To be black, gay and proud in mainstream cinema

To be black, gay and proud in mainstream cinema

How long before we see characters who happen to be black and gay on the regular?

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: Chiwetel Ejiofor as Lola in “Kinky Boots”

The world needs more ensemble dramas or dramatic comedies like “The Family Stone” or bold cinematic kaleidoscopes like Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of “Romeo + Juliet” to showcase the flamboyance of black male gay machismo in an everyday light before we come to appreciate what it can mean to be black, male and gay.

“Brokeback Mountain” suffered, critical voices will claim, the indignity of losing the Best Picture Oscar to “Crash” because we – well, liberal Hollywood – were not ready to fully embrace the principle of sexual diversity – over our longstanding racial conundrum – to which we had given so much lip service. But, some of us had to wonder if that film, for all the impact it seemed to have, would have been able to nudge us close by triggering a wave of gay characters who had more going for them than their sexual orientation. What if we could see more of the content of their characters?

Does it matter now that newly minted Supporting Actor winner Jared Leto’s character was a multi-dimensional man with a penchant for female finery? And what if, instead of Leto, that character had been played by, say, Chiwetel Ejiofor?

I bring up Ejiofor, an Oscar nominee this past year because a few years earlier, we had the opportunity to catch him in “Kinky Boots,” where he played a cross-dresser who takes a floundering businessman (Joel Edgerton) and his shoe company under his glitzy wings. Ejiofor is dazzling as Lola, singing and strutting with an uninhibited sensuality we likely won’t see from Ejiofor anytime soon, if ever again, and it sadly seems wasted because Lola is little more than a fairy godmother, rather than a complex figure with a satisfying arc of his/her own. Lola has no dreams or love, despite the narrative telling us, “Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets.” Really? I think Lola wants somebody to love, just like the rest of us.

The HBO drama “The Normal Heart” draws us inside gay life with an historic slant that we’ve come to appreciate much like the Holocaust dramas and the uplifting Disney-shaded stories based on the Civil Rights era. We shall overcome and all that, but where will we be when we’ve crossed that finish line, especially characters who are black, male and gay?

There’s a niche out there, I’ve spotted. It’s a place where someone like James (Gbenga Akinnagbe), a member of the early ’90s hip-hop trio in “Big Words,” can now feel a bit freer to be himself with his lover (Amir Arison) and their lesbian cohorts as the country stands ready to celebrate the election of its first African American president. It is fascinating to watch him confront his former band mates (Dorian Missick and Darien Sills-Evans) and his own past, in which he hid behind his Five Percent Afrocentric façade as an intellectual ladies’ man. Akinnagbe never lets us forget that lurking beneath the shell of this new out man is a man still struggling to determine what his manhood is supposed to look and feel like.

I’ve also found a powerful complement in the Tyson Fitzgerald’s 2013 short “The Bash,” which captures a pair of lovers (Ka’ramuu Kush and Shawn Carter Peterson) arguing over public displays of affection, only to have to fend off a vicious attack from homophobes in the hood. This film, in short fashion (pun intended), places a premium on forcing audiences to re-evaluate how we label machismo and standing up for one’s self. Stereotypes of fight or flight will definitely fall by the wayside here.

But will even that help to usher in more presentations of complex characters who, once again, happen to be black, male and gay? I’m waiting for the follow-up to “The Best Man Holiday” or “Think Like a Man Too” or the next installment of Tyler Perry’s “Why Did I Get Married (To A Woman)” when one of the hunky black male characters defiantly comes out and is not just embraced by the crew, but gets the opportunity to find a little happily ever after action of their own. That’s a whole lot better than mere pride in the name of love, isn’t it?

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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