at Rebels, we can certainly see that such marginal outsiders thematically dominate the film, and Julien goes as far to see some form of cohesion amongst London’s younger generation in The Crypt Club. Speaking particularly about the representation of identity sonically through music, Simon Frith suggests:

Music constructs our sense of identity through the direct experiences it offers of the body, time and sociability, experiences which enable us to place ourselves in cultural narratives. Such a fusion of imaginative fantasy and bodily practice    marks also the integration of aesthetics and ethics. (Frith 1996: 124)

Furthermore, it is through this adopted space of celebration in music eclecticism that, regardless of class, colour and dance moves, these figures can mix and bond harmoniously; endeavouring in escapades that, anywhere else would be considered sordid. And from here we get the purest sense of hybridity in which Julien aspires to present, one that is ‘foregrounded as resulting in fluid and transient forms of cultural mixing (and)/or syncretism’, (Malik 2010: 132).

Critics of the film see such a varying displaying of London, as in the above scene, as incredulous and overwrought. Such integration of punks, skins, and blacks of any kind simply were not the case in 1977, and even still today. Although Julien doesn’t intend to flatter historical purists, it is important not to underestimate the landscape in which the scene is set. The Crypt Club, as name would suggest, is another surreptitious setting, much like that in which Chris and Caz illegally broadcast, and Carlton and Davis push drugs. This is not a known place, in similar ways that these aren’t known or understood identities in the mainstream, both within cinematic portrayals, and outside in the populace of London and beyond.

Continuing on a similar trajectory, central to the film’s depiction of sexuality and a liberated sense of marginal self, the interracial relationship between Caz and Billibud, the film’s most central love story, is compelling. From the offset, this is a loaded narrative arch, which remains in the discomfort of other, less tolerant characters throughout the film. Speaking of the film directly, Lola Young suggests that ‘if the sexual activity (on display) is homoerotic and interracial, then it is virtually unspeakable’, (Young 1996: 190). Young continues,

To deny that blackness and whiteness still have significance as ontological symbols is to deny the existence of the many ways that racism operates in             contemporary British society,’ (Young 1996: 192).

Writing fifteen years previous, I still think that the ontological impact of a mixed-race relationship, let alone a homosexual one, is encapsulated in inescapable, almost reactionary scrutiny[9]. Moreover, to be both black, gay, and taking part in a multi-national, monogamous relationship, is almost in a state of constant rebellion, solely for how transcendent the participants involved are when combined together sexually. Moving away from solely being a relationship of ethnic mixed-ness, the two characters are oppositional in their cultural ideologies too; Billibud as a brattish punk and Caz as a confident an charming soul-boy. However, it is in their position as community outsiders that they are attracted to each other and able to kick against the social prejudices that they both suffer from the skinhead gang, the black community, and the participants of a members-only gay club.

rebels 4 Figure 4 & 5: Billibud protecting Caz from a gay man in a club, and vice versa.rebels 5

Although in the close of the film one gets the impression that Caz and Billibud’s relationship is one based on genuine love, it doesn’t go without notice that it is birthed out of the hostility they both endure at the hands of various minority groups. Never escaping such criticism, they find a unity together that makes them emotionally stronger, and more positively confident in their very out-ness.

In a post-production interview with social activist bell hooks, Isaac Julien unearths an autobiographical conditioning to the film’s portrayal of sexual deviancy. He states,

(I)f you want to look back at this discourse around black sexuality, you have to look back at black music. That’s really where you see some of the first – and some of the most diverse – articulations of those desires, (Julien 1996: 140).

Music is very much the trajectory for which all Rebels’ central characters can become recognized as individuals. For Chris and Caz, their love of soul music enables them to move outside of their normative upbringings. Elsewhere, Caz’ brother Carlton and mechanic co-worker Davis find solitude within their rasta subcultures, and ‘blonde-boy’ Billibud identifies with the faux-socialist identity carried through from the clamorous sounds and aesthetics of punk music.

Young Soul Rebels may only be considered as a crystallised, dramatic depiction of a forgotten time, but it has great significance within the production period from which it was made. Regardless of how successful the film is in its completion, it is an anomalous filmic representation of black sexuality in Britain, of which mainstream audiences had never seen previous, or have yet to see the likes of again. Starting with a film that received some financial backing and mainstream support, we move further into the fringes of British cinema with consideration of Rag Tag.

Rag Tag & Rag Dolls: Displacement and the Constant Struggle for Belonging

Adaora Nwandu’s Rag Tag (2006) takes on a contemporarily realist depiction of homosexuality within ethnic minorities. Gone are the fetishistic garments and outlandishly prideful exclamations of gayness. Instead, Rag Tag is a personal account, looking at the migrating lives of two soul mates from oppositional communities, and their struggle to ‘come out’ in society altogether.

Although starting with considerations of film distribution may seem dry and in strict opposition to film analysis, the outreach of these minority films, particularly ones that are developed from within such communities, is necessary for contextual purposes and our discursive practice. Writing in 2002, P. Robson notes that, speaking transatlantically, ‘from the black perspective there has been no real equivalent to the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s or the canon of work of Spike Lee which have achieved wide distribution’ (Robson 2002: 248). Following this, if one reverts back to a British-centric approach, the success of these marginal films is even more chimerical, even if a film is made to a final cut, there is no telling whether it will be deemed worthy by the financier elite. With this disadvantage in place, plus its difficult subject matter, it is unsurprising that Rag Tag is yet to be granted an independent release, let alone mainstream distribution (Williams 2010: 211). Instead, the film is left circling around film festivals and small film club communities upon completion. Although the film is difficult to analyse objectively (it was filmed on a single digital camera and with a cast of amateur actors), it is significant that, even in such a low-budget scenario, this is the only film produced in the UK over the last fifteen years dealing primarily with the representation of homosexuality in ethnic minority communities.

The very mixed-ness of characters, Rag (played by Daniel Parsons) and Tag (Adedamola Adelaja), and the significance of their relationship evokes a new, third space, and a previously unexplored area of uneasy mixing amongst the minority communities. Considering Manthia Diawara, he states more generally that,

All these diasporic narratives are used to situate blacks inside and outside Britishness, to delineate point of identification with blackness, and to mark the fluidity. (Diawara 1993: 158)

Here Diawara’s claim suggests that such narratives are implicitly presented just to illustrate such difference within the real-life subjects that the film has been influenced from. Validating and devising social awareness, Rag Tag is relatively impartial as to whom it’s prospective audience may be, and what space the film must adopt, yet it strongly illustrates the fluidity and transience from within mixed diasporic communities. In African and/or Caribbean blackness and their divergences, this is where our two main characters are both border zone participants. Although it would be elitist and excessively categorical to attempt a discourse around the differentiation of these minorities, it is interesting to note that Nwandu had a mixed upbringing herself, sharing time growing up in both the UK and Nigeria. Nwandu best represents this when the couple (who are still together ‘in the closet’) visits Nigeria so that Tag can attempt to embrace his roots and visit absent family. Not willing to take this trip of his own accord, (he very much feels at one and at home in suburban London) it is through the patriarchal force of his father that he decides to go.

Here in Nigeria, Rag and Tag expect to be inescapable subjects of otherness. They have no grasp of local dialects, no experience with West African culture and customaries, Rag is himself from Jamaica and therefore with no ancestral ties to Africa, and above all, they are in a clandestine relationship, visiting an exceedingly conservative country where homosexual activity is deemed illegal, and in many states, worthy of death by stoning. Expecting to be extradited, they have to keep their love for each other hidden. However, upon arrival and the adoption of kaftan clothing and open arm embraces from Tag’s distant family, they feel an open sense of unification and comfort as public sign of affection is displayed, regardless of sex. This illustrates a greater message that the authorial law and code of a country isn’t relative to the ideology of the country’s inhabitants on a ground level, and that society isn’t insular and ‘cultures are not sealed off hermetically’ (Berghahn & Sternberg 2010: 30).


Figure 5. Top left to right: Rag and Tag gleefully on-looking a traditional pagan ceremony, in the foreground we see Tag’s uncle and his best friend in a similar embrace.

Although underexplored, Nwandu furtively suggests that, even as residents of Nigeria, Tag’s uncle has a promiscuous relationship with his best friend. Although the pair are constrained to keep their relationship in the deep dark shadows of their prospective homes, they realize that their love is too strong to completely quash, inevitably becoming a source of aspiration for Rag and Tag.

Retracing steps back to questions of patriarchy, in appropriate opposition to the characters of Rebels whom are able to rebel and be free spirited in the absence of authoritative elder figures, in Rag Tag we see the exact opposite. Here Tag’s domineering father meddles with his life, forcing him to keep his true identity in the corners of his psyche, and allow Tag to continue to represent the monogamous, straight-laced path laid out for him. But in Tag’s demystified, almost spiritual trip to his hereditary homeland, he is able to escape the mimetic fate set out by his father and find acceptance with whom he really is, or moreover, which identity he has chosen to adopt (Mercer 2003: 255). It must be stated that the previous two analytical remarks are heavily linked also. The path wrongfully set out for Tag is not merely a generational one, but perhaps best described as a decision made via a generational contradiction. Although brothers, Tag’s father and uncle are wholly oppositional, in character traits and promiscuity. In a closing monologue before Rag & Tag fly back to London, the uncle proclaims,

            Tag’s Uncle:    There are things that I was not willing to leave behind… I was sure what I wanted.

Although the hidden depths of what his uncle is saying haven’t been fully actualized (the things he couldn’t depart from meaning his love for his best friend, and the object of his desires), Tag leaves enlightened with the knowledge that he should embrace his own desires and cut loose from the societal prejudices of being an outwardly gay man.

Due to it’s funding and setting both in the UK and Nigeria, Rag Tag crosses another boundary being both considered as representing both British and third cinema simultaneously. The former has often been lauded for it’s successful, transatlantic appeal. However, it must be raised that, speaking universally, British film often falls into two brackets of categorization: gritty, honest realism (with the works of Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Shane Meadows, et al), or often latter has always had a space within diasporic communities, with the hugely lucrative home video and DVD distribution amongst small communities[10]. Often criticized, this cinema is considered too dialectical and self-serving, and therefore doesn’t expand into the forum of mainstream media, much like the diasporic communities fail to fully adopt into also. With Rag Tag branching out of the third and emerging elsewhere, the film further challenges the monolithic, British ideology of black diaspora, enabling audiences from both circles to identify and relate to the common-thread nature of otherness (Willemen 1989: 29)

In the film’s close and the open unification of Rag and Tag’s relationship, Nwandu is intending more than just an easy happy ending. Seeing the struggle that the pair have had to go through with their public ‘outing’, they have now been liberated and been able to speak out of their newly formed, bonded identities. Speaking again of similar traits in American films, Van Leer suggests that, in films dealing with minority sexuality,

Speech both announces its former silencing and tests the boundaries of its newfound permission to speak, (Van Leer 1997: 176)

What is most interesting about this theory is that, in testing new, unfamiliar waters, such subjects are still yet to be completely actualized. Not in a pejorative way, contrarily, in the sense that these identities can no long be considered in exhaustive binary terms of black and white, gay or straight, and instead are now subject to change remodelling.

The Closeted Present: The absence of old rebels and the commodification of the new

In analysis of the two films above, I have been fixated with the concept of rebels within minority communities. Perhaps this is only half realized. The nature of these characters isn’t to rival against their home communities, rather to branch out of them and be accepted as singular subjects, rather than homogenized participants. In a similar period of Rag Tag’s production period, there was a burgeoning consideration of yoof culture within urbanized communities. Such ‘yoof movies’ that have become prevalent of late illustrate an antagonistic simplification of diasporic communities, which outside of the cinema are renowned for complexities and differences from within. Looking at this newly found homogeneity, Daniela Berghahn suggests,

(It) is the universality of the experience portrayed in the diasporic youth film that     allows these films to cross over from their ‘ethnic’ positioning to a generic one and that potentially lends them their mainstream appeal. (Berghahn 2010: 239)

In the plight of broad ranging appraisal, films such as Bullet Boy (2004), Kidulthood (2004), Adulthood (2006) et al, have made a turn for hybrid minority characters as prototypical ‘sanitized conventions’ (Malik 2010: 134). Not in the sense of diluted portrayals, but generic ones of tenebrous hoodlums and gang culture which conform to the motivated yarns of Britain’s news media.

Alike films dealing with homosexual minority characters, this new trend of glorified gang films incorporate a sense of heightened male testosterone and the struggle to be accepted, but to contrasting effects. In this new breed, we see marginal figures who, although attempting to jump out of their inescapable ghetto-homelands, end up returning to the glamorized antagonism. Instead of representing the multiplicity of these minority communities (which I have argued for, in some space, previously), such films perpetuate a notion of media expectancy and moral panic. Mercer suggests, quite convincingly that,

The prevailing stereotype projects an image of black male youth as a “mugger” or “rioter”; either way he constitutes a violent and dangerous threat to white society, he becomes the objectified form of inarticulate fears at the back of the minds of “ordinary British people” that are made visible in the popular tabloid headlines. But this regime of representation is reproduced and maintained in hegemony because black men have had to resort to “toughness” as a defensive response to the prior aggression and violence that characterizes the way black communities are policed…this cycle between reality and representation makes the ideological fictions of racism empirically “true”-or rather, there is a struggle over the definition, understanding and construction of meanings around black masculinity within the dominant regime of truth.’ (Mercer 1994: 137-138)

Although a lengthy assumption, Mercer is wholly accurate in his prediction of the successes of such films. The need for the mainstream, still predominantly white-British audience to see such figures as represented as loathsome subjects causes a motionary sense of fixed identities, for themselves and the fearsome others. Knowing that such figures exist (at least in films) re-establishes a sense of hierarchy and an ‘us and them’ mentality once more. It also pushes homosexual portrayal back into closeted confines, unable to break out, in fear of causing friction against the new black homogeneity, and the white audiences that still fail to understand that such continuously marginalized subjects still exist.


Concluding remarks

Evaluating, perhaps there is so few representations of black homosexuality because it is, in its foundations, too rebellious to be denoted as commercially viable. This vigorous ethos could be extended to portrayals of Britain’s minorities altogether in present years. On a purely superficial level, some may consider such topics and narrative traits of outsiders as no longer relevant, with race relations evidently appearing more bonded than they were during the time of the prevailing black collectives. This falls into another form of all-too-easy essentialism. Just because racism isn’t quite so visible, at least in comparison to bygone eras, these minorities do not themselves become invisible; they still exist and therefore deserve places on our screen. Such a standing could be brought even more evidently aware when we see a paradigmatic shift with consideration of sexual identity within these communities, which are yet to be universally accepted.

Jim Pines accepts the potentiality for these films, not as a theoretical pedagogue of such communities. Instead the films themselves, and the puppet-master filmmakers which produce them, ‘reappraise precisely what it entails in terms of how Black people define and experience their reality, psychically as well as politically, and to consider its implications for the future…(enabling) audiences to participate directly in the cultural debates around Black and Third world film cultures’, (Pines 1988: 35-36).

Although I have discussed two films dealing with such constructs in great detail within this essay, these subjects continue to be underexplored on screen. Intending not to delve into philosophical realms on such a quandry, it is obvious that these rebels do exist, are underrepresented, and in desperate need of being pushed out of the closet and onto our screens. Not for critical scrutiny, or even philanthropic understanding of otherness, merely because they exist; alongside, amongst and on the fringes.

Not in agreement with Gareth Jones longing for an intercultural model of European collectivism, he takes an alternative interpretation of stories dealing with outsider, ethnic communities as universal themes,

Migration creates tales of the human condition capable of transcending language and acculturation and of speaking to a large audience. The dual sense of  belonging speaks to us all, however monocultural we may be, if only as a paradigm of self-searching and self-doubt. The migrant carries a permanent alter ego and is the postmodern hero of our inner displacements and dislocations. (Jones 2010: 277)

Even in an uncomfortable position of what Bakhtin would describe as being  ‘located outside’ (Bakhtin 2004 [1979]: 6) the narrative subject, one can still be moved to affection. This revolutionary thought placing minority figures as archetypal heroes, ‘bridges of migration’ (William 2010: 212) in and outside of the communities in which they are located is no more apparent then in the characters of both films I have analysed. Whether it’s the mixed relationship of Rag and Tag, or the valiant out-ness of characters Chris and Caz, these characters represent a courage and determination to breakaway from the inherited, community traits which, although precarious and perhaps not to the same extent, we all find ourselves stuck within and desperate to revel against. Looking back at the opening citation from black-filmmaker visionary John Akomfrah, the permanency of difference, and therefore some integral, semantic forum for change, is a fanciful notion. Although these characters are few and far between in mainstream media, when on show they represent the inner rebel in all of us, the permanent desire for a forum of difference as alluded in the opening remark of John Akomfrah. Most crucially, the longing to be outed.



[1] Black Audio Film Collective director John Akomfrah discussing otherness in an interview with Duke University professor Mark Anthony Neal, (Left of Black – Season 2: Episode 10, 2011, 62mins)

[2] It would be shortsighted to underestimate the significance of Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Launderette (1985), which was a significant hybrid text that ‘explores the inescapably paradoxical quality of “third space” diaspora identifications’ (Pascual 2002: 59) and an ethnically-mixed gay couple. Although the loose moniker ‘black’ once catered for diasporas of all ethnicities and backgrounds, including British-Asian diasporas, as a monolithic whole, this vastly essentialist stratum is fortunately now considered outmoded, with British-Asian and British-African/British Caribbean communities being considered in isolation (although the relation of the latter two categories will be discussed in further detail later). Although these distinctions have enabled some space for further expansion of hybrid texts, the mainstream success of anglophile, pan-Indian cinema, or what Naficy has termed ‘an independent transnational film genre’ (Naficy 2003: 203, cited in Malik: 135) has left representations of Black-Britishness, as it is considered today, clutching at the coattails. Nevertheless, for an analysis of Launderette, please visit Mónica Calvo Pascual’s riveting article from Miscelánea: a Journal of English and American Studies, 26 (2002)

[3] It is essential that we do not underestimate the importance of British television in the eighties, particularly the alternative, public service broadcasting of the newly formed Channel 4. Not content on diversifying our screens, the channel also enabled a paradigmatic shift in the upper-class, white media workplace; encouraging minorities and working class communities to move further into the cultural industry, not just as subjects, but artists themselves.

[4] I use the term ‘multicultural’ sparingly here in relation to it’s historical, hyperbolic connotations within the seventies and eighties. Now, the term is often considered to be archaic and wholly essentialist; condensing every minority into a homogenized majority, and instigating an us and them mentality (Bhaba 1996: 55)

[5] See interview article from The Guardian: Susie Steiner. Paradise Found (with Isaac Julien) 06/09/2006, http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2003/sep/06/weekend.susiesteiner1 date obtained: 24/12/2011

[6] This character of Rudy – the mixed raced skinhead is, with regret, barely explored within the film and therefore cannot be dealt with at great length within our discussion, although interesting questions on such subjects (minus the homoerotic undertones) have been raised in the work of British filmmaker Shane Meadows (A Room for Romeo Brass [1999], This is England [2004]), and the cinema discourse theory writings of Richard Dyer, particularly 1999’s White (Routledge)

[7] As has previously been mentioned in Mercer’s thoughts on the film, there is an undermining significance in the usage of X-Ray Spex as part of the soundtrack. Aside from the fact that they were a mixed sex five piece, front woman Poly Styrene also represented an anomaly within the punk community due to her mixed race familial makeup

[8] As remarked by the character of Chris later on in a conversation with gay punk Billibud, 48mins

[9] Perhaps most appropriate for this case is the advertising clothing company United Colours of Benetton. In these predominantly print based advertisements, the transnational chain enlists provocative artists to create work that, far removed from attire, crystallizes cultural taboos through shock-tactic approaches. These include a modernist depiction of Jesus on a deathbed, children of all different ethnicities kissing, and a doppelganger of Pope Benedict CVI kissing Egyptian Muslim leader Ahmed el Tayyeb. Although these works have been inundated with critical commentary, they have now become a contrived way of promoting the company’s brand image, which in itself isn’t made aware in the majority of such campaigns.

[10] It is also worthy of note to mention the burgeoning success of Nigerian cinema, what many have fondly come to name Nollywood. Falling behind the unfathomable success of Indian cinema, Nollywood is now the world’s second largest (thus meaning most prolific) film industry. Although not as profitable as productive, such texts have had continuous success as material commodities, stretching across the globe to give African diasporas accessible, homeland entertainment.


Auguiste, Reece & the Black Audio Film Collective. ‘Black Independents and Third Cinema: The British Context’ in Jim Pines and Paul Willemen (eds.) Questions of Third Cinema, British Film Insitute: London, 1989, pp.212-218

Bakhtin, Mikhall. ‘Response to a Question from the Novy Mir Editorial Staff’ in Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (eds.) (trans. By Vern W. McGee) Speech Genres & Other Late Essays, University of Texas Press: Texas, 1986, pp.1-9

Berghahn, Daniela & Sternberg, Claudia. ‘Locating Migrant and Diasporic Cinema in Contemporary Europe’ in Berghahn and Sternberg (eds.) European Cinema in Motion, Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2010, pp.12-49

Berghahn, Daniela. ‘Coming of Age in ‘the Hood’: The Diasporic Youth Film and Questions of Genre’ in Berghahn and Sternberg (eds.) European Cinema in Motion, Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2010, pp.235-254

Bhabha, Homi. ‘Culture’s In-Between’ in Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay (eds.) Questions of Cultural Identity, SAGE Publications: London, 1996, pp.53-59

Cham, Mbye M. & Andrade-Watkins, Claire. Blackframes: Critical Perspectives on Black Independent Cinema, The MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1988, pp.7-85

Cohen, Robin. ‘Fuzzy Frontiers of Identity: The British Case’ in Social Identities Vol1, No.1 1995, pp.35-62

Cripps, Thomas. ‘Definitions’ (chp.1) in Black Film as Genre, Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 1979, pp.3-12

Diawara, Manthia. ‘Power and Territory: The Emergence of Black British Film Collectives’ in Friedman, Lester (ed.) British cinema and Thatcherism, UCL Press Limited: London, 1993, pp.147-160

Frith, Simon. ‘Music and Identity’ in Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay (eds.) Questions of Cultural Identity, SAGE Publications: London, 1996, pp.108-127

Gilroy, Paul. ‘Intervention for what? Black TV & the Impossibility of Politics’ in June Givanni (ed.) Remote Control: Dilemmas of black intervention in British Film & TV, BFI: London, 1992 pp.29-38

Grossberg, Lawrence. ‘Identity and Cultural Studies: Is That All There Is?’ in Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay (eds.) Questions of Cultural Identity, SAGE Publications: London, 1996, pp.87-107

Hall, Stuart. ‘Black and White in Television’ in June Givanni (ed.) Remote Control: Dilemmas of black intervention in British Film & TV, BFI: London, 1992, pp.13-29

_________. Race: The Floating Signifier, video rec. at The Sage Anniversary Lecture and the Hayward Lecture Goldsmiths College/Lewisham Council, London, 1996, http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8471383580282907865, date obtained: 02/11/2011

_________. ‘What is this “Black” in Black Popular Culture?’ in Valerie Smith (ed.) Representing Blackness: Issues in Film and Video, The Athlone Press: London, 1997, pp.123-133

Jones, Gareth. ‘Future Imperfect: Some Onward Perspectives on Migrant and Diasporic Film Practice’ in Berghahn and Sternberg (eds.) European Cinema in Motion, Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2010, pp.275-292

Julien, Isaac & MacCabe, Colin. Diary of a Young Soul Rebel, British Film Institute: London, 1996 pp.1-54

Lott, Tommy L. ‘A No-Theory Theory of Contemporary Black Cinema’ in Valerie Smith (ed.) Representing Blackness: Issues in Film and Video, The Athlone Press: London, 1997, pp.83-96

Malik, Sartra ‘ The Dark Side of Hybridity: Contemporary Black and Asian British Cinema’ in Berghahn and Sternberg (eds.) European Cinema in Motion, Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2010, pp.132-151

Mercer K. Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies, Routledge: New York, 1994, pp1-324

_________. ‘Diaspora Culture and the Dialogic Imagination: The Aesthetics of Black Independent Film in Britain’ in Jane Evans Braziel & Anita Mannur Theorizing Diaspora, Blackwell Publishing: London, 2003, pp.247-260

Mulvey, Laura. ‘Chp.3: Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ in Visual and Other Pleasures, Macmillan Press: London, 1989, pp.14-26

Pascual, Monica Calvo. ‘My Beautiful Launderette: Hybrid “Identity” or the Paradox of Conflicting Identifications in “Third Space” Asian-British Cinema of the 1980s’ in A Journal of English and American Studies: 26, 2003, pp.59-70

Pines, Jim. ‘The Cultural Context of Black British Cinema’ in Cham, Mbye M. & Andrade- Watkins, Claire (eds.) Blackframes: Critical Perspectives on Black Independent Cinema, The MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1988, pp.26-36

Pines, Jim and the British Film Institute Education Department. 
Representation and blacks in British Cinema. London: BFI Education, 1991. 
(BFI Education: Advisory Document pack) pp.1-100

Robson, P. ‘Fade to grey: portraying the ethnic minority experience in British Film’ in International Journal of the Sociology of Law, Vol.30, 2002, pp.235-257

Rompf, John. ‘”Invention in the Name of Community”: Workshops, the Avant-Garde and The Black Audio Film Collective’ in Kino: The Western Undergraduate Journal of Film Studies, Vol 1, Issue 1, June 2010, pp.1-8

Van Leer, David. ‘Visible Silence: Spectatorship in Black Gay and Lesbian Film’ in Valerie Smith (ed.) Representing Blackness: Issues in Film and Video, The Athlone Press: London, 1997, pp.157-181

Willemen, Paul. ‘The Third Cinema Question: Notes and Reflections’ in Jim Pines and Paul Willemen (eds.) Questions of Third Cinema, British Film Institute: London, 1989, pp.1-30

Williams, James. ‘Queering the Diaspora’ in Berghahn and Sternberg (eds.) European Cinema in Motion, Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2010, pp.196-214

Young, Lola. Fear of the Dark: ‘Race’, Gender and Sexuality in the Cinema, Routledge: London, 1996, pp.7-37 (chp.1) & pp.175-192 (chp.8)



My Beautiful Launderette, dir. Stephen Frears, Channel 4 Films, 1985

Looking for Langston, dir. Isaac Julien, Sankofa Film & Video/British Film Institute, 1989

Young Soul Rebels, dir. Isaac Julien, Sankofa Film & Video/British Film Institute, 1991

Rage, dir. Newton I Aduaka, Granite FilmWorks Production, 1999

Kidulthood, dir. Menhaj Huda, Stealth Film, 2006

Rag Tag, dir, Adaora Nwandu, Muka Films, 2006

Left of Black – Season 2: Episode 10, Prof. Mark Anthony Neal (with John Akomfrah), Duke University, 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-923zoDe248, date obtained: 21/11/2011

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