“I’m not really into black chicks.”
A little more than three years ago we got an inquiry from Yojani Hernandez of the NY LGTB Center. She’s the programer for their Lesbian Cinema Arts Series, and wanted to know if we’d let them screen ASHLEY AND KISHA: FINDING THE RIGHT FIT. Of course I said yes right away.
Like the rest of the Real People, Real Life, Real Sex series, ASHLEY AND KISHA contained utterly candid, unflinching depictions of love-making. Because of this opportunities for these films to screen publicly are rare. Even when they do come along, they don’t always go as planned, or go at all.
In 2007 a programer selected ASHLEY AND KISHA for the Mid-Atlantic Black Film Festival, but was overruled by her board of directors. Later that year, when a programer in Melbourne Australia tried to show ASHLEY AND KISHA as a part of the Melbourne Underground Film Festival, the police showed up and stopped the screening. Other things like this have happened with other of these films, so I was excited about a screening in New York, a screening I knew wouldn’t be stopped, a screening that I could attend.
A question that many people ask, and one that I’ve asked myself about a million times is, “Why did you put explicit sexuality in your films? Couldn’t you have made the same film without showing everything?”
It’s a reasonable question.
The inclusion of explicit sexuality makes it more difficult to find subjects, more difficult to find skilled crew, more difficult to get production insurance, more difficult to find DVD replication service, more difficult to get into film festivals, and more difficult to distribute the films (I’m sure there’s more, but that’s what comes to mind off the top of my head.)
My answer, to others and to myself, is that there are ideas that I wanted to explore and express about the human condition than can only take full-form in the context of sexuality, and that the sexuality must not be truncated, blunted, or lampooned in the manner that typifies Hollywood, art-house, or pornographic treatments of sex.
One of the reasons I was excited about the prospect of a New York screening of ASHLEY AND KISHA was it meant I could invite people who write about films to come see it.
In an age of DVD burners, screenings are regarded as more legitimate than mere DVDs, and I hoped I could get a critic or reviewer to come to the show, see how the film played for an audience, and maybe, just maybe, make a little headway on the idea that what I was doing was something worth serious consideration, and that in turn, serious consideration might lead to more sales. Film is, after all, the art of spending money.
The screening was sold out. In fact they were turning people away. Lots of them. But not because all the seats were taken by film critics. No one I invited came, and that’s a shame because they missed a really tense and illuminating director’s Q&A.
The audience, all women, and overwhelming women of color really liked the film, but they were not expecting the director to be a white man in his 40s. Without the context of being a part of series documenting couples from a diverse range of ages, ethnicities, and sexualities, many of the women wanted to know why I made a sexually explicit film about a young, black lesbian couple; their distress compounded by fact that they had enjoyed the film.
It was awkward. It was uncomfortable. I’ve never been more aware of my race and gender in my life; my moccasin mile, as it were.
My discomfort not withstanding, the screening was a huge success. We raised about $2,000 for The Center and with all the women who were turned away, Yojani thought we ought to have an encore screening. A date was set for later that Spring.
I tried to demur on the director’s Q&A but Yojani insisted. Maybe it hadn’t gone as badly as I thought it had. Anyway, this time I would be prepared.
I came to this second screening with a mini-version of our trade-show booth; a dressed table, our four-color sales brochure and business cards, and a bunch of DVDs stacked in artful piles. Of course I hoped I might sell a few copies, but more than that, it would give the audience the chance to see that ASHLEY AND KISHA was a part of a larger body of work, and diffuse, or at least soften any concerns about racial dynamic of a white man making a film about black women.
Then something happened that (again) made me conscious of my race.
The opening act was readings by an erotic writer; a woman in her late twenties. When she finished, about half the audience got up and left. Everyone who left was white. Almost everyone who stayed was not.
And then something else happened.
After the movie was over, I found myself talking to a women, white, a little order than me. I asked her what she did (because that’s what you do in New York) and she told me she was the director of a New York museum (that I won’t name.) All put together I could reasonably assume that she was the sort of New York liberal that non-New Yorker, non-liberals like to make fun off.
Then she said something that was not very liberal at all.
What she said, and offered as an addendum to praising the movie was, “But I couldn’t understand that one girl. She had really bad diction.” She was talking about Ashley, who spoke with a southern accent and idioms.
“The acoustics in this room are really boomy. It kind of eats up the softer sounds.” We were watching in a big, concrete-walled hall.
“But that one girl, the lighter skinned one. Her diction just wasn’t very good.”
“I’ve got to tell you, I edited this film. I’ve seen it literally 100 times and I know every line by heart. But the acoustics in this room are so bad that I couldn’t understand half of what Ashley said.”
And she came at me a third time about Ashley’s “diction” and I knew that they only thing that could happen was that things would get ugly, and I excused myself.
Yojani invited me back a third time.
Last year BRETT AND MELANIE: BOI MEETS GIRL had it’s world premier at The Center. Again it was a standing room only, all women; but this time some adjustments were made so no one was caught off guard at the end when the director was introduced. The director’s Q&A was one of those bathe-in-the-love moments I think every creative person daydreams about.
Afterwards a group of women (all black, btw) took me out for drinks, treated me like I was the most interesting man in the world, peppering me with question about my films and my life, and wouldn’t let me buy my own beer.
It was heaven.
Last week a writer I admire sent me a draft of an essay he was working on. I admire him because he tackles difficult ideas and takes unpopular positions using writing that is dense, difficult, and beautiful, and this piece was no exception.
Ostensibly it was about abortion, but by my read that was just an entry point to darker, more insoluable questions about innocence and suffering, and their role as a source of vitality in a culture.
I told him I thought the piece wasn’t ready; that I could see the outlines of his idea, but I felt like they needed to ripen.
I also told him I thought he should separate his thoughts on abortion from the broader argument he was making; that the inclusion of abortion didn’t pay sufficient dividends for its ultimate cost.
“But I see the two as inexoribly linked,” he said.
And I’m sure they are. I’m sure they are.