Following the monumental and awkward win at the Oscars, we round up films that unpick how gender and sexuality interact with black identity
In the beginning, there was Kelsey being wrongfully announced as the winner of Australia’s Next Top Model sixth season. A little while later Steve Harvey mistakenly crowned Columbia as Miss Universe 2015. But none of this compares to La La Land being booted off the stage in favour of Moonlight for Best Picture at the Oscars. Although the gaff has become far more newsworthy, even bigger than that fleeting moment is the fact that no LGBT film had ever won that award – finally Hollywood showed there is room for more diverse narratives in mainstream cinema.
In a time where black male characters aren’t allowed to be fragile and nuanced and the damage of toxic masculinity and homophobia in marginalised communities remains neglected on the silver screen, to see the film win over a blockbuster musical that harks back to the days of old Hollywood feels like a step forward. So while there is still an appetite for a more varied view of blackness and queer identity than the gangsta or the gay best friend tropes we’ve seen too many times, we’ve rounded up a series of shorts and classic films that confront the complexities of gender and sexuality in the black community:
The buzz of an electric razor, the sound of trainers kicking a wet football in a drab park – London-based filmmaker Seye Isikalu uses the everyday mundane backdrop of dreary landscapes and multi-storey car parks to tell the story of the strained relationship between affection and black males. Black men are denied the chance to be affectionate with each other due to the fierce policing of black masculinity. The four-minute film highlights the misconception that black male intimacy is gay by default and illustrates that there is an essential grey area.
The short ends with the words: “Grey is the wonderland we’ve learned not to trek to because displays of black male affection are strategically met with seeds of suspicion that sprout this myth that if black men are touching it means we’re either fighting or fucking. For us, there is no grey. But this too is distortion … Our emancipation resides in the grey we’re denied.”
PEARL OF AFRICA (2016)
The rights of many LGBT black people around the globe remain under threat. Pearl of Africa is a web series that follows the story of Cleopatra Kambugu, a 27-year-old transgender woman who makes the brave choice to transition despite Uganda’s fierce opposition to trans rights. Watch her risk the threat of incarceration by defiantly challenging the system that condemns her existence all in the hope of becoming who she has always known she was.
‘When did you become a black man?’ asks Shikeith Cathey, whose 45-minute documentary attempts to unpick the nuances of racial identity. Rather than assuming a man is always a black man at his essence, it plays with the idea that there are defining moments in his life where he first realises that he is “other”. The anonymised participants lay bare their sexual experiences, mental health issues and microaggressions that form their complex identities.
This bizarre tale of a young good looking black man named Clay and Lula, a provocative white woman. It follows an interaction after the two meet on the train which quickly becomes laden with problematic stereotypes, for example, his smart attire is dubbed a “white disguise” by Lula. Importantly it explores the danger black men have faced at the hands of their fetishized masculinity. The film is based on a play by African-American playwright Amiri Baraka.
When Nadine Davis isn’t putting on exhibitions and events as one-half of the BBZ collective – a night celebrating the art and creativity of queer women of colour – she also makes films with her creative partner Elijah Ndoumbe. This particular trailer for the Undone series does not feature any black male characters, rather it is a frank and honest discussion about Nadine’s relationship with her sexuality and appearance. She explains that her decision to wear male clothing, a binder and “one earring instead of two” made her feel more comfortable in her own skin. But, being more masculine in appearance comes with its own adverse reactions from fetishization to black men feeling threatened by her “as if masculinity is all they have”. The short preview is an interesting look at how people’s perceptions can shift depending on how you choose to present yourself. The rest of the series is pending so keep an eye on the site for more to come.
CENTRAL PARK FIVE
Again, rather than exploring black men who belong to a sexual minority, this Ken Burns documentary deals with the pervasive attitudes of heterosexual black men as sexual predators and a danger to civil white society. After a white woman is raped in Central Park in 80s New York five black and brown youths are found guilty – aided in part by very public figures like Donald Trump – in what is now widely regarded as a complete miscarriage of justice. It is an illustration of how the American Criminal Justice system has often been weighted in favour of the notion that black men are more likely to be sexually violent and that their masculinity is something to be feared and punished. You can find the documentary in full here for now.
BLACK BOYS DON’T CRY
“The narrow narrative of masculinity must be questioned to leave space for black men to show emotion without being considered less black or less of a man.” IGGYLDN uses spoken word, film and photography to look at how history has forced black males to be strong and without feeling and emotion. The visuals evoke the internal battle that men have with themselves, fighting to suppress their own emotion.
TONGUES UNTIED (1989)
A semi-documentary film directed by Marlon Briggs, Tongues Untied follows the isolating existence of being black and gay in 80s America. Being turned away from gay bars for being a person of colour, and being left beaten and ‘gay bashed’ on the sidewalk near your college – the brutal silence referred to throughout highlights the specificity of the prejudices the black LGBT communities faced. This seminal film ties together homophobic comedy routines by the likes of Eddie Murphy, real-life stories and fictional scenes to illustrate the myriad of issues that often went unnoticed.
The first feature-length fiction film directed by a black filmmaker (Horace Ové) in Britain is a depiction of the intergenerational struggle between first gen and second gen West Indian immigrants. From struggles with the police to the unfortunate distance from his heritage, Tony’s story is a portrait of 70s Britain. It questions everything from whether embracing the familiar Britishness he has grown up with makes him too white, whether he should be expected to perform blackness, and his proximity to a black power movement leaves him vulnerable to police brutality to the horror of his ashamed and embarrassed parents. His cultural gaps, educational achievements and pursuit of interracial friendships illustrate how often black males face pressures from outside and inside their communities to conform to certain behaviours.
Shown over the weekend as a part of gal-dem’s V&A event, the project directed by Almass Badat, and shot by Sannchia Gaston, both of House of Alt, is in continuous development and evolution, as gender is. Badat believes that “The narration of the Black man is brutal and unforgiving. He is heterosexual, strong and the alpha. The restrictions of white-dominated media have created very little space for the Black man to exercise a fluid identity, to the point where if he is not the hyper-masculine or macho, he is not man enough”. As such she speaks to the likes of Kojey Radical to change perceptions about race, gender and manhood.
There will be a free, accessible screening followed by a Q&A in the near future - details to be confirmed. Follow @almassbadat for more info.