Philadelphia’s 18th Annual QFest, held July 12 through the 23rd, featured over 100 international Queer and LGBT films. Sponsored by TLA Entertainment, the collection was a testament to what corporate funding on a wide scale can mean for Queer programming. As a miserly cheapskate (tickets were around ten dollars per movie), I assigned myself the task of sifting through the myriad films about white gay guys in love for a few promising flicks about Black lesbians. The three films I settled on were Stud Life, the first narrative feature by UK-based filmmaker Campbell X, Mommy is Coming, a Feminist Porn Award winning skin-flick directed by Cheryl Dunye, and Bumming Cigarettes, a short film by tiona m.

I first came across Stud Life because of the fanfare that it has been receiving in the lesbian blogosphere, in part because of Campbell X’s candid conversations about the difficulty of casting for a genderqueer role. The film centers around JJ (T’Nia Miller), a wedding photographer and stone butch, and her best friend, white gay man Seb (Kyle Treslove). Their close friendship is tested when JJ meets Elle (Robyn Kerr), the obligatory sexually assertive femme fatale.

JJ and Elle’s tumultuous relationship is dissolved when Elle reveals she is a sex worker (*gasp!*), which JJ justifies by equating her job as a professional dominatrix with not being a real lesbian. My high femme sensibilities were sincerely disappointed with the use of this tired trope. More confusing still is that when Elle is under attack for her hustle, instead of sucking her teeth and saying “butch, please!” before telling her to find the front door, Elle continues to try to sway a JJ  and even physically assaults her to get her to stay.

The violence in Stud Life is one of the lingering conflicts that I have with the film. There are two gay bashings and two instances of lesbian on lesbian violence in this 83-minute film. While I know from experience that life as a Black lesbian can be the Hobbsian state of nature (i.e. “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”), why are we always offered cultural artifacts that highlight us beatin’ on each other?

If Stud Life is “a post-modern LGBT She’s Gotta Have It for the YouTube generation.” as BlackmanVision bills it, its similarities to that Spike Lee film are its friendly brand of misogyny, and focus on the consequences of female sexual agency. Some of the writing is perplexingly patriarchal, such as this line by JJ: “all women want cock, on them, in them…” Thank you for that mirror on my clandestine longings, but unfortunately, no.

Bumming Cigarettes premiered at the festival to a packed house during the women of color short film program entitled “Blacks, Blues, and Other Hues.” Known for her film black/womyn: conversations with lesbians of African descent, and her forthcoming Untitled Black Lesbian Elder Project ,tiona m.’s work turns a lens on Black lesbians at different junctures on their life paths.

Doubtlessly a call for Black womyn who have sex with womyn to practice safer sex, the film also highlights the role of healthy relationships in making that possible. The protagonist Vee is in relationship limbo with her former/current partner, a professor who recently stepped out with one of her students, thus sparking the uncertainty that drives her to get tested. While waiting for her results, Vee meets Jimmy “The Mayor” of Gayborhood streets since 1989, before gentrification made them “boring.”

The short friendship that forms between Vee, convincingly acted by the gorgeous Alia Hatch, and Jimmy “The Mayor,” played by James Tolbert forms the crux of the fourteen minute picture. Beyond introducing the term “divo*” into my lesbian lexicon, the short glimpse of intergenerational support between a lesbian and a gay man was refreshing and rare. As a sick/crippled dyke, I appreciated the vulnerable way Jimmy speaks about the urgency of finding and the sadness of losing love when your life seems to have an expiration date.

After my ambivalent viewing of Stud Life, and the dramatic tone of Bumming Cigarettes, I need to see a movie with tons of strap-on sex, bondage, domination and mommy play. Thus, I concluded my Q Fest with Mommy Is Coming by one of Black Queer filmmaking’s statespeople, Cheryl Dunye. This film is a porno, staring Papi Coxx and lots of big silicone dicks. A lift from the heavy mood of Bumming Cigarettes, Mommy is Coming stars Papi Coxx of The Crash Pad Series as “old school butch” Claudia who is in very lusty love with Dylan (Lil Harlow), a switch-y ice queen who wants to put it in Claudia’s ass (much to her initial chagrin). Claudia’s coworker hips her to a magical sex club where she develops Claude, a more libertine aspect of herself. A visit from Dylan’s mother turns this fairytale into an exploration of sexual taboo and a consequence-free hump-o-rama.

The film could have used some trigger warnings for rape simulation scenes, but was full of lighthearted slapstick and racy, quickly fulfilled innuendo. The film is set in Berlin, which helped to create an atmosphere of exotic sex culture abroad. Dunye’s Brechtian style came through less in this film than in The Owls. There were moments where the characters directly addressed the audience, but these merely set the scene rather than providing a glimpse into their motivations.

All three films devoted an appropriate amount of time and energy to the role of sex in the creation of Black queer identity. Although I was disappointed that Seb got nearly all of the on screen sex in Stud Life, Papi Coxx’s playful and plentiful encounters in Mommy Is Coming more than made up for it.  A departure from a mainstream obsession with feminine lesbians, each of these films prominently featured masculine of center Black lesbians in complex roles. Vee in particular was a character with a special kind of depth that makes my cynical heart hopeful for the characters tiona m. constructs next.

Support Black/Queer filmmaking and check these selections out when they’re released on DVD, or during a festival near you!

*“divo” is the masculine variant of diva.

– Cyrée Jarelle Johnson

Cyrée Jarelle Johnson is a Black Femme dyke writer, scholar, zinester, and poet. Cyrée Jarelle is committed to relocating Femme culture from margin to center using writing, non-formal education and communal publication. Ze remains a crippled Jersey Grrl abroad; in hir swollen feet ze is a wanderer, but hir heart is in the foodcourt at the Woodbridge Mall.

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2 Responses

  1. jaydee

    another awesome article! i also saw those movies and i was also pretty disappointed in stud life. i feel like the writing didn’t do the characters justice- it felt rushed, and even if there was “truth” in the characters’ feelings/actions (i’m thinking here about the first breakup scene between jj & elle) it seemed random and forced. and why was everyone getting married??

    but tiona m.’s writing was… beautiful. as a writer myself it was such a breath of fresh air to see a beautifully shot film ALONG with a strong script and truthful acting. definitely one of my faves from qfest!


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