by Jay Bernard
As a fan of the gay bash that is BFI Flare, I was struck by this statement:
It would be irresponsible of us to leave it up to organisations like the BFI […] to have more representations of positive black queer and non-queer experiences. At best, all they can offer is tokenistic gestures.
It’s from “The Diversity Test” by Christina Fonthes and was published on this site a month after the festival. The problem of representation has faced black people since we first arrived in meaningful numbers some time around the sixteenth century, and – given the BBC’s recent issues with jolly good racist tunes, the wan spectre of Nigel Farage and Maggi “I didn’t care about the fucking slave!” Hambling – the problem persists. But I was struck by the above quotation because it highlighted another problem: that of fetishising oppression.
I use “fetish” in a loose Marxist sense of “being overcome by [Capitalism], into the core of our being, into all our habits of thought, all our relations with other people.” For to be radical these days is to be marginalised, economically disadvantaged, struggling, all the time, relentlessly, in perpetuity, ad infinitum, forevermore, and to see value in that dynamic. Note that the statement is not that oppressive racism doesn’t exist. It does. It can be a system as well as a particular action; it’s about impact rather than intention and reverse racism is a dubious concept. With that said, I want to turn to some of the arguments presented in Fonthes’ article in the broader context of the festival.
While it is good to point out that the systems in this country suffocate a lot of black talent, the film festival is not a producer of content. It programmes what has been made from countries all over the world. This position does not absolve it of responsibility, but as an institution it is far more diverse and open than Forthes’ article allows. If we look at the film festival and understand the context of the above quotation, cries of a “whitewash” do not stand up to scrutiny. This is just one of the problems that I want to address, stemming from the assertion that there were only six black films worth counting; the corollaries being that a) this is a distorted, inaccurate view of the festival programme and context, b) it plays into a troubling trend of subjectivity-laden analysis among QTIPOCs (and queer people in general), and c) it undermines and erases the work of black organisers who have worked within the festival, as well as being thoughtful allies. The point is not to undermine the concerns of “The Diversity Test”, which are well-founded, but to reorient the discussion and show how the line it takes undermines its own objective.
The following films were listed because they meet the criteria of having “two or more (named) main characters that are black.”
- The Abominable Crime – a documentary exploring homophobia in Jamaica
- Veil of Silence – a documentary exploring homophobia in Nigeria
- Trans Lives Matter! Justice for Islan Nettles – a moving document of a community vigil for Islan Nettles, a victim of transphobia
- Born This Way – a documentary about homophobia in Cameroon
- Fashion Girls – a documentary about a group of gay men and transwomen in Brazil talking about their lives and their dance troupe
- Big Words – a feature film about a group of black American men who used to be in a hip-hop band
The complaint was that four were about black homophobia and two were about “black people singing and dancing.” The problem with this situation is that a) the criteria appears to be arbitrary – it does nor conform to the Shukla or the Johnson, nor any other racial form of the Bechdel test I could find – and b) the films are decontextualised. Black characters that did not meet the criteria were present in films such as G.B.F, Valencia: The Movie/s and The Out List. And these films were screened in the context of the opening gala with Lilting by Cambodian director Hong Khaou; a QPOC shorts programme entitled “A Family Portrait”; an entire programme of Queer Bollywood; and Club Kali at the River Front Cafe. The point is not to undermine the specific desire for blackness but to point out that blackness is not solely opposed to whiteness. A festival without a huge selection of films made by/featuring specifically black characters does not mean the festival is a “white-only affair” – other racialised ethnicities exist and their representation is also part of the work that is happening to de-centre whiteness.
Moreover it makes little sense to shoot down an event that explicitly aims to be diverse because it hasn’t sufficiently met personal criteria this year for a specific ethnicity. Not only is this disingenuous, it does not take the long view. In 2009, DIVA published an article about queer cinema’s “Black Moment” which saw record entries, including black./womyn.: conversations with lesbians of African descent, U-People, Society, Still Black, Dreams Deferred and TV series-cum-film Noah’s Ark. Pariah, of 2011, was a hit. 2012, saw Pratibha Parmar’s biopic of Alice Walker, Beauty in Truth. Last year the What’s in a name? campaign was written and directed by QPOCs Faryal and Aleem Khan, and featured Stud-Life actor T’Nia Miller. This in the context of a building that houses the mediatheque where you can see numerous black queer films from the archive and the Reuben Library, where you can look it all up.
Two difficult questions emerge. If we take the issues within the film industry as given, does the lack of black films this year simply reflect a fallow period? And what is a realistic expectation for the numbers of specifically black films at the festival? Not only are we a minority within a minority, we are also subject to the commercial forces of the industry. BFI Flare is a moderate-sized festival with a great reputation (The Guardian called it too good for its own good in 2008), but it cannot compete with the London Film Festival, Sundance or Cannes. Within that, black filmmakers must often make a choice about whether they wish to serve their community at a grassroots or international level. Many opt for the latter, which means smaller festivals miss out. And, of course, many black filmmakers are not queer. It would be great if there could be a Pariah every year – but that is not how any creative industry works. Some years, you’ll get Gabourey Sidibe and Quvenzhané Wallis. Other years you won’t. At the moment it’s all about Lupita Nyong’o and her win against the mainstream beauty standard, yet less attention is paid to this aspect of her Oscar acceptance speech:
“My complexion had always been an obstacle to overcome and all of a sudden, Oprah was telling me it wasn’t. It was perplexing and I wanted to reject it because I had begun to enjoy the seduction of inadequacy.”
What is so seductive about inadequacy and why is it so difficult to accept even small successes? Autostraddle, in a response to an article in The Baffler that accused them of being “Queer Cosmo”, gave an excellent answer:
The idea seems to be that the only way for a community’s radical politics to be taken seriously is if they present themselves as abjectly poverty-stricken and marginalized […] The subtext is that queer voices are only valid when they’re articulating their pain and oppression, but never their small pleasures or pop culture interests; that the best and most valuable part of ourselves is our marginalization.
My fear is that as a community, QTIPOCs (and queer people in general) are fetishising oppression in order to maintain a semblance of radicalism. We have bought into the idea that we are only valuable when there’s a boot on our neck, only radical when at the bottom of the pile, rather than adapting our rhetoric to accommodate the progress we have made. David Lammy’s infamous “one black caribbean student at Oxford” article in 2013 showed how narrow statistics not only undermined his justified cause, but also provided fodder for his detractors. Likewise, the irresponsible use of the term “privilege” means a once useful idea has been mocked and parodied in the press. “Check your privilege” now comes in scare quotes.
We persist because there is the titillating image of a khaki cap and Havana cigar, because rebellion has social kudos and because it absolves us of responsibility. For to acknowledge that we might have some power is to accept that we have been successful in attaining some of our demands, and that we might need to change our tactics to further succeed. But doing this is scary. It can be easier to maintain our position and misdirect our anger. If we accept that we want to continue progressing, then we will need a coherent notion of what it is we’re trying to create, independent of, not in binary opposition to, the structures that exist. A discourse that avoids this kind of fetishism and reflects on the complex nature of the situation would be a good start. Sometimes the critique is better aimed inwards, not out.
The cumulative effect is that “The Diversity Test” renders invisible the work of the one programmer of colour for the past six years – Nazmia Jamal, and the previous work of Campbell X and Topher Campbell, even as it claims not to. (Disclosure: I am a friend of all of these people.) Ultimately the call to arms at the end of “The Diversity Test” is psychological suicide; it’s like saying to someone about to run a race “Everyone is against you, you’re probably going to lose, but good luck anyway.”
Given the masochistic nature of the proceedings, I’m surprised that Killjoy’s Kastle, programmed by Nazmia this year, wasn’t mentioned. It was re-created in the atrium by Allyson Mitchell and Dierdre Logue, who produced a full-scale haunted house in Toronto last year, complete with demented women’s studies professors, ball busters, pussy juice and the graves of dead feminist institutions. It was a parody of the American Evangelical tradition of building haunted houses every Halloween to perpetuate religious dogma. The event was blogged about by Kalmplex, a black queer artist who stated that although they enjoyed the tunnel of love, it was basically “some deep cracker shit.” Said blogger was offended because glitter had been thrown near their shoes and someone had blonde dreadlocks which they believed mimicked theirs, but mostly they highlighted the manner in which they missed the point of the show. Mild furore ensued.
In terms of a discussion about race – specifically about black people and our relationship to the festival – Killjoy’s Kastle had much potential as a talking point. As a piece of art (that is by no means flawless) it brought up many of the concerns in “The Diversity Test” – racial insensitivity, blindness, cultural appropriation and the role white people must play to ensure a fairer festival, as it cannot just be us who do all the soul searching. De-contextualising those six films when there was a walk-in installation that questioned – and figuratively killed – the cultural legacy that leads to inequality, says something about an unwillingness to see how the debate has shifted rather than it does about the festival itself. For most troubled by the perpetual presence of racism, a self-effacing Kastle full of recurring issues that just won’t die, would add something to the debate. But here’s the rub. If you’re looking at the world through the same lens as “The Diversity Test” then the Kastle is just another problem: it is outward facing, it builds on the past rather than erasing it and it takes its tone and ambition from the idea that achieving something is the best revenge.
The Shukla Test:
“The Shukla Test, for books, films and television where a) two main characters who are people who of colour b) talk to each other without c) mentioning their race.”
1. It has to have two POC in it.
2. Who talk to each other.
3. About something other than a white person.
Brief piece on Shadow and Act about the cycle of black filmmakers / film festivals
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Jay Bernard is a Londoner; is currently part of the Complete Works II and was joint winner of the Cafe Writers Prize 2014; was Cityread Young Writer in residence at the London Metropolitan Archives 2013.
This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing curated and edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.
As well as responding to current concerns and events, it’s a space for writing that endures, for cutting-edge ideas and approaches that fortify and inspire. The articles you will find in this space will show clarity without jargon, careful thinking that takes risks, runs off with ideas but doesn’t compromise on rigour.
- “Blacks around the table” Absent from the Academy (mediadiversified.org)