It's no small risk to try to weave a dark murder mystery through a bright tapestry of London's music scene in the 1970s, complete with social commentary on British racism, sexual diversity and the hysterical jingoism inspired by the Queen's Silver Jubilee. But that's just what young British filmmaker Isaac Julien has succeeded in doing in his first fictional feature film, which won the Critics Week Prize at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival.
It is summer 1977 in London, a time when the Union Jack waved furiously across the city in preparation for the jubilee. Meanwhile, Chris (Nonyela), a heterosexual, and his longtime pal Caz (Sesay), a gay black, go about their modest business as disc jockeys on a black pirate-radio station, Soul Patrol, which operates out of a dingy East End garage. They try to parry, as best they can, the constant harassment by white skinheads, extremists of the right-wing National Front. But harassment turns to violence when Chris and Caz's friend TJ is murdered one night while cruising a neighborhood park.
Acting on a planted clue, police arrest Chris for the murder. Released for lack of evidence, he realizes that the real killer's identity lies in a tape that his younger sister found near the crime scene. Even as he and Caz split over mutual disapproval of their love affairs—Chris with a beautiful black woman (Sophie Okonedo) and Caz with a white punk musician (Jason Durr)—Chris must track the killer through a countercelebration ("Stuff the Jubilee"), which ends in violent disaster.
A warning here: Young Soul Rebels' brutal depictions of East End life and the homoerotic love scenes may not be everyone's cup of Earl Grey. Still, American moviegoers who can brook the talented Julien's calculated excesses will gain something of value from this lurid, lyrical tour of London's warring underbelly. (Unrated)