British Film and Television: Where Are All The Black Gays? By Christina Fonthes

bfi_flare

Ahead of the annual BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival,  formally known as the ‘London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival’, an event that showcases LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender) films from all over the world, now seems like an apt time to talk about Black British Gay films, or rather, the lack thereof. The decision to change the name of the event was to reflect the “increasing diversity of films and audiences.” [www.theguardian.com]. Yet, despite this decision to be more ‘diverse’, the festival line-up doesn’t seem any more diverse from previous years, apart from the inclusion of one or two more films that have Trans subject matters.

When it comes to British cinema, films by and about black LGBT people do not come into the equation. It is not because there is no audience for such films, but rather because of the unwritten rule that British cinema and television has to be straight and white. It is this rule that has caused the mass exodus of Black British creatives to the other side of Atlantic. Idris Elba, Adrian Lester, Gina Yashere, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, and Oscar and BAFTA-winning director, Steve McQueen are amongst those that have found success in Hollywood.
With this lack of exposure for black directors and performers in the industry, it comes as no surprise, then, that films with black gay subjects are few and far between. In fact, there have been less than ten films made about black LGBT people since the eighties; this pitiful number speaks volumes about the state of film and television in the UK.
Amongst the ten films are Isaac Julien’s: Territories (1984), Looking for Langston (1989), Young Soul Rebels (1991); Adaora Nwandu’s Rag Tag (2006); In This Our Lives: The Reunion (2009) by Rukus! Federation; and Campbell X’s Stud Life (2012).

Just a Love Story

Rag Tag (2006) directed by Adaora Nwandu

Rag Tag (2006) directed by Adaora Nwandu

Rag Tag tells the story of two childhood friends who fall in love: Raymond/Rag is from a dysfunctional, working class, West Indian home, and Tagbo/Tag is a recent law graduate from a respectable Nigerian family. The film is the closest – and perhaps the only – depiction of young, black inner-city gays that I have seen on the screen. The choice to give both protagonists female love interests, I felt, was both necessary and realistic. It is a common misconception that gays who have been in relationships with the opposite sex are not really gay or they are unsure of their sexuality. Not only is this incredibly biphobic, it is also ignorant as it does not take into account the fact that we live in a heteronormative culture that forces queer people to perform– either consciously or unconsciously – the straight role in order to survive social and institutional homophobia. The film certainly captured this realness in that respect.

It is this quest for normalcy, however, that I find dangerous in this, and mainstream ‘gay’ films. The ‘love conquers all’ message that is prevalent throughout the film reinforces the idea that same-sex relationships are only valid if the two people – and there must only be two people, anything more than that is seen as porn – are truly in love. The success of the award-winning film Broke Back Mountain (2005), I believe, is largely due to the fact that (straight) audiences were able to view the film as a film primarily about love rather than a film about two gay men’s struggle for survival and acceptance in a homophobic society. At no point are the audience (queer or straight) made to feel uncomfortable, nor are they made to challenge and question their own homophobia. Instead, the audience can claim that they did not see two gay men but instead saw two people in love. They are left feeling good about themselves for their new-found acceptance of gay people.

‘Blindness’

This same rhetoric is at play when white people claim to be colour blind i.e. they do not see race and they do not judge people based on the colour of their skin. This ‘blindness’ is problematic and dangerous as it creates a reductive and oversimplified view of the struggles of LGBT communities; it alludes to the idea that the principal struggle for LGBT people is the desire and aspiration to live as heteronormative people.  At the end of the film, Rag and Tag are able to pursue their romantic monogamous relationship and both secure job opportunities. This Hollywood template is reinforced by the gender-conforming appearances of the two main characters; it is the kind of appearance that would provoke the reaction “but you don’t look gay!” A reaction that, I, as a gender-conforming femme lesbian, am frequently subjected to (FYI it is not a compliment just like “you don’t look African” is not a compliment).

Art vs film

Isaac Julien on set of Looking for Langston (1989) Picture taken from www.isaacjulien.com

Isaac Julien on set of Looking for Langston (1989) Picture taken from www.isaacjulien.com

Award-winning installation artist and filmmaker, Issac Julien’s ‘Looking for Langston‘ (1989), on the other hand, evokes feelings of malaise for the audience. My first impression of the film, which is shot entirely in monochrome, was that it was too ‘artsy’; I grew bored of the excessive and repetitive scenes of naked black men pulling on cigarettes; and I thought the exclusion of women in the film made it anti-womanist. It is only upon reflection, however, that I realised that my disinterest for the film and my inability to relate to it, as a queer black woman, was actually due to my own internalised homophobia. Julien does what all great artists do; he forces the audience to engage emotionally. In this case, he made me feel uncomfortable. When watching Looking for Langston, you cannot escape – there is no room for ‘blindness’. The recurring scene of the men (both black and white) in the ballroom dressed in tuxedos and intimately dancing with each other reminds us over and over again that these men are gay. Although the film was made in 1989 it is still relevant for the modern audience. We still live in a highly homophobic and racist society, where images of black gay men are still taboo and only appear as pornographic images or in art galleries reserved for white-middle-classed audiences.
Both films are important and valid but they are centred around the lives and experiences of black gay men; and as is often the case with social and political issues, women and girls are underrepresented. By now, we should all be familiar with Chimamanda Adichie’s discourse on the ‘danger of a single story‘.

The Rise of the Web

The rise of the internet has opened up a new channel for queer women of colour (QWOCs) to tell their own stories; lower production values and quick turnaround means filmmakers are able to get their content out within a matter of weeks. In America, web series like Between Women and The Peculiar Kind are becoming increasingly popular because they tell the stories of multiple women thereby creating a more realistic and appealing portrayal of the lives of black queer women. The UK is slowly but surely catching up to this trait: Stud Life (2012), is a feature film about the life and loves of a black lesbian stud living in East London. It explores her relationship with her white gay best friend and her femme girlfriend. The film was made using crowd funding, and has enjoyed much success thanks to heavy marketing through social media. The film is the debut feature for film-maker and former London Lesbian and Gay festival programmer Campbell X.

In the Deep is a web series that follows the lives of four young black LGBT people living in East London. The show has a Sex and the City feel about it; the gang are successful professionals who enjoy cocktails and mischief. Say my Name! is a contemporary Black British gay love story set amidst a gritty grimy urban backdrop of ‘street’ reality. The mini-series is essentially about living on the down-low. The use of London slang that is constant throughout the twelve-minute episodes is an important reminder that the characters are quintessential Black British working class man dem.

Again, these stories are diverse and valid, but they are still heavily male-dominated and London-centric so they give a limited view of black LGBT peoples’ lives. The experiences of black LGBT people are nuanced and complex, and no one person, can nor should they, speak for the entire QPOC (Queer People of Colour) community.

The Future?

British comedian, Lenny Henry’s, recent call for broadcasters to increase BAME (Black Asian & Minority Ethnic) representation in the TV industry has stricken a chord with industry heads and the public (whether anything will actually change is another matter). However, I very much doubt that Henry and the Black British stars of Hollywood will extend this call to include wider representation of black LGBT people on and off the screen. This much-needed discourse is more likely to come from the new wave of black-owned, independent media organisations such as Media Diversified, TBBL and Dream Coat Productions  who have built their loyal viewership through the online community. The Web has allowed organisations like these to produce original and diverse content – on a low budget – that would not normally have been greenlit by the mainstream.

The BFI Flare Film Festival runs from 20 – 30 March. Go to the BFI website for schedule information/ buy tickets: www.bfi.org.uk/flare

article written for the british blacklist by Christina Fonthes @Congomuse / musingsofacongoleselesbian.wordpress.com

Christina Fonthes is from Kinshasa by way of London and currently living in Manchester; Christina writes about her experiences as an afro-wearing, Congo-centric woman in love with another woman.

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