By Elliot Owen
Bay Area Reporter
It’s a well-known fact that the world’s best queer cinema is screened at the annual San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, a 38-year-old event produced by LGBT media arts nonprofit Frameline. That said, having a film selected from nearly 800 international submissions and receiving a coveted slot in the festival’s line-up is no small feat.
Award-winning black, queer masculine-of-center filmmaker Cheryl Dunye has done it over a half-dozen times, her well-known pieces being The Watermelon Woman in 1996, a “mockumentary” starring Dunye as herself; Stranger Inside in 2001, a story about an incarcerated black lesbian; The Owls in 2010, a film about the accidental murder of a young queer woman; and Mommy Is Coming in 2012, a risque lesbian rom-com.
This year, Black Is Blue is making a highly anticipated debut. Dunye’s short chronicles the complex identity-related feelings of Black, a black transman working as a security guard in Oakland, after he runs into an ex-lover. In just 21-minutes, Dunye is able to leverage one character study to explore experiences that many transmen of color regularly undergo.
“As prestigious and popular trans dialogues are emerging,” Dunye said, “there’s a message coming across – which rings true for every marginalized community – it’s not just about what we’re lacking or how we’re physically different, it’s about emotional experiences. This film represents the shift in that conversation. We’re not talking about Black’s physical transition, but more about his emotional landscape. It’s about how multiple identities function, being black, trans, and masculine, and what’s running through your head as you have your inside and outside to deal with as well as memories from past identities.”
Starring noteworthy actor Kingston Farady, 31, a queer black transman, defense-side investigator, and trans advocate, Black Is Blue premieres Friday, June 20 at 7 p.m. at the Roxie Theatre (3117 16th St., San Francisco) as part of “Realness and Revelations,” an 85-minute collection of shorts featuring queer and trans people of color, and again on Thursday, June 26 (7 p.m.), also at the Roxie as part of “In The City of Shy Hunters,” an 82-minute collection of shorts centered on the stories of transmen.
Black Is Blue is the first narrative of its kind. The film’s debut comes at a particularly poignant time, adding to the burgeoning wave of trans visibility led by Orange Is The New Black actress Laverne Cox and New York Times bestselling author Janet Mock, powerhouses that have become queer community sweethearts, and the general public’s reference point for language around transgender identity.
But up until now, Farady pointed out, representations of transmen within popular culture have received significantly less limelight and been limited to white and Asian-Pacific Islander-identified transmen – never black.
“I’m excited to see transwomen of color receive the attention they deserve because it does trickle down to all trans people,” Farady said. “Due to patriarchy and the constant attack on femininity, there’s an urgency there that doesn’t necessarily exist for transmen. Not to erase attacks on transmen, but transwomen are murdered at a higher rate than any other person in the country. They need to be in front leading the movement. Then there’s the flipside of wanting to see my brothers at the table at some point, too. People still believe someone like me or Black doesn’t exist. Black Is Blue is about building a consciousness around black transmen, filling the void and stepping into that space.”
As Dunye detailed it, the seed of Black Is Blue was planted a year ago as she was meeting more queer and trans-identified people of color in Oakland. She wrote the script leaving room for Black’s character development, an intentional decision meant to provide collaboration space for her and whoever would eventually step into the role.
“When I put the call out to find a lead I was given Kingston’s information,” Dunye said. “I knew when we first sat down the character would be shaped by his experiences. I talked to a few other people about the role but Kingston came along and that was it. He exudes a sense of dimension, a sort of a royalty; it’s wonderful.”
Initially, Farady had reservations about joining the project which, he said, had nothing to do with Dunye, and everything to do with his own awareness around the misrepresentation and exploitation of trans people. But he wanted to hear from Dunye first before making a decision.
“I knew her prior pieces of work,” Farady said. “I love the way she holds complexity and creates pieces that allow the audience to be curious. A story centered around a black transman in Oakland was compelling to me. Also, Cheryl wanted to focus not on the physical aspects of transition, but the ways someone emotionally and socially transitions. After three or four full conversations, I knew the film was something I could do with her.”
There’s also something to be said, Farady added, for Dunye’s intentional decision to cast a black transman to play a black transman.
“When I see characters with certain identities,” Farady said, “whether it’s race, gender, or even sexual orientation, played by people that aren’t that identity, it feels like a parody to me. Without even saying it, Cheryl’s choice to cast a black transman to play a black transman expresses that she knows black transmen are worthy. Not only is this film about non-erasure, Cheryl is backing that up by filling the lead role with someone from the community.”
Shot exclusively in Oakland, festivalgoers can expect to experience the film’s provocative storyline set afront skillful cinematography that captures Oakland’s charming familiarity, urban grit, juxtaposing socioeconomic environments, and natural landscapes.
To purchase tickets, visit www.ticketing.frameline.org/festival/film/detail.aspx?id=3292&FID=51.