The rise of black lesbian and gay cinema
Leave it on the Floor is one of the films being shown as part of this year’s BFI London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. Set in Los Angeles, it tells the story of a young black man rejected by his mother for being gay – but who finds a new home and family within the world of the costume balls which inspired the dance style of vogueing.
I’ve seen the film and loved it. It’s fresh, thoughtful and great fun – and it presents an insight into a gay experience many of us won’t know much about. But perhaps most importantly, it’s representative of a significant new trend in gay cinema.
As Brian Robinson, senior programmer of the festival, told me: “One of the things that stands out for me this year in the programme is the number of really well-made and exceptionally well-crafted films about black lesbian and gay life. Over the years we’ve had one or two films maybe, but this year we have a whole new crop. It feels like a generation is coming of age.”
What really fascinates me is that the films exploring the black gay experience in this year’s festival are breaking through within the context of a growing awareness of just how difficult it can be to be black and gay.
Of course, much has been written about the homophobia present in the lyrics of some reggae and hip hop music. Thankfully, few examples of this kind of music are now available online and after various campaigns major music stars such as Jay Z have spoken out against homophobia.
But there are other factors behind the challenges faced by black people who are gay. As a white gay man, I don’t want to make presumptions about what life is like for black gay people. So I consulted Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, co-founder of UK Black Pride.
“When you think of parents who are Nigerian,” she told me, “who are Jamaican, who are from Caribbean islands or African countries, their understanding and lack of awareness of what it means for someone to be gay or for their child to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, they don’t want to understand that because they’ll bring religion into it. They will talk about, ‘this is not right’, ‘it’s not heard of’, ‘it’s disgusting’. Sometimes, in some cases, they say ‘it’s the white man’s disease’ and ‘you can’t be gay’ … but for many of us who choose to come out in our community, we’re doing this because we have to make sure there’s a visible presence so other people feel comfortable in being able to relay their story, in being able to talk about themselves and feel comfortable and safe.”
Another step forward with the films exploring black gay life in this year’s festival is that they aren’t all American. Stud Life tells the story of how the friendship between a butch lesbian and a gay man is affected by the arrival of a new love interest. It’s set in Hackney, east London.
As writer-director Campbell X told me: “What we tend to see is the American version of black gay life and I find that very frustrating. So our identity gets moulded by an American experience.”
But securing funding to make a film about the British version of black gay life was a struggle. As a gay film with a black protagonist, Stud Life was seen by some as being doubly niche. “A lot of the gatekeepers are very cautious in wanting to give money to stories they think are minority or niche because they think they won’t get the money back – from sheer numbers. As black LGBT people we’re in a minority. So they’re just looking at number crunching rather than cultural significance I think for different kinds of stories.”
Clearly, the increased number of black films showing at this year’s BFI London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival can be read as a positive sign that attitudes are changing. And if they constitute the start of a better representation of black gay characters and their stories in film then they might also help to increase understanding of gay life within the black community. And make it harder for certain people to deny that gays and lesbians exist.
But ultimately the films in the festival will be shown mainly on the arthouse circuit. Only when mainstream Hollywood films explore black gay life will there be a real change in the visibility of black gay people – and a much better understanding of gay life within the black community.
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