Sisters in the Life: A History of Out African American Lesbian Media-Making

Sisters in the Life: A History of Out African American Lesbian Media-Making


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822370710
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 03/27/2018
Series: a Camera Obscura book Series
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Yvonne Welbon is the founder of the Chicago-based nonprofit Sisters in Cinema. She is an independent filmmaker whose films have screened on PBS, Starz/Encore, TV-ONE, IFC, Bravo, and the Sundance Channel and in over one hundred film festivals around the world.

Alexandra Juhasz is Professor and Chair of the Department of Film at Brooklyn College, City University of New York; the coeditor of A Companion to Contemporary Documentary Film; and a documentary filmmaker.

Read an Excerpt


Birth of a Notion

Toward Black, Gay, and Lesbian Imagery in Film and Video

In mainstream media, gays and lesbians of color are either woefully present or predictably absent. The litany of black gay and lesbian characters in Hollywood films and network television reads like its own form of blackface.

They range from the burly, black "bulldagger" as whorehouse madam in the 1933 film The Emperor Jones (starring Paul Robeson) to the predatory lesbian vamp in Spike Lee's 1983 She's Gotta Have It; from Eddie Murphy's ultracamp Miss Thing hairdresser on NBC's Saturday Night Live to the snap! queen duo on Fox TV's In Living Color.

These relentless stereotypes are part of a continuum of silence and mockery and denial surrounding lesbians and gay men within our own African American community — a community that is, of course, one of the largest consumers of Hollywood and network entertainment. With no other screen alternatives, audiences believe this is who we are.

In reducing our lives and complexity to caricature, such program formulas, capitalizing on homophobia and racism, produce big profits for mainstream media. The constricted images of black gays and lesbians are the same appropriated to all nonwhites in film and video: enemies, entertainment, or exotica.

Recently a new generation of gay and lesbian filmmakers of color has begun to produce imagery countering the invisibility and social stigmas. These filmmakers are using media to reverse decades of misrepresentation, replacing negative myths with whole and humane depictions. The films and videos currently being produced by black gays and lesbians about black gays and lesbians — this birth of a notion — represent the opening of a dialogue, overdue and unflinching. From the United Kingdom, witness Isaac Julien's lush cinematic meditation, Looking for Langston (1989), and here in the United States, Marlon Riggs's Tongues Untied (1989). Both feature the incisive poetry of Essex Hemphill and the music of Blackberri. These groundbreaking black gay directors expand the discourse on race and homoerotic desire in their current works: Julien's ebullient Young Soul Rebels (1991) and Riggs's video shorts, Affirmations (1990) and Anthem (1991).

Among younger generations of black gay men and lesbians, the films and videos of Dawn Suggs, Thomas Harris, Sylvia Rhue, Cheryl Dunye, Jacqueline Woodson, Jack Waters, Aarin Burch, Jocelyn Taylor, and Yvonne Welbon are emerging. Their works challenge the boundaries of experimental, autobiographical, and documentary genres. They offer innovative production styles in presenting visions of being "in the life." These productions are also changing the complexion of AIDS media — exploring the devastation and celebrating the courage of a community disproportionately ravaged by the epidemic. These film-and video makers are the first wave of a developing black gay and lesbian film movement. Now a legacy begins.

Several other films by white producers and directors have investigated black gay life: Shirley Clarke's 1967 experimental study of a black hustler, Portrait of Jason, and the Greta Schiller and Andrea Weiss documentary, Tiny and Ruby: Hell-Divin' Women. This 1987 film highlights the lesbian flamboyance of Tiny Davis, former trumpeter extraordinaire for the International Sweethearts of Rhythm jazz band, and is narrated by the African American lesbian poet Cheryl Clarke. More recently Jennie Livingston's remarkable, controversial, 1990 documentary, Paris Is Burning, explores the world of vogueing balls created by young black and Latino street queens in New York City.

As the body of black gay and lesbian film expands, a wellspring of critical analysis and theoretical study has concurrently evolved, validating this birth of a notion. Scholars in lesbian and gay studies, film theorists, and cultural activists have proclaimed, in articles and new publications, the significance of this first wave of black gay and lesbian media (particularly the works of Riggs and Julien) in illuminating the transgressive territory of identity and gay representation. Many of these critics are themselves black gay men and lesbians. In the United Kingdom are the filmmaker Pratibha Parmar and the critics Kobena Mercer and Stuart Hall. In the United States the writings of Marlon Riggs, Thomas Harris, Essex Hemphill, and bell hooks (who is not gay) have been influential and provocative.

Indicative of the growing visibility and accessibility of gay film, a media conference in New York was dedicated to investigating the concept of queer aesthetics unique to lesbian and gay imagery. The most compelling and contentious moments of that 1989 "How Do I Look?" conference were stimulated by discussions of race and representation in the works of Julien and other black gay artists, as well as white gay artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe who were perceived as commodifying black male sexuality.

In tandem with increased production has been an upsurge in the marketing of black gay and lesbian films and videos. Among distributors who have been particularly responsive to the influx of work by African American lesbians and gays are Women Make Movies (the largest distributor of feminist media with a long-standing focus on lesbian issues), Third World Newsreel (targeting the new wave of films and videos by gays and lesbians of color), and Frameline (a lesbian and gay arts organization that supports the distribution and exhibition of films and videos).

In the 1980s and early 1990s Hollywood negotiated easy heterosexist niches for homosexuality on the silver screen, allowing for the commercial success and mainstream acceptance of films such as Personal Best (1982), Desert Hearts (1985), and Longtime Companion (1990). These were palatable categorizations reducing gay experience to lifestyle comedies, sexual preference soaps, and AIDS dramas.

Then, at the top of the 1990s came three films that complicated the issue of homosexuality with affirmations of blackness and differences of race politics. These films imposed diversity upon the lily-white, largely male stereotype of gay experience.

The censorship surrounding the controversial PBS broadcast of Tongues Untied brought to public attention the realities and intersection of race and sexuality. Looking for Langston, flagrantly breaking the complicity of silence surrounding the homosexuality of the black poet-icon Langston Hughes, swiftly drew condemnation from many in the straight black community and a lawsuit from the Hughes estate. Paris Is Burning emerged from subculture success on the gay and lesbian film festival circuit to become the U.S. box office surprise of 1990. All three programs garnered critical acclaim, awards, and enthusiastic international audiences. They catalyzed national debates about freedom of expression and brought to many their first awareness of a black gay community.

But where in the current flurry of black gay male visibility on screen are the black lesbian movies — our own "evidence of being"? The question that remains for us, as we turn the century, is not so much "How do I look?" as "Where am I?" Lack of viable economic support, limited exhibition and distribution, and, indeed, a real and pervasive racist and sexist bias within our own gay and lesbian community all contribute to the marginalization of black lesbian productions.

Yet the short films and videos of Cheryl Dunye, Dawn Suggs, and Aarin Burch, among others (including my own 1987 film, Stormé: The Lady of the Jewel Box), have reached the screen in the face of tremendous odds, against a rising reentrenchment of censorship. These black lesbian film- and video makers embody the cinematic tenet of persistence of vision.

A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde is hopefully the seed of a trend toward full-length documentary and dramatic productions concerning black lesbian life and history. This documentary feature engages the work and perspectives of the late African American feminist poet and the context of her life as a lesbian of color in America. Using Lorde's words and images as its core, the film is referenced with scenes of her literary and political activities and commentary by her family members, contemporaries, students, and others affected by the emergence of an international, lesbian, feminist agenda among women of color.

The recent phenomenon of progressive black gay and lesbian imagery will not continue without growing numbers of openly gay and lesbian African American filmmakers producing works that address ethnicity and sexuality as equally critical identities. Black gay and lesbian filmmakers face sexism and homophobia within the black independent cinema movement, as well as racism in the feminist film community and the whitewash pervasive in gay and lesbian media. Historically we have been locked out of the Hollywood and television industries. But such challenges inspire me to make the movies that Desert Hearts and She Must Be Seeing Things (1987) are not: films that are lesbian-specific but, just as important, race-conscious.

As black filmmakers, how can we broaden gay and lesbian experience and imagery beyond "the celluloid closet"? How will we construct an ethnocentric, diverse nation of lovers? How will we undertake this birth of a notion?

Perhaps, twenty-four frames at a time.


Narrating Our History

An Introduction

Around 1994 or 1995 I came across a call for articles for an anthology to be published by the XII Black International Cinema, documenting ten years of the festival and associated activities, 1986–95. The request asked for articles and film lists from an international and intercultural group of scholars and filmmakers, and I thought this was an opportunity to document the exciting and pioneering work that was being done by a community of emerging Black lesbian and gay film- and video makers at the time. It was the early 1990s and the height of the culture wars in the United States that were fueled in part by the urgency of the AIDS epidemic, the legacy of feminist scholarship, and the success of the global anti-apartheid movement. Activists and artists such as Marlon Riggs, Anita Hill, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, and Essex Hemphill were making the personal political by untying their tongues to speak truth to power and thereby shift the culture. This was happening in the realms of film, art, television, politics, the academy, and conferences, and it was also coinciding with a critical mass of Black LGBT media makers, artists, and activists who were meeting in these same spaces and were recognizing the commonality of our shared experiences while at the same time celebrating and supporting one another's work across differences of gender, nationality, location, and experience.

The Afro-Cuban video maker and scholar Raúl Ferrera-Balanquet and I decided to respond to the call together and reached out to the community of LGBT makers we knew to see if there was interest in generating a dialogue among this community so as to historicize our work. After receiving an enthusiastic response, we wrote the proposal, which was accepted by BlackInternational Cinema. I had met Raúl after reaching out to him about including his work in a video program titled FIRE: Experimental Films and Videos from the African Diaspora, which I was curating with the filmmaker and artist Cheryl Dunye and the filmmaker Shari Frilot for the Experimental LGBT Film Festival. FIRE was inspired in part by Isaac Julien's groundbreaking film, Looking for Langston, which opened us up to looking at the suppressed and hidden queer narratives of the Harlem Renaissance. We took the name of our program, FIRE, from the 1926 Harlem Renaissance transgressive publication of the same name, started by Wallace Thurman, Zora Neale Hurston, Aaron Douglas, John P. Davis, Richard Bruce Nugent, Gwendolyn Bennett, Lewis Grandison Alexander, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes.

Like the original FIRE, our program explored edgy issues in the Black community such as homosexuality, bisexuality, interracial relationships, promiscuity, prostitution, and color prejudice. Dunye and I had initially proposed the program together as we were already collaborating on a number of projects and panels. Frilot and I were best friends and had also been collaborating, beginning with our work as producers for a public affairs show broadcast on WNET/Thirteen, New York's flagship public television station. FIRE was sold out, due in part to our outreach to LGBT communities on Christopher Street and in bars, clubs, and elsewhere. It also cemented certain relationships. We realized that we were in fact a movement that was creating change; we could no longer be ignored or marginalized by mainstream queer or Black festivals. At the same time we were mindful that because our work was not being written about or referenced in connection to such movements as New Queer Cinema, this meant we were being written out of the queer media narrative even as we were reshaping the landscape with our work and activism.

Like the Harlem Renaissance artists who gathered to produce FIRE, we sensed that it was our responsibility to leave a trace of who we were and what we were doing in the form of a publication. We reached out to all the folks that we knew or had heard of through the network of LGBT media makers — approximately twenty people, in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia. We had to find a way to create a dialogue based on the formal and informal dialogues that we had been having. This was before the age of the Internet, so our idea was to use what was then still a relatively new technology — the fax machine — to create or re-create a dialogue among all who were able to share their perspectives. To kick things off, we sent out a series of questions to which we asked folks to respond. These questions became the subject headings to create an outline and organize the published discussion. Some people responded to specific questions; others responded in a more free-form way. Some answered many questions, and others answered only a few.

Once all the responses were in, we began the process of editing the piece, cutting and pasting fax paper — much like a paper edit of the documentary film I was making concurrently, VINTAGE Families of Value, which was also a series of conversations between lesbian and gay siblings. Our goal was to maximize the dialogue, making sure to leave their responses intact as well as trying to avoid unnecessary repetition, so that ultimately the whole would be larger than the sum of the parts. It was a delicate balance. As was true for VINTAGE, I was also interested in creating a collaborative approach to the creation of this document, and we fearlessly shared the different versions of the piece with the various contributors to get feedback and clarification. We had a quick turnaround; I remember taking copies of the transcript with me to edit during a trip to Brazil.


Excerpted from "Sisters in the Life"
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Table of Contents

Preface. To Be Transparent: Seeing Directions and Connections in Black Lesbian Film / Alexandra Juhasz  ix
Introduction. The Sisters in the Life Archive Project / Yvonne Welbon  1
Part I. 1986–1995
Introduction / Yvonne Welbon  15
1. Birth of a Notion: Toward Black, Gay, and Lesbian Imagery in Film and Video / Michelle Parkerson  21
2. Narrating Our History: An Introduction / Thomas Allen Harris  26
3. Narrating Our History: Selections from a Dialogue among Queer Media Artists from the African Diaspora / Edited by Raùl Ferrera-Balanquet and Thomas Allen Harris, with Shari Frilot, Leah Gilliam, Dawn Suggs, Jocelyn Taylor, and Yvonne Welbon  29
4. Construction of Computation and Desire: Introduction to Yvonne Welbon's Interview with Pamela L. Jennings / Kara Keeling  47
5. Ruins and Desire: Interview with Pamela L. Jennings, July 27, 2012 / Yvonne Welbon  51
6. the book of ruins and desire: Interactive Mechatronic Sculpture / Pamela L. Jennings  63
7. A Cosmic Demonstration of  Shari Frilot's Curatorial Practice / Roya Rastegar  66
8. Identity and Performance in Yvonne Welbon's Remembering Wei-Yi Fang, Remembering Myself: An Autobiography / Devorah Heitner  92
Part II. 1996–2016
Introduction / Yvonne Welbon  115
9. Producing Black Lesbian Media / Candace Moore  125
10. Stereotypy, Mammy, and Recovery in Cheryl Dunye's The Watermelon Woman / Karin D. Wimbley
11. Coquie Hughes: Urban Lesbian Filmmaker. Introduction to Yvonne Welbon's Interview with Coquie Hughes / Jennifer DeVere Brody  160
12. Stepping Out on Faith: Interview with Coquie Hughes, July 27, 2012 / Yvonne Welbon  165
13. "Invite Me In!": Angela Robinson at Hollywood's Threshold / Patricia White  176
14. Shine Louise Houston: An Interstice of Her Own Making / L. H. Stallings  191
15. From Rage to Resignation: Reading Tina Mabry's Mississippi Damned as a Post-Civil Rights Response to Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam" / Marlon Rahquel Moore  205
16. The Circuitous Route of Presenting Black Butch: The Travels of Dee Ree's Pariah / Jennifer DeClue  225
17. Creating the World Anew: Black Lesbian Legacies and Queer Film Futures / Alexis Pauline Gumbs  249
Acknowledgments  261
Selected Bibliography  263
Contributors  269
Index  273

What People are Saying About This

Jacqueline Woodson

“An important, thoughtful, and infinitely readable collection. Yvonne Welbon, Alexandra Juhasz, and the many writers and filmmakers in here have always broken—and continue to break—new ground.”

B. Ruby Rich

“Like a VIP invitation to the coolest party, Sisters in the Life provides access to long-off-limits company in the trenches of cultural production and exhibition and reveals how queer filmmakers of color came to prominence and how friendship networks nurtured creativity and access. Yvonne Welbon and Alexandra Juhasz are the perfect guides—for their expertise, knowledge of the archive, and first-hand involvement in the history. For anyone who still thinks that great films appear magically out of thin air, this truth-telling volume will be a revelation.”

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