Performer and Northwestern University Dean E. Patrick Johnson discussed his new film and the importance of reclaiming storytelling agency in a virtual Q&A Lambda Legal hosted Aug. 9.
Johnson, dean of Northwestern University's School of Communication, answered questions about Making Sweet Tea, a documentary on Johnson's own one-man show he adapted from his 2008 oral history of Black gay Southern men, Sweet Tea. Making Sweet Tea follows Johnson as he interviews the subjects of his show while also preparing to stage a production at his alma mater. Johnson served as executive producer on the film.
The event's host, Roderick Hawkinshimself a subject of Johnson's book, though not the play or filmcredited Johnson with helping "reclaim" Black and queer narratives that had been ignored or coopted by outsiders.
Johnson said that effort at suppression is what gave the stories their power.
"The ability to tell your own story in your own words, your own voice, is such a powerful thing for us," Johnson said. "We have fought to tell our own stories."
Throughout the Q&A, Johnson offered insight into the film's production as well as the lives of the film's several subjects, which included a hairdresser and former drag performer, a Unitarian minister, and a near-centenarian who went by Countess Vivian.
Among the most challenging aspects of the documentary was an "experimental" sequence in which Johnson performed for his interview subjects the portion of the play based on their testimony.
"They've gifted you their story and you are trying to reflect their lives back to them in their own space in a way that is not going to caricaturize them or diminish their experience," Johnson said.
He noted the broad range of responses he received from his subjects, which included droll critique and emotionally fraught revelation.
The documentary also delves into Johnson's relationship with his hometown of Hickory, North Carolina. Johnson said he was initially an "unwilling participant" until he was persuaded by the filmmakers to include his own story.
Johnson grew up in poverty in Hickory before becoming a successful academic and, according to local scholars, the town's first Black resident to receive a Ph.D. The town has since come to celebrate Johnson, going to far as to proclaim a day in his honor in 1996 after his degree was conferred.
Making Sweet Tea was initially due to play at several film festivals this year, most of which are now virtual. The filmmakers are also working on getting the documentary picked up for distribution.
If they are successful, Johnson said, all proceeds from the film will go to a scholarship fund for LGBT students attending historically Black colleges and universities.