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Black is the colour ...

Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask Isaac Julien (nc)

Adam Mars-Jones
Thursday 26 June 1997 00:02 BST

Black British film-maker Isaac Julien has made a fiction feature (the rather lifeless Young Soul Rebels, 1991) but his home genre is the "film essay".

His new film, Frantz Fanon: Black Skin White Mask, made in collaboration with Mark Nash, isn't quite a documentary, and it isn't a drama, though an actor plays the film's subject. It's a fact-filled dream, a meditation with a poetic texture on the life of a controversial black intellectual.

Frantz Fanon was a psychiatrist from Martinique whose ideas about the psychological dimension of colonialism were influential in the Fifties, though he died of leukaemia before the publication of his most famous book, The Wretched of the Earth, which became an indispensable part of the reading - or at least the book shelf - of any student of the 1960s whose horizon extended beyond hobbitts.

The film isn't a million miles away from a Channel 4 arts documentary, but the differences are important. There are plenty of talking heads, true, including Fanon's brother and son, but mainly academics, Stuart Hall among them, and there are readings from Fanon's work. But there are also tableaux that half challenge, half exclude the viewer and make it difficult to sit back and be informed placidly. Sometimes this only amounts to Colin Salmon, who plays or rather embodies Fanon, wearing a rather contemporary shirt in pale orange or lilac and looking out of the frame at us with a stern glint that says No Compromise, but at its best the visual language of the film is complex and seductive.

Julien and Nash indulge in one rather suspect flourish of rhetoric when they show Fanon taking the chains off a mental patient in Algeria. This comes just seconds after we've been told by a voice-over that chains were never used in the hospital. Referring to Fanon's impact on the institution as an unshackling is a metaphorical way of likening him to Pinel, who was the first to treat the patients in Paris's Salpetriere as something other than prisoners of a special type, and did indeed remove their shackles. Fanon felt that the symptoms he saw in Algeria were specific and meaningful, and related to the war of independence in which the colonised were trying to throw off the only identity they'd known.

It's clear that the film-makers admire their subject, so it's all the more striking that Fanon is subjected to such stringent criticism, in every area of his endeavours except his clinical practice. A black woman who was living in Paris when his first book, Black Skin, White Masks, was published, and who read it then, testifies that she didn't recognise herself in this doctrinaire analysis of mutual racial alienation. A feminist points out that Fanon regarded black women who were attracted to white men as, by definition, victims of the slave mentality, while defending the right to live his own erotic life (he married a white woman) at a remove from reproaches and prescriptions.

In Algeria, Fanon felt he had found the ideal conditions for a struggle of independence (he opposed "de-colonisation", the negotiation of withdrawal). He took great personal risks to harbour rebels, resigned from his French- funded position in protest, and aligned himself with the most radical factions. Nevertheless, an Algerian historian of the conflict charges him with sentimental identification with a situation that he didn't fully understand. Fanon wanted to think of himself as Algerian, and seems to have felt that true black masculinity could only be forged under these exemplary conditions. It's interesting that to hint at latent homosexuality, which used to imply a dirty little secret, is nowadays seen as something different - a failure of nerve.

Fanon's essay on the veil, in Algeria in particular, played into the hands of more conservative forces. He was fascinated by the invisibility of the veiled woman, thanks to which she could for instance carry grenades in her handbag unsuspected, but he also saw her body language - her "corporal pattern" - as uncorrupted, part of nature rather than culture. He certainly ignored the depth and tenaciousness of Islam in Algeria, the way, as Stuart Hall puts it, that "the past has outlived the revolution and taken revenge on the present" in that part of the world.

So Fanon was doctrinaire, hypocritical, self-deluding and short-sighted. If this is cultural rehabilitation, what would a demolition job be like? But Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask does retain and demand respect for its subject, perhaps because he isn't just talked about but represented. Julien and Nash aren't interested in turning Fanon's life into anecdote or melodrama - that's not why they use an actor - but having Colin Salmon embody Fanon makes the criticism in the film seem like things said to someone's face, not behind his back. Fanon identified some crucial issues. His admirers don't expect him to have resolved them.

The area of Fanon's work that maybe most influential, however indirectly, is his description of colonialism as being made up of visual experiences, the gaze that appropriates and depersonalises as against the seeing that is never acknowledged. Film theory has taken over these terms, and applied them to gender rather than race. It must be upsetting to Isaac Julien as a gay film-maker that Frantz Fanon saw homosexuality only in terms of a white man's desire for a black man's body, an alienated desiring gaze that could alienate its object. He reproaches his hero rather endearingly in the film by having Fanon announce that the Oedipus complex doesn't exist in the Antilles, so there are no gay black men, while in the background two black men embrace against a background of flowers. The kissers break off their clinch long enough to direct at Fanon the same level gaze he has been fixing on the viewer, and then return to the luscious political project of their snoggingn

`Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask' opens tomorrow at the ICA, London SW1, to 10 July (0171-930 3647)

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