According to Harry Benshoff and Sean Griffin, AIDS activists in the 1980s and 1990s used film and video to counter mainstream media images of AIDS, unveil police abuse and governmental indifference, document their own experience of the crisis, empower the queer community, and recruit people to their cause (212). Kobena Mercer explores how black gay artists have used the film medium, especially its capacity for montage and expression of disparate styles, to address hybrid identities. Though these essays deal with different topics, Chocolate Babies seems highly relevant to both, which speaks to its location at an extreme intersection of race, sexuality, artistic expression, and an international health crisis.
Both articles cover the theme of a compound style of filmmaking for the purpose of self-representation and resisting various forms of violence, which sheds light on the techniques used by the director Stephen Winter in Chocolate Babies. The movie is an exciting mix of influences, from early music videos to underground subcultures and cinematic realism. The director combines found news footage with fictional scenes—interrupting the mass media’s hold on truth, which is typical of AIDS activist film as Benshoff and Griffin describe it. The authors explain that these films, “tended to be unruly, confrontational, and more than willing to break with the usual conventions of cinematic or televisual form,” drawing on 1960s experimental film traditions, blending historical footage of protests with elements of autobiography and fiction (213). The compound style of the film seems completely appropriate considering the myriad issues that the movie addresses. It seems like classic Hollywood conventions simply could not be the container for a work that fights a whole range of urgent and deeply troubling issues concerning those on the margins of representation (homophobia, racism, drug abuse). The somewhat chaotic format of the film and its rollercoaster-like pace mimics the complex identities and struggles of the characters.
Though they don’t fully develop the point, Benshoff and Grifin do briefly touch on how queer activist film challenges viewers in more than one way: “Like the street protests and zaps enacted by previous generations of queer activists, AIDS activist videos were meant to effect change via confrontation shock effects—to entertain and educate but also to educate about the very nature of entertainment” (215). The subversion that is embedded in the formal properties of Chocolate Babies is essential to supporting the content of the film. The unusual narrative arc, lack of character identification, intense “attacks” on the camera (actually government representatives) all disorient the viewer, removing the viewer from a safe place of easy recognition and categorization. Mercer claims the styles of Riggs and Julien are about the contradictions of real life, which leaves viewers with more questions than answers, and this seems highly relevant to the mode of filmmaking evident in Chocolate Babies (246). Chocolate Babies resists the Hollywood “master codes” of filmmaking just as it resists Hollywood ideology, neat stereotypes, and identity categories. The hodgepodge style of the film works and carries meaning because the film is about people at the borderlines, who are part of several communities and who are working to assert their individual voices as multidimensional results of diverse influences.
Lorna Simpson is not an activist in the same way that Stephen Winter is, but she is one of the most interesting contemporary artists whose work “confronts and challenges narrow, conventional views of gender, identity, culture, history and memory” (lsimpsonstudio.com). The installation piece, Corridor, is not aggressive or overtly political like Chocolate Babies, Tongues Untied, or Looking of Langston; however, like these works, it exemplifies a hybrid style (drawing from Vermeer, jazz, American Revolutionary folk tunes, early video art) that is crucial to artists investigating complex identities of members of society that are often left out of mainstream American narratives. The use of video (cheap and accessible) and the quotidian acts performed by the two juxtaposed women bring history closer to viewers, making them confront some of the major themes of the black female experience throughout history. These videos demonstrate how women have operated within a patriarchal framework and how even with progress, the remnants of that position linger. What both of these women across time and space have in common is that their daily actions are shaped by the demands and desires of males that are off-screen (master, lover). Though never explicit, Simpson’s work poetically asks viewers to consider the way violence against women and African Americans permeates everyday lived experiences.
Link to Corridor: http://lsimpsonstudio.com/filmvideo03.html
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. 1997.
Corridor. Dir. Lorna Simpson. 2003.
Looking for Langston. Dir. Isaac Julien. 1989.
Lorna Simpson Biography. http://lsimpsonstudio.com/biography.html Web. 29 Jan. 2013.
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.
Tongues Untied. Dir. Marlon Riggs. 1989.