Watermelon Woman to Moonlight: Twenty Years of Black LGBTQ Indie Films

 

In a year when diversity in Hollywood has #OscarsSoWhite as its rallying cry, it’s worth taking a moment to look at the quality of work that is actually being produced, screened and hailed by audiences and critics alike.  This season’s breakout film MOONLIGHT is already sparking Oscar talk and GLAAD has been shining a light on it as a story that needed to be told and must be seen.

MOONLIGHT is not without its peers, though, as it is the latest in a long line of groundbreaking independent films by African American content creators.  Here is a look at some standouts over the past twenty years.

Cheryl Dunye

The mid-1990s saw a period of civil unrest targeted against the African American community, including a rash of arsons that destroyed more than 66 Black churches over a period of 18 months.  Against this backdrop and at this same period of time, on a budget of $300,000, financed by a $31,500 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a fundraiser, and donations from friends, Cheryl Dunye became the first black lesbian to produce a feature film (her first).

The Watermelon Woman posterSet in Philadelphia, THE WATERMELON WOMAN (1996) is the story of Cheryl (Cheryl Dunye), a twenty-something black lesbian struggling to make a documentary about Fae Richards, a beautiful and elusive 1930s black film actress popularly known as "The Watermelon Woman."  While uncovering the meaning of Fae Richards' life, Cheryl experiences a total upheaval of her own personal life. Her love affair with Diana (Guinevere Turner), a beautiful white woman, and her interaction with the gay and black communities are subject to the comic yet biting criticism of her best friend Tamara (Valarie Walker.) Meanwhile, each answer Cheryl discovers about The Watermelon Woman evokes a flurry of new questions about herself and her future. At the films conclusion, the Watermelon Woman is clearly a metaphor for Cheryl's search for identity, community, and love.

The film, which premiered in the iconic Castro Theatre in San Francisco, garnered Dunye the OUTFEST “Audience Award”, the Teddy Award at Berlinale, the Taipei International Film Festival "Golden Horse" Award, and the Torino International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival "Audience Award", among others.

Cheryl Dunye presentMore recently, Los Angeles’ OUTFEST Fusion (the only multicultural LGBT film festival of its kind) kicked off its 2016 fest with the US Premiere and 20th Anniversary screening of the digital restoration of THE WATERMELON WOMAN, and featuring a panel discussion moderated by Cheryl Dunye on the influence her classic film has had on the next generation of filmmakers.  Cheryl has been invited to become a member of the Academy for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

In an online interview earlier this year, Dunye said:

“I think that’s what THE WATERMELON WOMAN really talks about, this reclamation of the pluralities that we hold in our identity.”

 

In 2001, Patrik-Ian Polk, with producer Babyface, created a film that followed the trials and tribulations of a group of gay African American friends, exploring universal aspects of sexuality, attraction, friendship and music.

PUNKS movie posterPUNKS set out to capture the reality of how gay men speak, act and relate in bars, sparking a refreshingly fresh image of how LGBTQ people engage with each other at a time when images were rare.  Polk created four characters based on his own observations of how black gay men in bars, known in local slang as “punks”, related to each other, and to others, within the world outside of those four walls.

In an interview around that time, Polk stated:

"This movie was always intended to be the definitive depiction of the gay, black experience.  But it's also about characters who are going through things we all go through, gay, straight, bisexual, black, white, whatever. We all live and love."

PUNKS' themes were later used for the 2005 LOGO cable television series Noah's Arc.  Polk also nabbed an NAACP Image Award nomination for his direction of Noah's Arc: Jumping the Broom.  In 2012, Patrik Ian Polk released the film The Skinny, in which he wrote, directed and produced. The film tells the story of five friends who are Brown University classmates (four gay men and one lesbian) as they reunite in New York City for Gay Pride weekend.  The Hollywood Reporter wrote that this film “depicts its milieu with unflinching candor and enough detailed information to practically give it the air of an instructional video.”

 

Written and directed by Rodney Evans, BROTHER TO BROTHER tells of the glory days of the Harlem Renaissance through the memories of Bruce Nugent, co-founder of the revolutionary literary journal Fire!! with iconic authors Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Wallace Thurman.

BROTHER TO BROTHER movie posterThe film tells the story of Perry, a young black artist kicked out of his family home for being gay. Trapped between the worlds of the black community and the gay community, Perry searches for a connection in the real world. As his friend Marcus is performing his new poetry, an elderly man appears seemingly out of nowhere and begins reciting verse to them. He disappears just as quickly and elusively as he arrived. In his library research for a class project, Perry finds a book about the Harlem Renaissance and recognizes a poem—"Smoke, Lilies and Jade" by Bruce Nugent—as the same one that the man was reciting. Soon they encounter each other again at the homeless shelter where Perry works. When Perry confronts Bruce about who he really is and begins to ask him about the Harlem Renaissance, the two men embark on a literal and metaphorical journey to the creative center for the younger, rebellious generation of the Harlem Renaissance.

Although the house is now dilapidated, BROTHER TO BROTHER visits the landscape of Bruce's memories, which exposes Perry to the legacies and hardships of pioneering black authors. By witnessing the pride that Bruce and friends exuded, Perry begins to gain a stronger sense of identity. Awarded the Special Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, the Grand Jury Award at the 2004 Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Festival and many other top festival awards, BROTHER TO BROTHER is a moving testimony to the transformative powers of history, art and storytelling.

 

Among the many other lauded films are Still Black: A Story of Black Transmen (2008), Change (2011), Pariah, the 2012 GLAAD Media Award winning limited release film, and NAZ AND MAALIK.  The latter is a film that, over the course of one Friday afternoon in Brooklyn, two closeted Muslim teens have their secretive lives rattled by FBI surveillance. Intimate and meditative, NAZ AND MAALIK examines the mysterious forces that animate teenage minds.

Moonlight PosterAmong this year’s Oscar-buzz films is MOONLIGHT, inspired by the short play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by Tarell Alvin McCraney.  This film is an intensely personal and timeless story of human connection and self-discovery chronicling the life of a young black man named Chiron living in a rough neighborhood of Miami told in three acts; from childhood and teenage years, with Chiron struggling with his own sexual identity, masculinity and feelings towards his friend Kevin, all set against the backdrop of a challenging home life, to adulthood and finding his place in the world, and ultimately reconnecting with Kevin as grown men.

At once a vital portrait of contemporary African American life and an intensely personal and poetic meditation on identity, family, friendship, and love, MOONLIGHT is a groundbreaking piece of cinema that reverberates with deep compassion and universal truths. Anchored by extraordinary performances from a tremendous ensemble cast, Jenkins’s staggering, singular vision is profoundly moving in its portrayal of the moments, people, and unknowable forces that shape our lives and make us who we are.

GLAAD is committed to the fair, accurate and inclusive portrayal of our diverse LGBTQ community across all platforms of entertainment media on the very simple premise that media has the power to accelerate acceptance of LGBTQ people by simply and creatively telling their stories and celebrating their lives within a media platform that has the power to shape the narrative of our lives around the world.