Young Soul Rebels:
Negro/Queer Experimental Filmmakers

Ernest Hardy

Printed in MFJ No. 41 (Fall 2003) Lesbian and Gay Experimental Cinema/Stan Brakhage Remembrances


As someone who (barely) makes a living writing about popular culture, I find myself drawn more and more these days to those artists (filmmakers, musicians, writers) who voluntarily/or not, happily/or not, find themselves creating from the fringes of mainstream visibility and comprehension. The admiration that I once freely gave to almost anyone who identified her or himself as an artist is now an item that I’m miserly with; it’s increasingly reserved for those who eschew celebrity (or at least don’t have it as their primary goal), who strive to question as passionately as they declare, and who challenge or subvert rather than giddily position themselves to be co-opted by the sprawling machine of corporate culture. It’s for those who grapple honestly with the issues of race, sexuality, class, culture, and politics while trying to produce art.

The relationship(s) between the black body, black psyche, and cinematic representation is/are fascinating. It only becomes more so as 21st century Hollywood—inspired by the global success of the glossy, reductive, materialistic wing of hip-hop culture, both for the sub-dimensional representations of blackness that it offers via MTV, BET, and mainstream music videos, and for its huge appeal to white suburban teenagers (and those two elements are clearly intertwined)—grapples with ways to bring blackness that “keeps it real” to the big-screen. But is “realness” what people—black, white, gay, straight, or otherwise—really want when they sit in a darkened room and gaze at a screen that contains images of black folk?

Because American culture is so visually oriented, the power of the image is enormous. We constantly learn, mis-learn and shuffle information about others and ourselves based on cues gleaned from mass media. At the movies, we learn genre formulas before we even know what genre is. We learn what a man is, what a woman is, and how the two are supposed to relate. We learn about assorted power dynamics and how they pop according to gender and sexuality. We learn who has what kinds of power as determined, if not overdetermined, by race and class. Occasionally, we’re shown how to fight the power.

There is, I think, a longing on the part of many black and queer folk to watch films and simply see themselves slotted smoothly into the genre outlines and movie formulas that they’ve had stamped upon their mental and aesthetic taste buds. And this ain’t just a black or queer thing, of course. We all receive the same information, the same cultural lessons, are subject to the same attempts to fashion our desires and realities into something easily marketed and consumed, something recognizable as the “norm.” And we’re all seduced into wanting to play along, to belong. This desire can be especially powerful in those who are marginalized in real life. Movies act as agents that validate us and argue on our behalf; they prove our citizenship.

Moreover, a lot of us long to be shoe-horned into banal narratives or threadbare blueprints that pointedly shear away quirks or identity-markers that stamp us as “other.” Deeper: We long to be couched in someone else’s comfort zone in order to not be called out. This can lead to all sorts of ironies and paradoxes when it comes to the representation of black folk. Whether it’s the spoon-fed uplift-the-race bullshit or plantation legacies (refurbished by mainstream rap music and videos) of thugs, pimps and gangstas, we are comfortable with and eagerly support images and storylines that merely regurgitate cliché and stereotype or that allow us to be “empowered” by simply putting black faces on cinematic archetypes and creaky formulas. Think of any action film of the last few years in which, say, Steven Seagal, is paired with a growling/phlegmatic rap star who gets to glower, swagger, and finger all manner of state-of-the-art firepower. Not only do you get recycled black/white buddy flicks, but you have exhausted white hetero maleness given a dose of cultural Viagra by its proximity to hetero nigger dick—and all said nigger has to do is stay within the narrowly defined realm of dangerous/menacing/ crazy… nigger.

Those Black/queer filmmakers who work in experimental film often seem to me to be the ones making movies that most accurately reflect the realities of many black folk—gay, straight, and beyond—in the world. Playing hopscotch with genre, creating fictive historical documentaries in order to arrive at hard yet ephemeral truths, shifting perspective without warning, experimenting with the rhythms and expectations of pacing and editing, resisting easy categorization, digging deep into questions of identity and then refusing to produce easy or superficially “positive” answers or imagery—this is work that so often captures the fluctuating and freefall experience of black queerness/queer blackness/whatever (not to mention just plain old “blackness”) that it eerily, effectively mirrors the way so many of us exist in the world. Blackness is experimental. Blackness queered is experimentalism cubed. For those of us who aren’t pining to see representation that has been filtered through the mandates of capitalism, and who don’t find warmth in the embrace of banal story lines and characterizations, the output of people like Dawn Suggs, Jocelyn Taylor, Thomas Allen Harris, Shari Frilot, the late Marlon Riggs, Isaac Julien, and Cheryl Dunye, among many, many others, is heady, humbling, moving, and inspiring.

Isaac Julien, considered by many to be the godfather of modern experimental film that juggles issues of racial, sexual, and cultural identity, has been written about and theorized to within an inch of his life, primarily for his film Looking For Langston (1989), a meditation on the connections between the sexuality, art, and personal life of Langston Hughes, as well as the larger political and social concerns of the Harlem Renaissance and the nuances of constructing multi-tiered/multiidentity blackness, regardless of era. The film is both summary of and blueprint for much black/queer experimental film, using archival footage, dramatic re-enactments, quotes from and references to a host of literary sources, and dreamy fantasy sequences. Still, the Julien work I’m most interested in discussing here is the lesser-seen short film, Trussed (1996).

The two lead characters in the film are a black man, seen in the film’s beginning and closing scenes clothed in pajamas and spinning himself around in a wheelchair, and his white lover who—in those same scenes—is shown clad in black leather pants and vest, holding a huge bouquet of roses as he stands in the background watching his blank-faced lover spin in—what?— sadness? frustration? inscrutable emotion? I use the term, “character,” very loosely to describe the duo since they’re more a pair of metaphors than fleshed-out characters; their respective races are as crucial a point in the casting of the actors as any sort of actual acting ability.

The “official” mission statement for the film, which is filled with S&M imagery in which the roles of dominant and submissive flip in unexpected ways, is that it’s an exploration of illness and eroticism, a look at the impact that AIDS has had on gay desire and relationships. It achieves those goals beautifully, but the film also resonates on another level. We watch the couple in flashback while they interact with assorted apparatus and other partners, strapping on and unstrapping their gear, kissing in moments of tenderness while shadows and light create an otherworldly atmosphere, all as the film’s punned title (Trussed/Trust) gingerly plays out. There is no dialogue, only a sparse, somber soundtrack. As ritual unfolds—with familiar notions about the fluidity of power in relationships and the liberation gained through submission both adding subtext to the stated goal of the film—depth is also achieved by the realization that this black and white couple, who never speak a word, also stand in for the relationships that so many black and white folk have with one another, in which power is constantly being negotiated, in which rituals of behavior are played out both self-consciously and unconsciously, where a sexual undercurrent or backdrop is so often in play, and in which we never really speak. It’s likely not what Julien intended viewers to take away from the film. He might actually find it too simplistic or obvious a reading, but the issue of trust/trussed played out in black & white by black and white, by men in a sexualized milieu (with death as specter) works not only on the film’s self-contained and specific terms, but also as global metaphor.

Shari Frilot pushes the global metaphor into the universal in her short works, A Cosmic Demonstration of Sexuality (1994) and Strange & Charmed (2003). Both films play with structure and form while grappling with issues surrounding female sexuality, letting not just the content (a base of documentary-style, Black-girl talking heads in Cosmic; fictional musing in Charmed) but the constantly shifting framework of the films—referencing porn, sci-fi, industrial films, and more—speak to the complex, wildly varied mechanics of female desire and physicality. Charmed follows a day in the life of a trio of black females—a young, pre-adolescent girl who is celebrating her birthday with a lavish party; a beautiful twenty- something lesbian/bisexual who is having a party where she hopes to snare the woman of her dreams (played with typical impassivity by dyke icon, Guinevere Turner); and a forty-ish single woman whose loneliness is conveyed through both her rich fantasy life and sterile reality. The primary point-of-view in the film, though, belongs to quarks traveling across time and space; they not only observe but—it is suggested—also spark the sexual scenarios in which the three heroines find themselves.

In Cosmic, faces melt into digitized blurs as menstrual cycles are discussed; that blur soon dissolves into old health education film footage of blood rushing through veins. Cliché (“Oh, God, not another dyke & nature film!”) is turned inside out with humor as wryly funny voice-overs about death and masturbation play on top of stock footage of Earth as seen from the heavens; the cycles of the oceans and stars are juxtaposed with lesbian porn, demystifying all three, and more importantly, demystifying “woman” even as she is celebrated. More importantly, in both films, Frilot positions the voices and experiences of black women, lesbian and straight, not only as being equally weighted, but as being authoritative in speaking about the politics of Womanhood in the broadest sense.

The body, usually nude at some point, anchors much black queer experimental work. Historically, volumes of myths, halftruths, and erotic follies, have been projected onto “the black body,” and, when acknowledged at all, that body continues to be ill served and ill represented in mainstream cinema; this is particularly true of queer and female bodies. Writer/directors such as Thomas Allen Harris and the late Marlon Riggs, like many of their peers, combine concerns about the black body—celebrating it, using it as metaphor for freedom and liberation—with biography, another key component in the bulk of experimental works by queers of color.

Harris, in both Vintage (1995) and E Minha Cara ( 2001), uses his own life story and emblems of it—relationships with various family members, old home movies, freshly shot video footage of his estranged father—to answer questions about what it means to be black, queer, of color, and an artist. Vintage actually tracks three families in which queer siblings exist. Child abuse, incest, legacies of violence, the malleability of desire, and the many permutations of queerness are all discussed as Harris splices in fantasy sequences, choreographed routines, and raw confessionals. What makes the film especially powerful is Harris’ awareness and manipulation of the performance not only of “family” (i.e., the roles we’re assigned, the roles we assume, how they affect the ways we define self), but also of gender and “race” itself.

At one holiday gathering, he asks his family, audibly and on-camera, if they can close their eyes and put their heads back down in prayer position so that he can get a better take of them saying grace. At that moment, a staple scene in mainstream Negro films (think Soul Food) is exploded—particularly when his brother, Lyle, refuses to comply. We later see photos and video footage of dark-skinned Lyle in “white girl drag”—blonde wig and full make-up—that is contrasted with his everyday style of baldness and quasi-queen haughty elegance. Questions arise: How much power do the signifiers of femininity and whiteness actually hold, especially for the spectator versus the spectacle? Are they simply unleashing whatever force is already inside, or do they actually imbue their wearers with power—and meaning?

The brothers at one point clown around on the beach, splashing water, applying face paint, sashaying in the sand. Theirs is a body language of intimacy and liquidity that we never see black men display in Hollywood film (and only rarely in real life.) They collapse the strictures of conventional black male behavior and it’s not just the fact that they’re playing up sissiness that is so unnerving—it’s that they’re laughing in joy, not mockery or dismissal of anyone else. It’s that their love is palpable. This is a radical moment that puts a powerful spin on the late Essex Hemphill’s famous quote, “Black men loving one another is the revolution.”

Hemphill’s poetry and defiant punk spirit, of course, infuse Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied, the groundbreaking, controversial film that came into vogue before Madonna, brought homo-thugs to light years before homophobic rappers and an idiotic mainstream media did, and gave nuance to the degraded black sissy— all with humor and pathos. Performance footage, outrageous set pieces (the famous “snap off” scene), queen-on-the-street interviews, stinging critiques of homophobia in black films (with clips from Eddie Murphy’s Raw and Spike Lee’s School Daze) and talking heads either reciting poetry or simply testifying about their lives, add up to a portrait of black male queerness that fairly seethes with energy.

The film is inarguably a powerful and seminal piece of black/queer/indie/experimental art. It’s also a tad dated. That’s largely because of the natural process of things that once seemed radical either becoming a thread in the status quo or becoming merely a stepping-stone for a sub-culture to evolve and define itself—a relic of a specific (literal and metaphoric) time and place. The look back to see how you arrived wherever you now are often makes those once towering, daunting stones seem like moldy pebbles, and you have to remind yourself of their huge importance to the larger path. For instance, in the segment where Riggs looks into the camera with huge sad eyes and puts on his “I’m choking back tears” face as he tells of his first crush on a white boy, how that crush redeemed him and “what a curse” it was that his salvation came from a melanin-free lad (all as Roberta Flack’s “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” swells on the soundtrack), the effect is unintentionally campy, almost painfully bathetic. But when the film first premiered, viewed by eyes not shaped by irony or distance, the moment was likely enormously revelatory and moving to viewers—and undoubtedly still is to many.

Riggs’s final film, Black Is...Black Ain’t (1995), which was actually completed after his death from AIDS, is tougher and far less sentimental, despite the fact that he was dying even as the film was being made. There are many scenes of him talking to the camera from his hospital bed—thin, weak, with tubes spiraling into and out of him. Other moments, interspersed throughout the movie and filmed before he became too ill, have Riggs running nude through the woods; it’s a bit of symbolism that he explains as representing freedom, vulnerability and “the search.” A rigorous interrogation of so-called “authentic blackness” that has queer identity at its center, the documentary is bolstered greatly by the insights of such black feminist/womanist talking heads as bell hooks, Angela Davis, and Michelle Wallace. The organic and substantial presence of these women, among others in the film, underscores the longtime political bonds and alliances between black gay men and black women (queer or straight) progressives, the shared recognition of the limitations of a hetero-dick-centered definition of black “realness.” It’s a relationship that will likely be reconfigured in years to come as so many young black gay men uncritically embody hip-hop’s reactionary “thug” pose as their own.

Black Is… illuminates the ways in which the twists and turns of the black experimental filmmaker’s personal life not only inform but also re-shape their work. Riggs started out simply making a film about the policed parameters of black identity. The downward turn of his own health shifted not only his priorities but his perspective on his subject matter. The viewer gets to see that play out. But the film doesn’t just become navel-gazing or deathbed-pontificating. It maintains a sense of humor as it weaves together archival footage of 60’s Civil Rights marches and Black Panther rallies, observations about the role of music in black life, the importance of food to black culture, and some astute class analysis—e.g., Davis confesses to years of embarrassment at her education abroad in France and Germany—as well as acknowledging the fear of community censure that keeps many black gays and women silent. The film is an airing of intraignored. It’s still ahead of its time.

There are countless more filmmakers and films to be discussed— Cheryl Dunye’s Watermelon Woman (1996) and its stunning recreation of old Hollywood and Negro Cinema in order to locate black lesbians in history and offer commentary on the status of black women artists from yesteryear and today; Stephen Winter’s near-brilliant, grossly under-rated Chocolate Babies (1996), whose biting politics, furious social commentary, and radical depiction of radical-activist black drag queens all but ensured that it’d never have a wide audience; Vaginal Davis’ various homages to Woody Allen, Ingmar Bergman, and Dr. Laura Schlessinger in biting cinematic essays on race, gender, and sexuality; the works of Dawn Suggs, Jack Waters… the list goes on and on.

The value of all this work is incalculable and hard to pin down in a single essay. For me, it’s incredibly important because it wiggles into those spaces between the rigid declarative sentences that black art (and black reality) is expected to make, and asks questions. Blackness is huge, vast. It frightens black folk as much as it does anyone else, so we shrink it down, make it narrow in order to wrap our brains around it and control it. In the process, we diminish our own imagination, each other, and ourselves. Black queer experimental filmmakers don’t even bother dealing with that flimsy space in between the you-must-be-kidding options offered by Hollywood and too much “indie” fare; they’re already looking beyond. And the further out they go, the clearer the simplicity of at least one of their goals becomes. To quote Marlon Riggs, from Black Is, Black Ain’t, speaking about the racialized epiphany that his illness sparked: “AIDS forces you [to acknowledge] that you could die at any moment. AIDS forces you to deal with that, and to look around you and say, ‘ Hey, I’m wasting my time if I’m not devoting every moment to thinking about how I can communicate with black people so that we start to look at each other, we start to see each other.’”