Lexi’s Project Proposal: Intersectionality through Black Queer Cinema

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Lexi White

March 17, 2013

Queer and Feminist Film


Final Project Proposal

In light of my interest in the genre of Black Queer Cinema and Black Queer Studies as a discipline, I would like for my final project to focus on analyzing how the politics of identity and intersectionality are portrayed through Black Queer Cinema.  I am particularly interested in two Black Queer Cinema films that I have seen in the past, films I hope to revisit so I can further research and analyze.

The first film is Marlon T. Rigg’s Classic Documentary entitled, Tongues Untied, a film produced in 1989 that largely addresses and portrays the culture of silence around black queer identity as well as the politics of exclusion in the white gay movement.  The second film is Looking for Langston, a British film also produced in 1989 by Isaac Julien.  This artsy memoriam to Langston Hughes similarly deals with themes of intersectionality between maleness, blackness, and queerness and the “othering” and violences that accompany this identity.  This film deals also with the theme of silenced identity due to celebrity and is set around the time of the Harlem Renaissance.

Interestingly, both films strongly incorporate an element of poetry as a tool for telling traditionally “unspoken” truths and creating space for candid dialogue and broken silence.  Through my final project, I hope to analyze and tell how the use of poetry in both films breaks silences that surround the intersectionality of blackness and queerness and how this broken silence manifests itself through the techniques of film that we have discussed in class so far.  Why does the filmmaker choose the particular poems? What images accompany the poems in the film and why?  How does film bring poetry to life in ways that the poetry itself might not be able to do with words alone.  Are there times when words and language yield more power than visual representation?

Marlon T. Riggs, a gay African American filmmaker, poet, activist, and educator portrays both fiction and personal narrative in Tongues Untied while highlighting themes of racism, homophobia and the multitude of violence that characterizes identifying with both blackness and queerness.  Riggs also addresses the HIV/AIDS epidemic in his film.  In order to delve further into the themes portrayed in this documentary, I am interested in reading more of Riggs work, including interviews he has participated in that relate to the documentary and other academic and activist work that relates to his central themes.  I would also like to read more of Riggs poetry and textually locate and analyze some of the poems and stanzas that appear in the documentary.  Furthermore, I am interested in reading scholarship about Tongues Untied and incorporating this into my analysis.  I found an article by Northwestern scholar, Chuck Kleinhans entitled “Ethnic Notions: Tongues Untied Mainstreams and Margins” that offers insight into intersectional black, queer identity and how these representations are told through Tongues Untied, in particular.  Another book that will serve as a source to my investigation is a book entitled Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity by Monica L. Miller.  Miller has an entire chapter dedicated to Looking for Langston where she parcels out what black dandyism looks like culturally and how this expression is portrayed amidst other forms of intersectionality in the film.

For the video media component of the project, I’d like to perhaps try my hand at pairing poetry and visual representation myself, and/or offering my analysis verbally while recording myself.  I’ve also considered adding a component of interview and reaching out to friends of mine in the black queer community to gain their perceptions of how poetry and film techniques are used in Tongues Untied and Looking for Langston.

A poet myself, I have always deemed poetry to be a vehicle for breaking silences and creating room for dialogue and told truths that conversational language doesn’t always allow.  Likewise, a new scholar to film after my experience in Queer and Feminist Film this semester, I am beginning to see how film, like poetry, has the capacity to break silences and offer visual representations of identity categories that all to often to underrepresented, misrepresented or not represented at all.  In analyzing the intersectionality of queerness and blackness as portrayed through Tongues Untied and Looking for Langston, I will simultaneously be learning about the intersectionality of two creative art forms: poetry and film, and their potential to work cooperatively in addressing issues of representation and notions of subjectivity.  I am really excited to take on this project and want to make sure I do not completely bind myself with this initial idea, as I think there is room for lots of creativity and changes that might arise with additional research.


3 thoughts on “Lexi’s Project Proposal: Intersectionality through Black Queer Cinema

  1. channabach

    This sounds like a great project. The poetry issue is really intriguing, and I love your idea about pairing poetry and visual representation in your digital video–I think this is going to let you build a strong visual & auditory argument in that medium, as well as build on in written form for your analysis paper.

    Miller’s book on black dandyism is fantastic. I think you’re going to find that very helpful as you’re thinking through your project. The Chronicle of Higher Education also recently published articles on the topic you may find interesting: http://chronicle.com/article/Black-Dandies-Fashion-New/135954/. Racialicious also has this piece: http://www.racialicious.com/2011/08/31/is-the-black-dandy-the-%E2%80%9Ccivilized%E2%80%9D-black-man/

    Obviously, the Kobena Mercer chapter we read will be quite helpful as Tongues Untied and Looking for Langston are the films he analyzes. You’ll need to figure out what unique angle you are taking on these films to avoid reproducing his argument/project, but I’m confident you’ll be able to do so–the poetry angle seems like a great place to start.

    Some more texts you might find useful: E. Patrick Johnson & Mae Henderson’s Black Queer Studies*, José Esteban Muñoz’s Disidentifications (he talks about both Riggs & Julien)**, Elizabeth Freeman’s “Turn the Beat Around: Sadomasochism, Temporality, History” (about another of Julien’s films but has stuff relevant to LFL)**, Julien’s writings in Queer Looks: Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Film and Video*, David Marriott’s Haunted Life: Visual Culture & Black Modernity*, Christy Adair & Burt Ramsey’s interview with Julien in Embodying Liberation**, Chris Cagle’s “Imagining the Queer South”**, Sharon Holland’s Raising the Dead: Readings of Death & Black Subjectivity*, Sharon Holland’s The Erotic Life of Racism*, Katherine McKittrick & Clyde Wood’s Black Geographies & the Politics of Place*, and Rod Ferguson’s Aberrations in Black**.

    The texts with * = books I have that you may borrow if you want
    The texts with ** = posted to the Readings page (scroll down to the bottom)

    Looks great!

  2. andreatreus

    I really love the idea of this project. It is great how you took something you are personally interested in and you are incorporating it into your final paper. Both films seem like very fit choices for your paper but you could also consider using Chocolate Babies because of the spoken word scenes.
    There are many interesting themes in Chocolate Babies and I’m sure analyzing the poetry they write can be very helpful. Chocolate Babies might also be helpful for this paper because of the strong emotion and body language that they use while they are presenting their pieces. This might help you answer one of your questions where you analyze whether or not film brings poetry to life in ways poetry itself might not be able to do with words alone. I also really like the way you want to do your video portion of the project!

  3. krels

    The analysis of Black Queer Cinema and its intersectionality with identities such as race, gender, and class sound extremely interesting. Your topic sounds extremely fascinating because of its complexity and portrayal in films. Will you be focusing on how Black Queer Cinema deals specifically with one issue in particular or will you be analyzing multiple issues using the framework of this particular movement?
    What you mention in regards to the exclusion of black males during the gay movement seems extremely relevant; even in today’s popular media’s portrayal of queerness, characters fit a particular mold of what it means to be an “acceptable” non-heteronormative individual. Black men in particular tend to be portrayed as hyper-masculine or violent and violent bodies where they are seen as dangerous. As you mention, they are shown as an undesirable “other”. Looking for Langston sounds like a film that would address the racism and homophobia that black queer men have had to endure especially during the 1920s. Will you only be focusing on black men or black queer women as well?
    The use of poetry within film sounds like it would be an extremely appropriate method to address the silence that surrounds black queerness. For some reason, this area of your research also really reminds me of oral traditions and story-telling that are so prominent in Black culture. I would be really interested in seeing how the directors of both of these films complement or even juxtapose the imagery created by the words of poem with the images found in the film.
    After you do more analysis, it would be really interesting to see if Riggs addresses similar themes or uses similar imagery in his poems as in his films to address homophobia or queerness. Also, an analysis of the fashion of black communities would be so interesting! I recently saw Paris is Burning and so much of this documentary focuses on the elaborate outfits that these queer black men wore to their balls. I think you have a very good idea of the research you will incorporate and of your topic!

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