Black Nations/Queer Nations? Directed by Shari Frilot. New York, NY: Third World Newsreel, 1995. 59 minutes.
Marriage Equality: Byron Rushing and the Fight for Fairness. Directed by Thomas Allen Harris. New York, NY: Third World Newsreel, 2011. 15 minutes.
M.I., A Different Kind of Girl. Directed by Leslie Cunningham. Santa Barbara, CA: Tribes Entertainment Films, 2012. 52 minutes.
In Ceremonies, his collection of poetry and prose, the late Essex Hemphill writes, “The Black homosexual is hard pressed to gain audience among his heterosexual brothers; even if he is more talented, he is inhibited by his silence or his admissions. This is what the race has depended on in being able to erase homosexuality from our recorded history.”1 Hemphill wrote those words in 1992, when Black queer studies was emerging as a recognized field in academe. Though the representation and examination of Black LGBTQ identities certainly predated the 1990s, it is reasonable to suggest that institutional Black queer studies arose from an ideological base of the Black feminist and critical race theory movements of the 1970s and 1980s. Thanks to a number of Black artists, critics, activists, writers, and filmmakers, the Black queer subject is no longer invisible in the ways identified by Hemphill in the quote above. Shari Frilot’s 1995 film, Black Nation/Queer Nation? is essential viewing for students interested in the history of Black queer studies.
This film documents a conference that was held at City University of New York, which featured the most well-known figures in the academic areas of critical race theory, feminist studies, and gay and lesbian studies. Among the participants at this conference were Barbara Smith, Coco Fusco, and Urvashi Vaid, as well as the creative writers Samuel Delany and Essex Hemphill. Frilot includes dialogue from the conference and contextualizes and historicizes Black queer representation by including clips from Isaac Julian’s The Attendant (1993).2 Frilot’s film represents an important, and early, discussion among the foremost thinkers and writers in African American and Black feminist studies about the representation and the life of the Black queer subject.
The question at the heart of the conference is how the Black queer subject reconciles herself to exclusion by sexuality in the African American community, and exclusion by race and sexuality in broader American society. Ultimately, the film encourages viewers to develop a nuanced understanding of identity. It rebuts the notion that an “authentic” Black identity is at odds with queerness and rejects modes of thinking that write the Black queer subject out of the African American community.
Discussions of sexuality and race increased significantly after Frilot’s film, and so students today are less likely to harbor the assumptions about authentic Black identity that Frilot tackles. This shift in awareness around race and sexuality is undoubtedly due to films like Marriage Equality: Byron Rushing and the Fight for Fairness, directed by Thomas Allen Harris. In this short film, Harris highlights the efforts of the politician Byron Rushing, a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, to legalize marriage for the LGBTQ community.
Harris’s film contextualizes the fight for marriage equality in relation to the civil rights movement, which was an important part of shifting the national debate about marriage in 2011. As a long time crusader for civil rights, Rushing not only lent the movement for marriage equality necessary clout but also debunked the pervasive notion that the African American community is overwhelmingly homophobic. As one woman interviewed in the film states, “Byron Rushing is like our Martin Luther King in the queer community.” In this way, Rushing’s contribution to the marriage equality movement cannot be overstated.
Marriage Equality also features many Black same-sex couples, documenting the difficulties they faced contending for equal rights under the law. By focusing on the legal marriages of the couples, Harris demonstrates the role that the Black clergy played in the fight for marriage equality in the Black community. Like Frilot’s film, it thus is an important historical archive that acquaints the viewer with the debate around marriage and the Black community, framing marriage equality as a civil rights issue.
Of the three films reviewed here, M.I., A Different Kind of Girl, directed by Leslie Cunningham, is the least concerned with institutional structures (academic and literary in the case of Frilot’s film, and political in the case of Harris’s) and instead looks at a queer subculture. The film explores the world of M.I.’s, or male illusionists. Cunningham’s film references Jennie Livingston’s documentary, Paris Is Burning (1990), about Black drag queens and drag balls.3 Cunningham’s documentary explores, instead, the subculture of male illusionists who are largely ignored in academic contexts and mainstream representations of performative gender subversion.
The film follows one of the most celebrated illusionists, Nation Tyre, who explains the aesthetic practices, the club culture, and the pageant scene that characterize the life of a successful male illusionist. It also delves into the personal relationships, social networks, and the various “families” that coordinate the performances. These are families of choice, in which all of the performers use the same last name and have a “mother” and “father” who function as the heads of the group. Cunningham’s film resonates with a narrative thread in Frilot’s documentary about the diversity and multiplicity of Black queer identity. Further contextualizing the identity politics of illusionists, M.I., A Different Kind of Girl educates the viewer about the differences between a male illusionist and a transgender man; it even includes a long scene where a drag queen explains drag subculture and references Paris Is Burning. In this way, the film contests the notion that Black queer identity is static and instead portrays it as evolving, dynamic, and multilayered.
These films are helpful tools to educate students about the history of Black queer writing, activism and subcultures. Each reveals a significant ideological, historical, and intellectual moment in the representation of the Black queer subject and the fight for visibility, parity, and acceptance
1 Essex Hemphill, Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry (San Francisco: Cleis Press, 2000), 70.
2 The Attendant, directed by Isaac Julien (San Francisco: Frameline, 1993), 10 min.
3 Paris Is Burning, directed by Jennie Livingston (Santa Monica, CA: Mirimax Films, 1991), 78 min