All eyes are on Moonlight, this season—Barry Jenkins’ ravishing follow-up to his debut feature Medicine for Melancholy—and its steady rise to critical and public acclaim since premiering at Telluride last September. While Jenkins’s noted inspirations come from international fare such as Wong Kar Wai’s 90s queer classic Happy Together, there is a long lineage of black LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) films that depict identities rarely seen in mainstream cinema. These films come from all over, but the ones focused on in this article will primarily be from the US and UK, and will range from narratives to documentaries to hybrid experimental works. All of these films will show the creativeness of QPOC (Queer People of Color), as well as the misguidedly offended elite.
Two films released in 1989 that returned to the Berlin International Film Festival last year, highlight the playfulness and aptitude for black male filmmakers to create works that are both intensely personal and literary in their own right. Tongues Untied, Marlon Riggs’ landmark documentary (left) about gay black men, mines both racism within society as a whole and also within the gay community; this documentary was famously used by Republican Pat Buchanan as an example of how President George H. W. Bush was using taxpayers’ money to fund “pornographic art.” Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston (right) which I decided to seek out after experiencing his stunning Ten Thousand Waves exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010, takes a different approach to identity and desire. He situates his film in 1920s Harlem, alternating between archival news footage and scripted scenes.
Two features from the 1990s and 2010s showcase the ability of black female directors. The first feature film directed by a black lesbian, The Watermelon Woman (left), follows a young black gay woman who works in a video rental store. The character is attempting to make a documentary about a black actress from the 30s, noted for playing the stereotypical “mammy” roles in Vaudeville and film from the time. This film was also put under scrutiny by a Republican representative, Peter Hoekstra, the chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, at the time. He questioned the grant that Cheryl Dunye, the director, received from the NEA to make it. The Spike Lee executive-produced Pariah (right), premiered at Sundance in 2011, deservedly winning the Excellence in Cinematography Award. The film is visually and emotionally felt, pulling you in right from the opening sequence, which perfectly utilizes “My Neck, My Back” by Khia. The director, Dee Rees, has gone on to work for HBO (directing Bessie, which Queen Latifah stars in) as well as directing the 2017 Sundance hit Mudbound, which was acquired by Netflix shortly after its premiere.
These films show the prevalence of black queer voices that occasionally break through, although it might take a little digging to find them. Strongly enough, however, we are surrounded by them; on a recent trip to Montréal I stumbled upon a short at a museum (Never Apart) that I found deeply felt and incredibly moving. That short was Akosua Adoma Owusu’s Reluctantly Queer (left), its trailer viewable here. A friend recently alerted me to a new web series called Brown Girls, of which I watched the first two episodes and would recommended (you can watch all the episodes here). Other films to keep an eye out for are Garden of Eden, a narrative about a newly outed lesbian that recently premiered at Bushwick’s Starr Bar, and John Tengrove’s The Wound, which will be screened at this spring’s New Directors/New Films Festival in New York City. And with the imminent release of Sara Jordenö’s Kiki (right) (March 1, IFC Center), a spiritual successor to Paris Is Burning, this spring is looking more robust as each day passes, with an endless roster of creators and works rightly getting their due.