Tuesday, August 3, 2021 at 7pm
Two Early Works by Isaac Julien

155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn

Presented with Alfreda’s Cinema and Introduced by Melissa Lyde

Who Killed Colin Roach?, Isaac Julien, 1983, digital projection, 34 mins
Territories, Isaac Julien, 1985, digital projection, 25 mins

If it feels like we’ve been here before, that’s because we have. A Black man is murdered by the cops, people cry out for justice, streets are renamed, and many forget, until the next time: this pattern is a trigger mechanism in the global war on Black people. At the dawn of another decade defined by police brutality, it’s evident that past efforts toward resolution have grown obsolete. What are our options now?

A young Isaac Julien, then a student at Saint Martin’s School of Art, asked this question and more in Who Killed Colin Roach?, his seminal investigation into the blatant cover up of the death of a young Black British man. Colin Roach was gunned down in the doorway of an East London police station in 1982. The authorities determined his death a suicide; Julien countered with a stylized document of Black rage.

“I stumbled into the story of Who Killed Colin Roach?,” Julien later explained. “I was coming out of an East End jumble sale one Saturday when a march passed by protesting a death in police custody. It turned out that Colin Roach, the young Black man in question, had lived quite near my home. Which meant, of course, that Mrs. Roach could have been my mother, that his family could easily have been my own. This took me back to the radical workshops of my teens and the whole idea of the camera as a street weapon. So I wanted to make work that would embody dual perspectives. One of these would be inside the Black families’ reactions to this death. The other would show responses to Black community organizers. I insisted that my camera be engaged in the politics, so it was positioned very deliberately opposite traditional media.

This was at a time when video was still finding its language, when video art was still somewhat undefined. Yet I was determined to appropriate those early video-art techniques to make my campaign tape. I wanted to utilize this camera taken out of an art school context and repurpose its technology for the street. I wanted to redirect the gaze of the ruling media. My real aim was to turn that gaze on the police, because in Colin Roach, they are the people rioting. That piece, in one way, was very much a local response, but it was also meant to contest some things I was being taught. Specifically, it was in reply to a tutor who had told me, ‘Isaac, no working-class person will understand these films.’ Of course my works back then were just experimental films, scratches on film, really—and they were indeed quite arty. So part of me had been forced to think, Well…maybe she is right. Colin Roach, however, was my demonstration against her view. It was made to say, ‘I can do the same work as you and I can tell a tale. But I can also make quite experimental things.’”

Julien, along with Marina Attille, Maureen Blackwood, Robert Crusz, and Nadine Marsh-Edwards, formed the Sankofa Film and Video Collective in 1983. The group was a central node in the rich network of independent Black British cinema at the time, and Territories functions as a kind of manifesto. An elliptical and polyphonic essay, shaped by the legacy of the 1976 Notting Hill riots, the film takes the Notting Hill Carnival celebrations as both a subject and an organizing principle.

“Every summer Carnival took place in this emotional moment,” Julien noted, “one that was always situated between pleasure and danger. Because its displays were threatening, this became a regular confrontation through ritual. Yet at the same time, it was extremely exciting and it gave you license to express yourself in the daylight. Rather than tucked away in the dark, you were on a public stage. There, I came to see how violent disturbances could seem like new ways of articulating a self.”

Discussing the formal design of the piece, which is characterized by its superimpositions, literally and conceptually, of past and present, Julien remarked: “I wanted to experiment, to create different visual auras, play with time, play within the film using factual material. I wanted to find out how things could be visually poeticized. My ultimate aim, really, was to create a style for political remembering.”

Tickets - $8, available at door, cash and cards accepted. Box office opens at 6:30pm.