Celebrating Black LGBTQ History

By Jason Green, February 2016 Web Exclusive.

The documentary is an interesting film genre. To be done properly it must find that perfect balance between entertaining and educational. It needs to present the facts but, at the same, time be interesting enough to keep your attention. It is difficult to get it that formula just right.

While there are numerous documentaries that pair this recipe for success with LGBTQ themes, only a handful that narrow that focus to African-American same gender loving folks.

In celebration of Black History Month, we’ve highlighted 10 documentaries that tell the stories of black LGBTQ individuals, groups and movements. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Paris Is Burning

Paris Is Burningwas the first time the world was allowed a peek into the Harlem ball scene and into the “houses” of which the scene is composed. Before Madonna gave us “Vogue,” Jennie Livingston gave us Willi Ninja, Paris Dupree, Pepper LeBeija and Octavia St. Laurant. It was unlike anything seen before and the world was captivated by it. BeforeParis Is Burning, no one knew what happened to these inner city kids that were kicked out of their homes for being gay. Here we see that they formed their own community, their own families, and these families [these houses] would compete against each other on the runway. Following the release of this film, some of these individuals became household names. And vogue-ing would become one of the biggest dance sensations of the ‘90s.

2. The New Black

This project, by Yoruba Richen, takes a look at the struggle for marriage equality in Maryland. In what was a baited effort to bid the African-American community against the LGBTQ community, several individuals that comfortably and boldly claimed both their black and gay identities, decided it was important to take action and not allow this attempt at division succeed. These individuals took to the streets educating folks on the importance of marriage equality, registered people in an attempt to increase voter turnout, and exposed the opponents of equality for their bigotry and bias.

3. Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin

This is the story of a man who, until recently, received none of the credit he deserved for spearheading and organizing the 1963 March on Washington, for bringing together the African-American community and the labor movement, and for instructing Dr. Marin Luther King Jr. on the proper methods of non-violent, peaceful protests. There were many African-American leaders during the civil rights era that assumed Bayard Rustin’s involvement with the movement would be detrimental to their efforts because he was an openly gay man. Many blatantly stated that the civil rights struggle was one that should not involve itself with a homosexual. Thankfully, King was realized that Bayard’s skills in activism and organizing were not just an asset to the movement, but also undeniably essential. Rustin was the key element in engaging with community, bringing together protesters, and organizing the mass transport of hundreds of thousands of folks from across the country to the lawn of Washington, D.C.

4. James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket

One of the greatest voices of the African-American civil rights era, writer James Baldwin brought us works including such notable titles as Giovanni’s Room, Notes of a Native Son, The Blacker the Berry and The Fire Next Time. In the Price of the Ticket, we get to see Baldwin talk about his activism for black equality in the 60s, his time living abroad and his famous peers that would pop up on Saturday evenings just to drink and party with him. A fantastic writer and an equally gifted orator, Baldwin was a much sought after speaker. He shared the stage in debate with some of the greatest minds of the era, including William F. Buckley and Malcolm X. For fans of literature and anyone interested in the history of the civil rights movement, The Price of the Ticket is a must to add to your library.

5. Call Me Kuchu

Focusing on homophobia in Uganda following the creation of their “Kill the Gays” bill, which garnered worldwide attention, Call Me Kuchu does a marvelous job showcasing the level of hatred and intolerance this country has toward gays and lesbians. The world watched as this country attempted to pass legislation making homosexuality a crime punishable by death. It should be noted that this is not the only documentary that visits other countries and puts the spotlight on their homophobia. Stephen Amos’ Batty Man spectacularly delves into the anti-gay culture of reggae and the fear of living as gay in Jamaica and the United Kingdom’s “Dispatches: Africa’s Last Taboo” is another film that takes us to the continent of Africa and addresses how same-gender loving folks are treated. What each of these films does very well is bring notice to how LGBTQ community members are unfairly treated in communities around the world.

6. Tongues Untied (or any film by Marlon Riggs)

There are currently some great black filmmakers developing projects that speak from the experience of being black and gay. But before there was Patrik Ian-Polk, Maurice Jamal or Dee Rees, the only filmmaker creating projects for black gay folks was Marlon Riggs. Tongues Untied, Black Is . . . Black Ain’t. Color Adjustment at all films that offer a unique perspective into the world of same-gender loving African-Americans, HIV-positive African-Americans, African-Americans in the creative, artistic sphere and various other groups that, until Marlon, did not have a voice and were almost invisible. A brilliant filmmaker and creative genius, Marlon died way too young from complications from HIV.

7. Jumping The Broom: The New Covenant

At one time, before marriage equality became a reality in the U.S., there were serious discussions by many leaders in the black gay community as to whether or not same-sex marriage was something the community should be focused on. Some thought the issue was one exclusive to white gays. Then slowly, but surely, a few states began to do the right thing and grant marriage equality to its gay and lesbian constituents. In more than a few of those states, the first same-sex couple to get married was a black couple. This trend proved that not only was marriage equality an issue for the black community, it was a priority. This incredible documentary by Debra A. Wilson follows four same-sex couples, each in long-term relationships, who all with the desire to get married and legally spend the rest of their years with their respective partners.

8. ENDGAME: HIV in Black America

African-Americans are the new face of HIV/AIDS. More than half of new HIV infections in the U.S. are African-American, despite the fact that blacks only make up 12 percent of the population. Blacks are disproportionately infected and affected by this disease. But for some reason, this continues to be a topic that is omitted. It is seldom discussed by black churches or by nationally recognized black leadership. When it is discussed it is mostly rhetoric, finger pointing and passing of blame. It is now time for the community to move beyond determining who is at fault and get to the business of getting people tested, getting those positive individuals connected to services and finding a way to stop the transmission of the virus. ENDGAME brings awareness to this taboo issue, that most would like to continue to disregard, by forcing African-Americans to address the elephant in the room.

9. Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story

Anyone paying attention to the recent trend of athletes coming out may have noticed that the significant number of names that are African-American. In 2014, there was baseball player David Denson. Just prior to that there was Derek Gordon and Jason Collins in basketball and Michael Sam in football. But as we develop this list of black same-gender loving athletes, don’t overlook the incredible boxer and world record holder Emile Griffith whose story has been captured in the documentary Ring of Fire. Here, we learn about his rise to the top as a boxer, his career-defining fight, which lead to the death of Paris “The Kid” Benet and his struggle with his sexuality. In the film, Griffith is quoted as saying, “I kill a man and most forgive me, I love a man and many say this makes me an evil person.”

10. Just Between Us

For a film that includes some of the biggest movers and shakers in the black same-gender loving community, this documentary is almost unheard of by most. It addresses such diverse issues as HIV/AIDS, coming out and living on the down low. The roster of names represented in the film includes the likes of Maurice Jamal, Bobby Blake, Faith Trimel and Sharon Bridgforth. Creative minds and community organizers discuss the evolution of the black gay community, the importance of black gay pride events, and the importance of individuals living their lives honestly and authentically.

Editor’s Note: Most titles are currently available on Amazon.

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