Black Gay Men: The Issue of One-Dimensional Film Representation

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Moonlight is a 2016 American coming-of-age drama film written and directed by Barry Jenkins.

Roar writer Sara Khash discusses the representation of Black gay men in film and TV.

Last year during Pride Month, marches of colour took the streets of cities around the world. This year has seen a shake in the system, and the world stirs for racial equality. The Black Lives Matter Movement, not new but growing, has caused a political upturn in the US, calling for a change in the UK and unity around the world. However, is there a conflict between the two movements? During the month of Pride, are Black LGBTQ+ members forced to choose between their race and their sexual identity? According to Jared Hudson’s article, ‘Why All the Limp Wrists? Black gay male representation and Masculinity in Film,’ the conflict might be a consequence of one-dimensional representations of Black gay men on screen.

Representation of the Black community in the media has been a standard method of political propaganda to diminish the role of people of colour in society. In the 1800s, American music was born through Minstrel Songs, where white men would blacken their face and mimic songs first sung by slaves. In Ava DuVernay’s documentary, 13th, the role of the media is discussed in terms of creating a criminal stereotype of the Black community to force them back into slavery within the prison system. An example of this is the watermelon, which had once been a symbol of black self-sufficiency and freedom; however, following the subversion of the Jim Crow era, newspapers responded by using the fruit to create an image of a lazy and unclean Black American. Barack Obama’s opponents also used the reference as he ran for election.

In his article, Hudson refers to the harm of “a group of people [being] negatively represented in a certain way.” As seen by the media’s effects on the Black community, such representation not only influences “an audience’s perception” on the “oppressed group,” but also “that group’s own perception of themselves.” Applying Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality, which discusses layers of oppression in the contexts of race, class, gender and sexuality – as Black gay men, their category forces them into not one but two factors of oppression.

Understandably, there is a political agenda behind such a limited presentation. By presenting one-dimensional characters on TV, we not only limit Black gay men’s identity;  the lack of complexity also insinuates they are nothing more than a supporting role to the white lead. In Hudson’s words, “confining Black gay men to a certain image…does not give them any room to express other identities.”

According to Hudson, most representations of Black gay characters are reliant on the theme of masculinity. Hegemonic masculinity, by some referred to as toxic masculinity, is a portrayal of masculinity dependent on influential power. In his article, Hudson discusses the fixation of Black gay male characters’ conflict with their gay “feminity” and black “masculinity.” Bryant Alexander’s definition of the “Black masculine aesthetic” is as follows: “strong, assertive hyperaggressive, [and] hyperheterosexual.” When a Black gay character is “not the stereotypical effeminate black gay male” – such as, for example, Damon in Friday After Next – “another character in the film is paired with him to implicitly take that place.” The storyline is not of a Black man who is also gay, but it is of a gay man who must prove he is not too feminine.

Movies such as Dear White People and Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom are commended for their lack of fixation on a “stereotypical black gay man.” While the films refer to the characters’ sexuality, it “does not become its main focus” and instead is treated as a given – “something that is normal.”

After the publication of the article, Moonlight has premiered and received praise for showcasing greater representation of “their three-dimensional beautifully human glory.” Nonetheless, Eric Effiong, in another recent production, Sex Education, follows the stereotypical supporting feminine gay friend to a white lead. While the representation has had a positive influence in the LGBTQ+ community, and carefully depicts the relationship between Eric and his family, it does not stray far from the stereotype that limits the Black gay community.

Hudson well-rounded conclusion calls for a broader representation of Black gay men – they should not be a category to be checked off, so that a film or TV show can be considered “progressive.” Vanessa Morgan, who plays Toni Topaz in Riverdale, criticised her own role in the series, which follows a generic idea that such characters should be seen but not heard. The entertainment industry has no right to exploit the lives of these already marginalized groups and make their identity feel inferior to white heterosexual leads. According to Hudson, “their intersectional identities make them unique” and such uniqueness should not be pushed aside; instead, it should be used to express the beauty and the complexity of what it means to be human.

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