“FRANTZ FANON: BLACK SKIN, WHITE MASK”— A Portrait and Intriguing Subject


A Portrait and Intriguing Subject

Amos Lassen

There are few modern voices that have had such a profound impact on Black identity and race theory as has Frantz Fanon, the subject of Isaac Julien’s intriguing portrait. This is an innovative film biography that explores the preeminent theorist of the twentieth century anti-colonial movement, and a man whom Jean-Paul Sartre recognized as the figure “through whose voice the Third World finds and speaks for itself.”  British actor Colin Salmon is Fanon and we see his life as an intellectual and poetic exploration of influence and legacy. Director Julien elegantly weaves together interviews with family members and friends, documentary footage, readings from Fanon’s work and dramatizations of crucial moments in the theorist’s life to bring us this gorgeous biopic of a man at the center of contemporary discussions around post-colonial identity. 

From his early years in Martinique (then a colony of France) to his professional life as a psychiatric doctor and revolutionary in Algeria during the war of independence with France, the brief life of Fanon is amazing to see. Frantz Fanon was the pre-eminent theorist of the anti-colonial movements of the 20th century. Fanon’s two major works, “Black Skin, White Masks” and “The Wretched of the Earth”, were pioneering studies of the psychological impact of racism on both colonized and colonizer. This innovative film biography restores Fanon to his rightful place at the center of contemporary discussions around post-colonial identity.

Isaac Julien integrates the facts of Fanon’s brief but remarkably eventful life with his long and tortuous inner journey weaving together interviews with family members and friends, documentary footage, readings from Fanon’s work and dramatizations of crucial moments in Fanon’s life. Cultural critics Stuart Hall and Françoise Verges position Fanon’s work in his own time and draw out its implications for our own.  Fanon received a conventional colonial education. When he went to France to fight in the Resistance and train as a psychiatrist, his assimilationist illusions were shattered by the gaze of metropolitan racism. Out of this experience came his first book  originally titled “An Essay for the Disalienation of Blacks.” Fanon here defined the colonial relationship as the psychological non-recognition of the subjectivity of the colonized. Soon after taking a position at a psychiatric hospital in Algeria, Fanon became involved in the bitter Algerian civil war, eventually leaving his post to become a full-time militant in the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN). Out of this struggle, Fanon wrote his most influential book, The Wretched of the Earth, which is regarded as the “bible of the decolonization movement.”

Just as Algeria was winning its independence, Fanon died of leukemia. His writings continue to challenge us to liberate ourselves from all forms of psychological domination. The film is a provocative meditation on every level as it explores  fascinating, cutting-edge ideas on multiracial urban culture, the effects of diaspora and the intersection of racial difference and desire. The film  blurs the conventional distinction between documentary and fiction cinema, making this a work of rare intelligence and poetic force. It 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.

There are plenty of talking heads, true, including Fanon’s brother and son, but mainly academics 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. In Algeria, Fanon felt he had found the ideal conditions for a struggle of independence (he opposed “de-colonization”, the negotiation of withdrawal). He took great personal risks to harbor rebels, resigned from his French- funded position in protest, and aligned himself with the most radical factions. There were hints at latent homosexuality, which used to imply a dirty little secret, is nowadays seen as something different – a failure of nerve. Fanon 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  as uncorrupted, part of nature rather than culture. He certainly ignored the depth and tenaciousness of Islam in Algeria.  

So Fanon was doctrinaire, hypocritical, self-deluding and short-sighted but his writings retain and demand respect for its subject, perhaps because he isn’t just talked about but represented. Colin Salmon embodies Fanon in the way he identifies some crucial issues.

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 what they were doing.


  • Between Two Worldsby Mark Nash (1992, 27 minutes) — The story of a young man, Graham (Jason Durr), who is undergoing treatment by a Czech psychoanalyst, Dr. Ludwig
  • Booklet with essays by filmmakers Isaac Julien and Mark Nash            

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