I just finished listening to the Mister Cee Hot 97 interview and here’s the thing that I think is getting lost in this conversation about this interview: there is genuine love and respect and compassion between two, and then three, black men who are discussing non-heterosexual sexuality.
Ezra Miller is quite eloquent in an interview with AfterElton on why he self-identifies as “queer”:
AfterElton: You routinely refer to yourself as “queer,” which I love. It’s an old word, but it’s kind of a new form of self-identification.
EM: It’s true! And it’s a different form of LGBT culture for sure. It’s even almost defiant of each of those letters. It’s kind of wonderfully all-encompassing. I’m all about it. I’m all about that word. I think it’s incredibly useful just as we head into an era of a more indiscriminate and open spectrum of human gender and sexuality. I think it’s good for us to have a word that isn’t so ultimately definitive, that leaves room for people to always be discovering and exploring who they are as a loving being.
AE: It’s defiant of that expectation to narrowly self-assign, I think, but it still aligns you in camaraderie with everything “LGBT.”
EM: Well, right. It’s funny how quickly so many heteronormative standards have crept their way into conventional gay culture. I think already even though we’ve done an incredibly productive cycle of opening up gaps in human rights in this particular area, I think there’s a whole new recycle that has to take place.
I find it incredibly interesting how white LGBT activists and other gay-identified folks are thoroughly comfortable and deferential to Ezra Miller’s desire to claim “queer” rather than “gay” or “bisexual”, even as they seem intent (here, here, here, and here, just to name a few) on forcing Frank Ocean into the LGBT framework (is he bi or gay? did he “come out”, etc).
I mean, even the most cursory search of Ezra Miller on AfterElton or any other gay-identified website reveals a consistent use of the term “queer”, but do the same search on Frank Ocean and you find that the more standard LGBT identifiers (most notably that he “came out”) predominate. In fact, I find that there is often hostility to the fact that he refuses to claim any label at all, particularly after his GQ interview.
Apparently, black self-determination is always something to be questioned or, worse, ignored.
It was while watching Episode 3 of Season 2 that I began to realize that Kaldrick King, played with remarkable focus and depth by the phenomenally talented Andra Fuller, was quite simply the most complex and truly human black homosexual male character ever on television.
Kal throws a party, hiding his pain and anguish in plain sight, when Infinite Jest, a young upstart rapper played by Steven James, challenges his throne. The rap battle between the two men provided the show with the opportunity to underline the fact that Kaldrick King is a performance, a ferocious character that is suffocating the real man even as it is quite literally the only thing he has left. It’s no surprise it takes him a second to drop the pose long enough to stop the beat down of Infinite Jest. Moving in and out of Kaldrick King is just getting harder and harder to do.
I’m not entirely sure why folks are so upset at Omari Hardwick’s comments about how he played the role of a confused gay man in For Colored Girls:
Shadow and Act: In Tyler Perry’s “For Colored Girls,” you played Carl. He was the closeted husband to Janet Jackson’s character. How did you develop that role?
OH: Well, I can’t relate to being gay. It was a challenging role.
Shadow and Act: How was it a challenge?
OH: It was a challenging role for me because I am a black guy. And white guys like Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal can play those types of roles and their audiences will say that the roles are artistic.
Shadow and Act: So you feel that the role was challenging because the black community does not support roles like Carl?
OH: The black culture perceives roles like that one in a negative light.
Shadow and Act: How did you prepare for that role?
OH: I focused on being a deviant person. I focused on doing something wrong. I was lying to my wife. I was lying to these men. I prepared for the role by closing my eyes and thinking of times when I had lied.
Shadow and Act: You did not focus on the sexual orientation of Carl to get into character?
OH: No, because it’s like how could I do that really well? I focused on being deviant.
Shadow and Act: Did you tap into your own sexuality to build the role?
OH: You want me to explain how I used my heterosexuality to build this role?
Shadow and Act: Yes, I do.
OH: Okay, let me know if this is what you mean. There was this one time while we were filming in New York, where I was testing myself. l challenged myself to run through Central Park and behave like Carl. I wanted to see how I would run and live differently as my character.
Shadow and Act: And what did you find out about your character during this run?
OH: I did not get through the run without checking out women. It’s a natural instinct. So, that’s why I solely focused on being deviant. But you know what? Some of the greatest actors have played gay men. Anthony has played a gay man. Jeffrey has played gay. When it’s all said and done, I am secure enough with my manhood to say to the world, “I am a male actor, and its okay for me to play a gay man.”
Rod thinks he doth protest too much, but it seems to me like Hardwick is saying (in an admittedly inarticulate way) that he focused less on his character’s sexuality and more on the fact that he was lying to everyone in his life. That doesn’t strike me as offensive.
Citing Brokeback Mountain I think is telling because it suggests that he’s talking less about sexuality itself and more about the construction of “the DL.” It isn’t just that the black community might respond more negatively to a black man playing gay than the white community does to a white man playing gay. It’s that the reaction Hardwick is talking about is specifically about “the DL” and the reaction of black people in the context of the way that term has been pathologized as a uniquely black problem. Carl is a reviled character because he’s “DL” not because he’s “gay.” Hardwick doesn’t articulate this well because he is likely conflating the two terms (as many people do).
It’s important to remember that it wasn’t Carl’s story being told in For Colored Girls. Carl wasn’t a character, he was an archetype. J.L. King’s DL concoction in full effect. A black woman’s worst nightmare. We weren’t asked to contemplate Carl’s torment, his self-loathing, his struggle, or his humanity. He existed to contribute to Tyler Perry’s weird and virulently inhumane re-working of a masterpiece. Nothing more.
I think we do want actors to put in the best work they can and try to infuse even the flattest and most ridiculous characters with dimension, but I don’t even know what playing Carl more “gay” would have looked like – or what that even means.
It’s easy to get distracted by Hardwick’s inarticulate comments here, rather than sustain a critique of Perry’s bad writing and penchant for anti-homosexual sentiment in his films. But it’s not really the real problem.
The deal that E. Lynn Harris and Tracey Edmonds struck to make a series of feature films based on Harris' Invisible Life is historic. This is not just one feature film about gay and bisexual black gay men and black women. It's a series of films about gay and bisexual black men and black women.
It might sound hyperbolic, but there is actually no way to understate just how important these films are going to be. Gay and bisexual black men have almost always and only been portrayed in films as stereotypes and they have too infrequently appeared as the center of a film narrative (with Noah's Arc: Jumping The Broom the most prominent and most problematic, as a result). So these films represent a real opportunity to portray gay and bisexual black men and black women as the complicated, messy, three-dimensional human beings that they are.
If Edmonds and Co. are smart though they will treat the films exactly the way that Warner Bros. treated the Harry Potter films* – with a keen understanding that a world must be built and sustained over the life of the films, a world that most Americans have never seen before and will have to (at the very least) believe and appreciate, if not outright love.
Because there is real danger in these films, real danger in reinscribing harmful, narrow, representations of gay and bisexual black men, black women, and black culture. Harris was unafraid to introduce characters in melodramatic, and sometimes stereotypical, ways and then graft tremendous dimension on them in later books. As a writer juggling multiple perspectives, he understood how to balance the essential humanity of his character and the way that characters were perceived by other characters.
The filmmakers must do the same, and they have to do it earlier in the books in order for the films to work as a series**. Raymond has to be more than just self-loathing, Kyle has to be more than the life of the party, Nicole has to be more than a BAP, and, critically, Yancey and Basil have to be understood as deeply damaged people first, monsters second. The filmmakers have to resist the urge to oversimplify. The early films must be set in the 80s and the later films must reduce the bourgie name-dropping that infected the later books.
And the films have to stay true to the fact that some of the characters do horrible things to one another but for reasons that make sense to them. For instance, they have to keep in mind that John Basil Henderson emerges as the single most complex character in all of Harris' work and, perhaps, the single most fascinating and complicated portraits of a modern black male in contemporary African-American fiction.
And perhaps most importantly, the first film, Invisible Life, has to be Raymond Tyler's story, not Nicole's. Ever since Oprah inflicted JL King on America, we've been inundated with the trope of the DL black man as demon, hellbent on destroying the black community and killing black women***. That cannot happen here. The film will not succeed unless we emphathize with Raymond's inability to choose between Nicole and Quinn and understand why it is so hard for him to do so.
Anything less will be a failure and an insult to Harris, the books, and the audience.
*And like Warner Bros, the filmmakers should cast unknowns in all the principal roles. Though I could see an actress like Irma P. Hall readily as Mama Cee.
**When it comes to Basil and Yancey, the filmmakers should really study the way David Benioff fleshed out Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones so she felt like a real person instead of a cartoon villain as she is portrayed in the books. In fact, the filmmakers should study everything Benioff did with GOT.
***The one exception is the cancelled-far-too-soon The DL Chronicles, in which creators Quincy LeNear and Deondray Gossett did a magnificent job exploring the many ways that sexuality is manifest in black communities.