Works > Black Star - BFI Compendium

This is the piece I contributed to the Black Star Compendium. You can buy the complete book here.

What kind of comparison are we making when we hold the work of filmmakers with multiple oppressions against the gold standard of stardom? Let's take some snapshots at the current intersection of race, gender and sexuality, dominated as it is by North American celebrity culture: Jaden Smith is the new face of women's clothing for Louis Vuitton, while Britney Griner models men's clothing for Nike. Beyonce's Lemonade (2016) is a strident repackaging of her poppier days, with its zeitgeisty appropriation of a grassroots black feminist aesthetic. The machinations of the quasi-aristrocracy saw Amber Rose insinuate that Kanye West 'enjoys a finger up his ass’. Frank Ocean came out of the shadows to comment on the Orlando massacre, in which 49 people were killed. Laverne Cox graces the cover of Time Magazine. The Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco puts on a Grace Jones retrospective. Prince dies, and takes with him the era of the effeminate-bisexual-oddball. As a matter of urgency, Purple Rain (1984) is watched by everyone.

The gold standard of the international A-lister is the referent by which all other stars get their meaning - including those closer to home. In Britain we are yet to enjoy a major black actor or director coming out, nor have we seen a repeat of the backlash awaiting an out black athlete: the first and only one, Justin Fashanu, was found dead in East London – though John Amaechi's post retirement coming out was significant, as explored in Out to Win (2015). Both cases highlight the power relation between the US and the UK, as well as the machinations of race – a theme developed in Ben Williams’s The Pass (2016), which tackles the complex figure of the closeted star footballer. Arinze Kene stars as, Ade, whose career ends after a crucial pass to his white team mate Jason, played by Russel Tovey, who takes the opportunity and goes on to achieve the kind of stardom in which his sex-tape would be of cultural significance. We see the subtle social relations in which the root of the tension between the two men is not racial, exactly, and not exclusively sexual, but the quotidian sum of both those social markers.

Mega stardom, is, after all a labour relation, based on the idea of scarcity. Holed up in wedding-cake hotels, Jason knows in his bones that his fame is at the cost of his friend, lover and self. The more negative social markers one possesses, the less likely stardom is, and this is based on a kind of warped representative democracy that a) demands a number of speakers only in direct proportion to the size of the group they represent, and b) demands that these speakers meet standards that exclude the majority of the people they stand for. This is usually figured as a lack of audience – how many people really want to depict or watch black queers enacting a complex interiority?

Plenty, it turns out. In the silent era, Borderline (1930) was a multi-ethnic queer love triangle, starring the weighty presence of Paul Robeson opposite legendary lesbian couple Bryher and H.D. Isaac Julien’s Young Soul Rebels (1991) was lauded – and within his other works are other stars: Trussed (1996) features a young Topher Campbell (in gorgeous, erotic split-screen) and The Attendant (1993) features an intriguing cameo from Stuart Hall. The more sobering Twilight City (1985) by the Black Audio Film Collective stunned critics, and Passion of Remembrance (1986) by the Sankofa Film and Video collective (directed by Maureen Blackwood and Isaac Julien) continues to challenge. Wesley Snipes’s tough guy persona is subverted when he and two other drag queens re-make a drab, small town in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995). Pratibha Parmar's Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth (2013) was the lesbian-led legacy of The Colour Purple (1985), and when Pariah (2012) was released, we were all pretty refreshed: here was a black girl in a do-rag writing poetry. Lee Daniels, a star figure himself, adapted Precious (2009) (from the novel Push by bisexual writer Sapphire) featuring Miss Raine as a “straight up lesbian” – and his later creation, Empire, pertinently features a black hip-hop producer trying to get his gay son to ditch the ‘sexuality thing’ in favour of more status. In the same year as Selma (2014), David Oyelowo appeared as a traumatised gay veteran in Nightingale. Though not strictly LGBT themselves, Gabourey Sidibe and Mexican-Kenyan Lupito Nyong'o might have signalled a sea-change in what kind of image the mainstream media was willing to accept. But then, as Stuart Hall put it, such images might be “a kind of difference that doesn't make a difference of any kind.”

So black queer megastars? A contradiction in terms in the age of both #oscarssowhite and Sam Smith’s erroneous claim to be the first out gay oscar winner. But maybe that doesn’t matter. Jaye Davidson's overnight fame after playing transwoman Dil in The Crying Game (1992) might have created a megastar, but Davidson had other values. In an interview with The Seattle Times in 1993:

Interviewer: What's most important in your life?
Davidson: My life.
Interviewer: That's not an answer.
Davidson: It is the ultimate answer.

Cult Stars

Small wonder then, that the most prominent images we have of Black LGBT cinema is that of the ball: Black and Latino people voguing and imitating the runway model, the pop star (think street level Queen Latifah v Foxy Brown) – people living in spite of all things.

The most notorious portrayal is Paris is Burning (1990): Director Jenny Livingstone distanced herself from it after being accused of exploitation; bell hooks critiqued not just the production of black stories by white people but the manner in which audience members received it (“Why is this funny?” she asks some people laughing in the back.) Wolfgang Bausch’s How Do I Look (2006) provides another perspective, with cast members from Paris is Burning, such as Carmen Xtravaganza, saying “I didn’t benefit nothing out of it.” Similar issues around exploitation would be raised by the voguers who backed Madonna's Blonde Ambition tour, as explored in Strike a Pose (2016).

Yet people like Willie Ninja – who became choreographer to the stars – twinned with the tragedy of Venus Xtravaganza's murder, transcend most critiques precisely because they seduce us; the ideal the film points to trumps its problematic basis. More recent films such as Jenn Nkiru’s UK short En Vogue (2014) and Sundance hit Kiki (2016) show that voguing as cultural innovation – like hop-hop, like jazz – has a kind of cultural fluidity that belies its specific, oppressed, origin. Although far from a film about vogueing, Hanifah Walidah and Olive Demetrius’s documentary U-People features a gathering of black queer people who dance for a music video inside a brownstone, and espouse a set of politics less encumbered by the problematic expectation of ‘entertainment’ that often comes with the street dance aesthetic.

Despite the loftiness of the metaphor, then, stardom exists on many planes: in academic departments, in obscure sports, and on the streets among those whose existence is denied, limited, attacked. There is something unequivocal about stardom; if you’ve got it, you’ve got it. Issa Rae's Black Twitter Party (2013) parodies the desperation of some social media users to increase their following in an age where a single viral video can catapult you into the spotlight, as Antoine Dodson’s “bed intruder” video has shown. Fittingly, Campbell X’s Stud Life (2012) features T’Nia Miller as JJ, who excavates her life on YouTube, and indeed – though this is a bit meta – Miller’s appearance in Channel 4’s Tofu, Banana, Cucumber signals greater things.

The angle of cult-stardom allows for a fairer analysis of black queer films and filmmakers, as the standard is based on people performing for us, who are like us, and whose principal intention is to make manifest a reality which we already know and in which we can live publicly. Queer theorist Michael Warner, points this out in his essay Publics and Counter Publics:

“Confidence in the possibility of a public is not simply the professional habit of the powerful, of the pundits and wonks and reaction-shot secondary celebrities who try to perform our publicness for us; the same confidence remains vital for people whose place in public media is one of consuming, witnessing, griping, or gossiping rather than one of full participation or fame.”

This chimes with what Marlon Riggs said of Tongues Untied (1991):“[it] tries to provide people growing up with an image of the possibilities of life. I want them to know it is possible to live life fully, happily, and joyfully with the full understanding and the full affirmation of who you are.” (p.166) David Van Leer's essay Spectatorship in Black Gay and Lesbian Film points out that such filmmakers are all too aware that they cannot access most ideas of fame: “Minority autobiography … asserts not one's achievements but only one's presence: though neither rich nor famous, I too exist.” (p.166)

And this existence is in flux, a movement rather than a standpoint, a refusal of the politics of fame, scarcity, debt and celebrity, as expressed in Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons: “The false image and its critique threaten the common with democracy, which is only ever to come, so that one day, which is only never to come, we will be more than what we are. But we already are. We’re already here, moving. We’ve been around. We’re more than politics, more than settled, more than democratic. We surround democracy’s false image in order to unsettle it. Every time it tries to enclose us in a decision, we’re undecided. Every time it tries to represent our will, we’re unwilling. Every time it tries to take root, we’re gone (because we’re already here, moving).” (p.19)

Porn Stars

In light of the above, three figures: Marsha P Johnson, Ajita Wilson and Papi Coxxx, followed by a fourth, Jason Holliday. Three people who have moved across the gender spectrum and who are or have been sex workers and porn performers in one form or another. Their inclusion here is a nod to Samuel Delaney's comparison of mainstream and porn films in his auto-ethnographic essay Times Square Blue: “Was commercial film pornography sexist? Certainly. Was it anywhere near as sexist as the legit films playing across the nation’s screens in the same years? Not unless you simply took sexist and sexy as synonyms.” They also indicate the pathos behind the term 'star' – 'porn star' as a measure of cost and risk, the inverse of 'megastar'.

Stonewall (2015) (big-budget sibling to Stonewall (1995) by British writer Rikki Beadle-Blair, which is far harder to find) was critiqued for its lack of accurate representation of the stonewall riots in 1965, though folk hero Marsha P Johnson is represented; she arrives on a street corner playing out the flamboyant, unstable, self-confidence of brutalised people. The documentary Pay it No Mind (2012) quotes her as saying, "We were supposed to have no reality..." and notes that she often took refuge in the kinds of cinemas Delaney writes about. It is ironic that the industry that excluded people like her when she was alive was also where she sought shelter, and that this same industry seeks credibility by using her image now that it is safe to do so.

A more mysterious figure, Ajita Wilson, achieved a cult following based largely on her role as exoticised, street smart and beautiful: films such as Hell Penitentiary (1984) are full of racial denigrations, and others, such as The Nude Princess (1976) feature dubious “African drumming”. But her heyday was the seventies and eighties and the star quality is there regardless – resilience, zeitgeisty cheekbones. Extraordinarily, she was made JET Magazine’s beauty of the week in 1981, though her status as a transwoman was not revealed until after her death in 1987.

A more contemporary figure is Papi Coxxx, a two-spirit Black-Boricua Taíno whose star status comes out of their engagement with the North American queer porn scene. Their position highlights many of the relational issues associated with the stardom; if we describe them as a star do we privilege their work above all others? Yet to resist the term is to deny the prominence of their position and the intensity of their talent. In TransEntities (2006), for example, it is their ability to bring to the fore many of the radical, up-front qualities prized among queer porn performers.

Equally, their lead role in Mommy is Coming (2012) directed by Cheryl Dunye (co-written by Sarah Schulman), is an interesting example of how stardom is subverted. Dunye – a renowned filmmaker – cameos as both well-known director and taxi driver speaking to her tendency to blur fact and fiction. It is an interesting development from her more well known films such as The Watermelon Woman (1996) – the first US black lesbian feature – and Stranger Inside (2001). She uses her “Dunyementary” style to get the actors to speak to camera about their roles, a technique used on many porn sites such as The Crash Pad, which in turn has featured Papi Coxxx. For Dunye, these techniques address directly the relationship between film representation and life. In porn, these interviews are some reassurance that what the viewer has consumed is ethical; that the actors not only have agency, but serious intellectual insight – one might use Audre Lorde’s term and say an erotics – behind what they do.

Finally, I include Portrait of Jason (1967) and Jason and Shirley (2015) here, if only to show how a figure in film might climb the ranks, socially and aesthetically, as Jason Holliday has. Jason, (who stands in front of the camera literally and figuratively playing himself in the former film and is later played with uncanny insight by Jack Waters in the latter), was, of course, a hustler. But this is also to highlight the relationships between cult star figures – Sarah Schulman stars in this film too as a cunning Shirley Clarke, an echo of her previous performance as an uptight archivist in The Watermelon Woman, consciously playing out the impact of her constructed whiteness in a way that is only felt in the tension between Jason onscreen and Shirley Clarke behind it in the 1967 original.

Though neither film is explicit, they play with the absolute openness and absolute mystery of the star. When Jason speaks to the camera there is a nebulousness inherent in the grain that depicts him. He died, and no-one knows where he's buried, but he embodied an ineffable position – part exploited, part canny to the game – that will forever highlight the tricky relations that mean obscurity for some, stardom for others.

Star People: Life in the Black Queer Firmament, by Jay Bernard