Activist Film and the Uncovering of Marginalized Perspectives

Ronald Reagan did not mention AIDS until 1987 when, as Benshoff and Griffin point out, “over thirty-six thousand Americans” had been diagnosed with the disease (204).  The first “mention of AIDS in a major Hollywood film” occurred only a year earlier, in 1986 (Benshoff and Griffin 206).  AIDS was no small phenomenon, and yet it for years remained conspicuously absent from discussion by the dominant culture, in no small part because many of those who had AIDS were members of groups that were not just overlooked but rather purposefully ignored by the dominant culture.  And when the dominant culture did seek to address the AIDS epidemic, even though it was necessary to address male homosexuality, it often failed to address the perspectives of the gay men who had the disease.  Mainstream film and television efforts to deal with AIDS were limited by considerations of a homophobic audience, and these projects therefore often placed gay subjects in the position of seeking the approval and sympathy of predominantly straight, white, middle-class viewers.   Films like Philadelphia, although important, aided in the marginalization of minorities with AIDS by deemphasizing the “other-ness” of those who contracted the disease by focusing on characters who have as many points of similarity with the dominant culture as possible.  (Benshoff and Griffin refer to this as the “‘tragic, dying wealthy white gay man’ formula”)(207). AIDS activists used film to combat this mainstream trend by rejecting the broadly (and often falsely) representative in favor of the personal and specific, and by targeting their own communities as an audience.  These films were not for the dominant culture, so therefore they could critique the dominant culture in a pointed and personal way, and address it to an already empathetic audience.

This rejection of the gaze of the dominant culture is evident in the “confrontational” nature of many of these films; their anger and bitterness is frequently on display (Benshoff and Griffin 213).  Chocolate Babies is very much made in this way, with its bright colors, raucous soundtrack, and flawed characters.   Chocolate Babies is not making the argument that its characters are deserving sympathy, and declines to get on its knees and plead the humanity of its subjects; it presupposes sympathy from its audience and chooses instead to rail against the lack of sympathy emanating from the broader culture.   The dialogue alone can make this point; the characters talk quickly, and often they talk over each other, so that it becomes difficult to parse what they are saying or even what is happening in a scene.  The film does not pull punches.  Male frontal nudity is a rare commodity in mainstream film, but Chocolate Babies has the character of Max in a sheer, revealing top without any particular reason for doing so, and with no comment.  It is as if the film wants to show everything, in defiance of what the dominant culture thinks is acceptable or tasteful.  Mercer describes this as a core aspect of films exploring black gay identity; Looking for Langston, for example, explored the “enigma and ambiguity” surrounding the sexuality of Langston Hughes (249).  The film thus explores repression in black culture, seeking to look at what has been covered up.  Chocolate Babies is not just interested in uncovering the ignored, however; rather it is interested in fighting back.  The film’s characters are part of a self-proclaimed “gay terrorist” group that attacks councilmen on the street.  One scene literally has Max smearing his AIDS infected blood on the face of Councilman Freeman, in response to that character’s desire to keep AIDS facilities out of that neighborhood.  Freeman states that he doesn’t think the neighborhood should be defined as being a neighborhood where there’s a lot of AIDS.  The film says, you can’t ignore us, we exist.  Similarly, the white, middle-class perspective is derided and ridiculed.  Melvin Freeman is accepted as a “black gay hero” by the white community at the end of the film, but the films main characters do not accept him as one of their own.

The Watermelon Woman (1996) is more in the vein, perhaps, of Looking for Langston than Chocolate Babies, but all have similar themes of exposing the ignored.  The main character in Watermelon, Cheryl (played by the film’s director, Cheryl Dunye) is a black lesbian who is researching the life of a black actress from the 1930’s who was referred to only as the “Watermelon Woman.”  Cheryl learns that this woman was a lesbian, and possibly involved with the white director of one of the films she was in.  In this sense, the film explores the aspects of history which were covered up and ignored by the dominant culture; in this case it was not just the sexuality of this actress, but also her name, thus denying a black actress her true importance in film at the time.  (For a succinct explanation of this, and of the film’s aim to uncover what has been hidden or ignored, check out this trailer.The Watermelon Woman also deals with racial themes that one also sees in Chocolate Babies, especially with regard to interracial relationships.  In Chocolate Babies, the main object is Sam, an Asian American who also does not have AIDS, thereby emphasizing his otherness.  This film does not deal as explicitly with fetishization as Watermelon, though, which explicitly addresses that concern.  When Cheryl begins dating a white woman, her friend Tamara is not shy with her disapproval, and her concerns are validated when Cheryl discovers how many black women and men her girlfriend has dated.  In both films, interracial relationships are held as at least somewhat suspect, and in some cases fraught.   In either case, though, the dominant perspective on this topic is rejected in favor of a more personal, specific perspective.  These films are activist in that they uncover what has been ignored.

Works Cited

Benshoff, Harry and Sean Griffin. “A Matter of Life and Death.” Queer Images: A History of Gay and Lesbian Film in America. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. 201-218.

Chocolate Babies. Dir. Stephen Winter. Open City Films, 1997. DVD.

Lez Trailer. “The Watermelon Woman.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 22 Sept. 2009.

Mercer, Kobena. “Dark and Lovely Too: Black Gay Men in Independent Film.” Queer Looks: Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Film and Video. London: Routledge, 1993. 238-256.

The Watermelon Woman. Dir. Cheryl Dunye. First Run Features, 1996. Netflix. Web.

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2 thoughts on “Activist Film and the Uncovering of Marginalized Perspectives

  1. channabach

    Your description and analysis of the ways different populations were constructed during the early AIDS epidemic is great—succinct, thought-provoking, and weaves together a number of complicated processes and trends.

    Similarly, your reading of Chocolate Babies is very well done. You do a lovely job of explaining how the film mobilizes activist rage to critique the interlocking systems of racism, classism, and homophobia in the AIDS epidemic. As you put it, the film “declines to get on its knees and plead the humanity of its subjects” in favor of a “you can’t ignore us, we exist” aesthetics and politics.

    The connection to Watermelon Woman is a good one, particularly around the issue of tokenism and interracial desire in the context of structural violence. Have you seen this film? It might be interesting as well to think about Watermelon Woman’s archival practices and critique of historical narratives in relation to the ways Chocolate Babies incorporates found footage and theatrical performance to intervene in histories of AIDS and urban space.

    Well done.

  2. jtolan1990

    The history of AIDS is always a weird issue for me, because on the one hand, I grew up being indoctrinated into the atmosphere of ACT UP and all that crazy activisty stuff, but on the other hand, I wasn’t really around to experience all of my friends dying around me. In any case, I feel confident in saying that “marginalized” is term that does not seem strong enough when it comes to people with AIDS in the 80’s and early 90’s. Let’s not forget that at one point Americans were actually having serious discussions about sending people with AIDS to interment camps and exterminating them. Yes, we often focus on the silence of Ronald Reagan and the media in general, but actually, there was a significant amount of very explicit, EXTREMELY aggressive language directed at people with AIDS and there was no shying away from the association it had with gay men.

    Anyways, I think one interesting thing to bring up is the importance of documentaries in giving silenced people a voice, or at least, giving them a place in the record books. ‘How to Survive a Plague’ and ‘United in Anger’ both recently came out covering the AIDS epidemic and ACT UP in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and revealed a lot of things to a young queer audience, and a general audience that they had probably never heard before. I mean, beyond the social stigmatization, AIDS is a silencer because it kills you. It removes your voice forever. As a young queer activist, I’m always aware of the lack of elder voices that are available in feminist and racial justice communities. Queer don’t really have a lot of elders. They died. There was a plague, and they died. And most people wanted them to.

    Being able to put together documentaries about queer histories gives a voice to all of those people who were killed, and, I think, is massively important in carrying on the fight for queer justice now that a new generation has taken the reins.

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