British, b. 1960
True North, 2004
Still from 16mm film, 14:58 min.
In True North, Isaac Julien questions the myth of the hero-explorer and exposes the realities of racism that taint its glory. He resurrects Robert Peary’s quest for the North Pole and recounts this saga from the perspective of Matthew Henson, who claims to have been first to reach the pole. Although A Negro Explorer at the North Pole: The Autobiography of Matthew Henson was published in 1912, he never experienced the glory of his accomplishment until receiving a belated medal in 1944.
Filmed in Iceland, Julien’s film presents the dreamlike wanderings of a woman, a surrogate-explorer, who hears Henson’s anxious thoughts in her mind. Sharing Peary’s excitement about reaching the North Pole, Henson also feared, as a black man, being first. (Peary had warned Henson to stop shy of the pole so that he could claim its conquest.)
Julien also interprets the majestic icy landscape and subtly alludes to climate change. By filming a scene inside a chapel, where every architectural feature is carved out of ice, the artist connects to the spirituality experienced by many who pass through the frozen Arctic gates.