“Who Killed Colin Roach?” a film by Isaac Julien

Colin Roach was a 21 year old black man who was killed by a gunshot in the lobby of Stoke Newington Police Station on the evening of January 12th, 1983.

Amazingly nobody in the station seems to have witnessed the incident. The coroner declared it death by suicide, despite the police surgeon putting forward a number of serious anomalies that contradicted this view.

The Roach Family Support Committee organised its own enquiry, the outcomes of which were published as a book in 1988. They also organised a number of protests outside Stoke Newington Police station. The police response was typical of the times – Colin’s own father was arrested at one of the protests as were a number of other participants.

Isaac Julien is probably best known for directing the superb “Young Soul Rebels” (1991) a film about London youth culture in 1977. It includes a pirate radio station in Dalston (as well as a bunch of footage from Hackney if I remember correctly). The film is also notable for tackling the issue of homosexuality in the black community. It’s great, check it out.

Julien’s first film was “Who Killed Colin Roach?” (1983). It was made while he was still a student at Saint Martin’s School of Art:

“I stumbled into the story of ‘Who Killed Colin Roach?’: 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.’”

(Isaac Julien, Riot, MOMA, 2013, pp27-29)

The London Community Video Archive has published a fascinating interview with Julien where he talks about the film as well as his East End childhood (including problems with the National Front in Hoxton – and meeting members of the libertarian socialist group Big Flame):

Further reading:

2 thoughts on ““Who Killed Colin Roach?” a film by Isaac Julien

  1. It is great that you are drawing attention to Isaac Julien’s film but you miss the point that for a long time in 1983 it was shown as a “short” prior to the main feature screening at the Rio and reached a much wider audience than would otherwise have been the case. – This was particularly difficult because at the time video projection was an expensive and difficult thing to do in a tradtional cinema context.

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