Tag Archives: Just As I Am

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.

Tribute to E. Lynn Harris

E Lynn

Yesterday, I woke up after sleeping most of the day away to find a text on my phone from my friend Randy saying that E. Lynn Harris had died.

E. Lynn is an icon.  For a lot of gay and bisexual men, E. Lynn wrote our lives (or, in his later books, the lives some of us wanted to live).

I discovered his books in 2002 when I was trying to decide what to do about my life having lived the previous years as a celibate man.  Invisible Life‘s cover art, a man caught between a man and a woman, drew me in immediately.  I saw it in a bookstore and I just picked it up and read that two-page prologue right then and there.

I was hooked and I bought it and Just As I Am up right there.

Unlike most, I think, E Lynn’s Invisible Life novels — Invisible Life, Just As I Am, and Abide With Me — confirmed for me that I was bisexual and that that was something that was okay to be.  I thought Raymond’s story was beautiful and it spoke to a tug of war that I was dealing with that I didn’t even know I was dealing with.

Though Raymond decided he was gay in the novels, I knew after reading Raymond’s story that bisexuality was real and that I was bisexual.  As E. Lynn wrote it, I understood perfectly why Raymond would fall in love with Nicole and Quinn and though I understood why the plot unfolded the way it did, for me, I knew that I would never make the choice that Raymond did, choosing one gender over the other.  And I set out to live my life as a bisexual man, of course, having no idea how to even go about doing that (still don’t, by the way).

E. Lynn gave me that.

Over the years, I’ve followed E. Lynn’s career, reading all of his books, attending his readings, and debating with my friends about whether Boris Kodjoe or Rick Fox would make the better Basil Henderson.  Though I haven’t enjoyed his books much since the Invisible Life saga, I appreciated that our stories were being told.

People often criticized E. Lynn’s later work for being simplistic and formulaic, which it was.  And the elements of the earlier work that I liked least — the name dropping and preoccupation with status — eventually overwhelmed his work. But even if he continued to turn out serviceable fiction like his latest, Basketball Jones, nothing he could have done would diminish the beauty, sincerity, and heartbreaking prose in the Invisible Life saga.

Raymond and Nicole were ambitious buppies, but they had deep insecurities and struggled to find a center in their frequently tumultuous lives, all of which made them relatable and human.  And Basil Henderson is probably one of the finest, most fully realized portraits of black male humanity in contemporary Black fiction.  While Raymond eventually receded into the background in later books, Basil’s emergence as the most complex individual in E. Lynn’s world was surprising, rewarding, and frequently quite moving.

E. Lynn apparently used to tell folks that he was no James Baldwin.  He’s wrong.  Invisible Life, Just As I Am, and Abide With Me are still completely unique, incomparable works that should be read every bit as much as Giovanni’s Room, Another Country, and Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone.  Like Baldwin, E. Lynn wrote about black love.  About its redemptive power. Its sometimes frightening intensity.  And its haunting, elusive beauty.

E. Lynn is a hero.  Little confused black boys and girls will pick up his Invisible Life saga for generations to come and get yet another glimpse of the beauty of black humanity and love.

Rest in Peace.

For the record, I still think Rick Fox has the stronger acting chops and would the better choice to play Basil, though Boris is what I see in my head when I think of Basil.