I write about culture from a pro-Black perspective

Getting the ‘Invisible Life’ Movies Right

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.

Posted on July 10th, 2011 - Filed under Books,Film,Sexuality
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Still Thinking about the Relevance of Kenny Greene’s Death

This piece was originally written for Epinions.com. An archive version of it can be found here. This is a slight revision, I liked the original but some things needed clarification for me.

Most people probably don’t even know who Kenny Greene is. Most people don’t even know the buzz that was going on in the industry about this guy before he died in October of 2001 of complications due to AIDS. I could go on and on about how talented he really was and how, at least for the R&B; community, he will be missed. And I will, but there is a greater more meaningful purpose to this editorial. And if it gets even one of you to pick up an album by Kenny’s group INTRO, that’ll be enough for me.

Kenny Greene, a black man, looks to the skyKenny Greene started out as one-third of the R&B; trio INTRO. They dropped their eponymous debut album in 1993 and it spawned the hits, Let Me Be The One and Why Don’t You Love Me. And their astonishingly daring ballad Come Inside may have spawned a generation in the same way Marvin’s Sexual Healing did. And it is just as good a song. Look at any guy or girl’s sex mixtape and I guarantee it is on there. They are credited with taking the New Jack sound farther, giving it what would ultimately be called a “neo-soul” flair. Kenny’s writing and arranging was so critically lauded that he and Dave Jam Hall (you know the guy who actually produced Mary J. Blige’s What’s The 411? and much of Madonna’s Bedtime Stories) tied with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for ASCAP’s Songwriter of the Year in 1993. If you don’t believe he is great you know Mary J. Blige’s Reminisce and Love No Limit? Yep, Kenny Greene wrote them.

INTRO’s first album was stellar and more accomplished than any of the debuts by the male groups coming out at the time. If you listen to Shai’s …if i ever fall in love or Silk’s Lose Control, H-Town, Portrait, any of those guys, INTRO’s music is much more assured and complex. Kenny’s arrangements were definitely influenced by the classics, none more than The Blue Notes in my opinion. And over the new jack beats, there is a freshness that is timeless in a way those other albums I’ve mentioned will never be.

But their second and final album together New Life fixes all the small things that were wrong with the first album. The backgrounds are more pronounced and the production is dialed down a bit. The lyrics are much more insightful, none more apparent than on the metaphoric richness of the title track, a Stevie-esque ode to renewal. Kenny Greene’s ability to take simple arrangements and merge them with a modern context made him a hidden gem in a bedrock of more showy neo-soulers who couldn’t find a way to make their influences mesh with a modern context. The fact that he and INTRO didn’t last is a testament to the radical, and subtle songwriting that didn’t quite fit with neo-soul or new jack swing. And it speaks volumes about how knowledgeable the average R&B; listener is NOT about the complexities and nuances of songwriting.

In July of 2001, Kenny Greene came out as a man who had been living a life as a bisexual. It was important for him to do so because he had been irresponsible and the pressure to be a straight man in the alpha-male world of being a black man and a R&B; singer was enormous. He didn’t want to allow the pressures and hate that goes on toward gay and bisexual men in the R&B; world to go on in secret. It was important to him to make sure that people understood that what they see isn’t necessarily who the artist is.

I’m not excusing Kenny’s actions, but it must have been excruciating. Let us remember that this was the early 90’s, pre-Ellen, pre-Will and Grace, before Greg Louganis came out, before Melissa Etheridge was a household name, before the countless gay-themed movies, Queer as Folk , and Rupert Everett and George Michael came out (officially).

And in the black context it was before Dwight Ewell’s gay militant in Chasing Amy or Michael Boatman’s Carter on Spin City . Why do I say that? Well think of other prominent black gay actors or characters in the media. There aren’t any. And Ewell and Boatman aren’t even gay.

The black population is overwhelmingly Puritanical, due almost entirely to the Big Brother-like presence (and importance) of the church in our history and culture. Black people are frighteningly homophobic mostly because black masculinity in this country has historically been linked to his ability to procreate. The more women a black man got pregnant the more valuable he was to the master and the economy of this country. Sexuality and virility in black men is intrinsically linked to economics. But more interestingly, our Puritanical pariah-like faith is a direct response to our oppressors who said one thing in the name of God and did the exact opposite. For black people, it wasn’t about lip service but real spirituality and faith. And while that is changing, the mindset prevails.

Kenny Greene was in a high profile position where he was making very erotic and sensual music and if the public knew it could have been about a man, it would have sent shock waves through the black community…in a way that we may not be ready to deal with. This is inexcusable. In my mind, a population still persecuted should not persecute another, but I’m smart enough to know it is not that simple. The bottom line is Kenny Greene’s music was damn good and no one in our community could have dealt with the ramifications of intense sexual and emotional bonds between men. And since he was bisexual, the not knowing would have made it worse. We like our demons and hatred clear-cut in America. Context is just too much for our minds. He’d have been run out of the industry.

Kenny Greene was a man who never really got the opportunity to really grow. Mary J. Blige got her start with Kenny Greene’s music but since then we’ve gotten a chance to see the woman and artist that she is. Kenny doesn’t have that luxury. The growth between the two INTRO albums is astonishing and those albums are nearly 10 years old. It is daunting a task to think about where he could be. Perhaps he could be where R. Kelly was. Perhaps he could have surpassed him. Possibilities are endless. His time in the industry was just under 10 years and he had only did a handful of stuff. His backing vocals for everyone from Will Smith to Cam’ron will never be indicative of the burgeoning talent in the man.

Posted on October 13th, 2003 - Filed under Music,Sexuality
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