As the 16th Annual Pan African Film and Arts Festival ( PAFF ) comes to its conclusion, I thought I'd take a few moments to offer further commentary on Hollywood's Black Gay Conundrum. [ Ed. note: The festival ran Feb. 7-18. ]
This year, like in years past, PAFF offered a diverse selection of quality films from and about the African Diaspora to enthusiastic audiences at the AMC Magic Johnson Crenshaw 15 Theaters in Los Angeles, otherwise known as the Black theater. From documentaries to narratives, there was no shortage of independent Black cinema to go around.
One of this year's most popular films was Bill Duke's Cover, a film about the down low—surprise, surprise. Cover was so popular that one encore wouldn't accommodate the hundreds of people that showed up to see it, so a third screening was added. Starring Aunjanue Ellis, Razaaq Adoti, Vivica A. Fox, Richard Gant, Mya, Louis Gossett, Jr., Leon, Paula Jai Parker, Roger Guenveur Smith, Patti LaBelle and Obba Babatunde, Cover tells the story of Ryan Chambers ( Leon ) , who is murdered on New Year's Eve; the prime suspect is Valerie Maas ( Aunjanue Ellis ) , a church-going homemaker whose life unravels when she discovers that her husband ( Razaaq Adoti ) of 15 years has been leading a double life. Her strength of character and faith keeps the family alive as a deadly disease threatens to destroy all that they have known.
Cover screened three times in the heart of what is left of Black Los Angeles in front of hundreds. In fact, the festival could have sold out another screening had they added one.
And, yes, this is the same AMC Magic Johnson Theater that I argued Dirty Laundry should have opened up in last year instead of West Hollywood simply because of its gay content.
Dirty Laundry starred Rockmond Dunbar, Loretta Devine, Jenifer Lewis, Terri J. Vaughn and Joey Costello, with a cameo appearance from Dr. Bobby Jones, and followed the life of an African-American gay magazine writer with a near perfect life after turning his back on his southern roots by escaping to New York City—until an 11-year-old boy changes everything for him and his partner.
Like with Dirty Laundry, Cover shares a stellar cast—a stellar Black cast.
Cover was set to open in limited theatrical release last week on Feb. 22. Limited as in Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York, Philadelphia, Newark, and Baltimore. Limited as in this Black movie will have the benefit of opening up in traditional Black neighborhoods, a luxury that Dirty Laundry was never afforded which might have—no make that directly resulted in its being pulled from theaters about a week into its very limited engagement.
Film festivals, in particular Black film festivals, give prospective distributors as well as the filmmakers a direct link to their audience. If it does well at a festival, it's likely to do well in a limited or national release. Many films, including those that went on to win Academy Awards, got their start at film festivals, and the buzz went from there.
That's why film festivals continue to play a critical role for independent cinema.
One stark difference between Cover and Dirty Laundry is the way in which its gay, albeit down low or bisexual, characters are portrayed.
Dirty Laundry is a film that features a Black openly gay character that's not on drugs, a prostitute, on the down low, a hair dresser, choir director or sashaying all over the screen.
You know those stereotypical representations of the gay community that seem to envelope most roles that call for Black gay characters. Which is not to say that I'm hating on those types of brothas, but just like all lesbians aren't Cleo ( Queen Latifah in Set It Off ) , all gay men aren't fabulous finger-snapping hair dressers. Add to that, Dirty Laundry is rated PG-13. There's no sex or violence in the film.
Cover, on the other hand, deals directly with Black America's infatuation with all things on the down low. Since J.L. King and Oprah opened up the subject nationally for mainstream America, there has been a never-ending stream of books and films on the down low. Why? Because it's a popular, yet taboo, subject for Blacks.
However, Cover tells the typical and, for me, tired story of the brotha who did the sista wrong. We've been there and seen that before. It doesn't necessarily portray gay men, bisexual men or men on the down low in the most positive light—not that you need to in order to discuss the down low. But the plot that always includes the sista done wrong is a bit overplayed and does nothing to address the reason why the down low exists in the first place. Instead, it continues to point the finger of blame while using an all-star cast to keep its audience enthralled.
Like filmmaker Tyler Perry, the filmmakers behind Cover have already begun signing up HIV/AIDS organizations and Black churches nationwide to go out and support the film on its opening weekend. Because this film speaks more to the good Christian sista done wrong, it's finding strong support amongst the Black Christian community. However, I am not sure how much Cover is really going to do to continue the conversation on why the down low exists in the first place. I am more concerned with further ostracizing Black gay and bisexual men.
In fact, one might argue that this film, given its gaining popularity, might set back the advancements that Black gay groups have been making within Black America on this very subject. However, only time will tell on that one.
What I do know for sure is that Black films thrive when they are made available to Black audiences, which means screening in urban theaters. It doesn't hurt if that subject matter happens to be about the down low and is cloaked in a script that allows good Black Christian folks to flock to their local theater without fear of being labeled as gay.
I guess the proof will be in the numbers for Cover. After looking at the film's major success in Los Angeles during the Pan African Film and Arts Festival, this despite a less than complimentary review in Los Angeles' mainstream alternative newspaper the L.A. Weekly. With strong grassroots support from the Black church community, HIV/AIDS groups, and good old word of mouth, the filmmakers might just see decent enough numbers to keep them in theaters for more than a week. The flipside? If that happens, you can bet that the subject of how to spot a man on the down low, or my favorite, ten things to look for in your man to tell if he's gay will find new life in Black America via nail salons, beauty shops, pulpits, and on urban radio stations nationwide. Been there done that. What we need to be discussing is how our phobias created the down low and continues to force people into living lies as opposed to pointing the finger of blame which does nothing in the long run to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS in our communities or to bring us closer together as a people.
At 30, Jasmyne A. Cannick is a critic and commentator based in Los Angeles who writes about the worlds of pop culture, race, class, sexuality and politics as it relates to the African-American community. She can be reached at jasmynecannick.com or myspace.com/jasmynecannick.