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This is part two of a series in which we will explore black media that we all consumed and were shaped by throughout our childhood and teen years. Together we'll look at why there was so little focus on queerness within black media, leading to rampant homophobia within our own community, and leaving many of us to choose between being untrue to ourselves or shunned by those we love for the majority of our formative years. We will also look at media that did represent us but slipped through the cracks.
Faces on the Silver Screen
To start our film exploration of black queerness that isn’t male centered we look at The Color Purple (1985), a coming of age film by Steven Spielberg based off the novel of the same name by Alice Walker. It stars Whoopi Goldberg as main lead Ceile, and features a predominantly black cast, with only a handful of white actors appearing within the film as secondary and background characters.
While this film does fall outside of our specific time period focus and doesn’t necessarily dig too deep into Ceile’s sexuality, it's still important to make note of it because it is one of the first films that brings the topic of queer black womxn to the big screen. Thus provided for some of us the first examples of two black womxn loving one another in the media.
The Color Purple, both film and novel, focus on a young uneducated black girl living in the southern United States in the early 19o0s as she goes through life. Throughout the film we see Ceile dealing with physical, emotional and sexual abuse, as well as struggles with her own sexuality. In fact, throughout the introduction of her character, we see Ceile struggle with being intimate with men, specifically her husband, Mister, under the assumption it’s due to a lifetime of mistreatment and abuse by men. But when you take a closer look into the scenes, you will find small and subtle hints that her interest might just lie with womxn. And upon Shug Avery’s arrival, we not only witness Ceile’s interest in womxn further blossom, but the ways in which their interactions fuel an independence in Celie, pushing her to take control of her life. After a Juke Joint is built by Harppo, Mister’s son, Shug is doing a performance and dedicates it to Ceile. She sings a song that is both empowering and telling Ceile that she (Shug) knows about what Ceile is going through, her thoughts and feelings about womxn. The song secretly provides her the space to be more accepting of her own sexuality.
The Color Purple is a difficult film to watch, but it holds power in its subtlety. Ceile is never reviled to have any sexual attraction to another person regardless of sex or gender, however it is implied through her exploration of attraction with Shug that she slowly learns to find herself and her voice as years go on and Shug visits. Prior to 2010, The Color Purple currently stands as our strongest representation of queer black womxn in media, whcih says a lot considering how queer the movie was not.
The sad reality we must face when looking for representation in the 1990s is that it didn’t really exist. As mentioned in my previous post, the idea of queerness was seen as a problem to tackle or reject in black sitcoms, instead of something to explore or uplift. And in terms of any representation of black queer womxn in movies in the 1990s, I found two, The Watermelon Woman (1995) and Set it Off from 1996.
The creation of The Watermelon Woman goes back to 1993, when Cheryl Dune—a black lesbian who focuses on the exploration of race, sexuality and gender through her films as a film director, producer, screen writer, editor and actor—was doing research on black film history. The research that Dune conducted led her to create a story that focuses on black womxn in early film, with the hope of changing the way the film industry viewed blackness as a whole, especially black womxn protagonists who were only delegated to the roles of “the mammy,” even in modern media. In the film, protagonist Cheryl (played by Dune) explores how difficult it is to track the history of black lesbians due to the fact that Hollywood ignores or excludes them in most, if not all, their work.
The Watermelon Woman’s plot seems to parallel the actual creation of the film through the aspect of it’s basis of creation. It takes place in Philadelphia where a young lesbian becomes interested in films from the 1930s and 40s featuring black actresses who are often not credited for their work. After watching a specific film called Plantation Memories where a black womxn is only credited as “The Watermelon Woman,” she decides to make a documentary about the womxn.
The film is both a think piece about the vast history about uncredited and overlooked black womxn in the film industry, and fetishism of black womxn by their non-black romantic partners through Cheryl’s relationship with a white womxn named Diana.
Something to note: in my search for The Watermelon Woman I was only able to come across it on Hulu with a premium subscription to Showtime for anyone who wants to watch it.
Our final film of exploration of womxn centered queerness in the 90s is Set it Off (1996), starring Jada Pickett (Smith), Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox, and Kimberly Elise. This film follows four womxn in the heart of LA dealing with the struggles of living in the ‘hood and being poor. What was most refreshing about this movie is that it explicitly and directly showcases a black lesbian openly and happily loving another black womxn with true acceptance from her straight friends.
In Set It Off, Queen Latifah plays a butch lesbian who doesn’t pretend to be anything other than who she is, remaining true to herself and her orientation throughout the film. Even when obvious stereotypes that were often attributed to butch lesbians are being displayed, such as her boss referring to her as a man. Despite this, her character is neither demonized or ostracized by her friends. Cleo is one of the first out and proud queer black womxn on film or tv that I could find, which is both wondrous and sad.
And while Cleo does have a strong support system and is true to herself, it can not be overlooked that she was also written as an “one second away from going off the rails” character especially when looking at the context and subject matter of this film—a heist film. This is probably due to the fact that often in media and society’s eyes a butch lesbian was basically just a man with different genitals.
During an interview in 2017, Queen Latifah reminisced about the role, how she felt about it, and what she told her siblings in terms of playing it. “Listen, I’m playing a gay character. Your classmates might tease you or say negative things about it. But I’m doing it because I believe I can bring positive attention to the gay African-American community, and I believe that I can do a great job as an actor.” Knowing that there was such little respect and representation for black queer womxn, she took it upon herself to try and bring more positive attention, which in the long run, did help spark that positive turn.
Unfortunately, through this search of black queer representation in films, I only found that representation through black gay men. And while any black queer representation in film and media is important, it is extremely disheartening to spend hours looking for something that isn’t really there. From all of this, I think the important thing to take away is that even though we did not and still do not see enough of ourselves in media, it doesn’t mean any of us are less of a person because we are queer or that our history and stories aren’t just as important to share. Rather, it shows that previous generations have failed us, and those of us who are in the media and have the power to promote and present those lost narratives; we must do better for ourselves and those after us.
This concludes part two of our series--next we’ll at the turn of the millennium and the way that how the media sees us has or has not changed, especially with the continuing rise of black sitcoms.
Written By: Samantha Benjamin-Nolan