We’re in an era where everything is smaller, sleeker, and so thin we barely know we have certain devices in our pockets. Trust me when I say I’ve jumped on the flat and thin electronic bandwagon; for heaven’s sake, I’m writing this on an iPad. Although I like a flatscreen as much as the next person, I’m not drawn to thin, copycat, stereotypical characters that often grace flatscreen televisions on a weekly basis.
Noting the recent controversy involving the upcoming ABC comedy Work It, I felt it was worth taking an in-depth look at the responsibility we have as filmmakers when showcasing our work on TV. GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign claim the upcoming cross-dressing comedy “reinforces false and damaging stereotypes about transgender people” and have scheduled a meeting with high-level executives at the network. As a filmmaker, I personally strive to be mindful of the effects our stories and images can generate for both the better and the worse. In regard to Work It, I’m betting the show won’t be cancelled before its premiere. Maybe it’s the plethora of Work It promos that gives me a feeling the network will air the series in spite of opposition.
A string of TV series that portray well-rounded lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender characters over the last 10 years (more recently on hit series such as Glee, Modern Family, The Good Wife, Shameless, andTrue Blood, to name a few) has helped introduce and acclimate the general public to LGBT individuals by challenging stereotypes and helping set the table for acceptance. Unfortunately, this does not extend to the African-American LGBT community. There have not been many TV series that portray LGBT African Americans other than the most notable character on television, Lafayette Reynolds (portrayed by actor Nelsan Ellis), on HBO’s True Blood. Needless to say, the number of LGBT African-American characters currently on television is thinner than the flatscreen TVs people fought over on Black Friday.
Thankfully, in recent years there has been a spike in African-American LGBT characters and themes in the independent feature film world. The multi-award-winning film Mississippi Damned (winner of the Grand Jury Award for Best U.S. Dramatic Feature at the Outfest Film Festival) helped get the ball rolling in 2009, and with the upcoming theatrical release of Pariah, there have been positive steps toward reflecting our stories on the big screen. But will LGBT characters of color have the increase in television we’re slowly beginning to see in feature films?
After cancelled series such as The L Word, which featured two African-American lesbians; MTV’s Noah’s Arc, which portrayed the lives of five gay, African-American men; and the 2008 GLAAD-award-winning anthology series The DL Chronicles, which explored the double lives of men of color in the closet, there have been no new series to directly address the lives of LGBT people of color on broadcast television.
After a three-year hiatus, the creators of The DL Chronicles, Deondray Gossett and Quincy LeNear, regained the rights to their series from their former network here! TV. They are lucky to have gotten the rights back to their series, providing them with the opportunity to bring the show back to their vast audience. Instead of waiting for another television opportunity that may very well be several years in the making, they have decided to market the series directly to their fans online through VOD, streaming video, and a direct-to-DVD release. I’m certain that if a major network takes interest, they would certainly be open to exploring that option again, but why wait when there’s a demand to see complex LGBT characters of color now?
Like many others, these particular filmmakers have refused to accept the flatline of LGBT characters of color and have embarked on an ambitious crowd-sourcing campaign to resurrect The DL Chroniclesthrough Amazon’s Kickstarter website, which poses a major challenge in itself. Many filmmakers find themselves reaching out to their fan base to not only ask them to view their films and TV shows but aslo to ask them to financially invest during the development stage so that the filmmakers can actually create the much-needed program. According to a staggering statistic, 96 percent of Americans value art in their communities and lives, but only 27 percent value artists. As an artist, I’ve got to admit that this depresses me — this and seeing our privately funded feature film being bootlegged near the Slauson Swapmeet in Los Angeles for a measly $5. I suppose the bootleggers and online pirates are giving us indie filmmakers a Roger Ebert “two thumbs up” by stealing our indie films along with blockbusters like Avatar.
It may seem like I’m on the LGBT indie filmmakers’ soapbox, with a tin can in my hand, pathetically rattling around a few cents in order to get people’s attention so that we can see stories that reflect us by showing our struggles while highlighting our triumphs. Not gonna lie: yeah, I’m doing this. The good thing is that I’m not alone, because beside me are lines of dedicated fans and filmmakers who are also refusing to have our stories held hostage or shuffled to the back of the bus, as if our voices have no resonance or validity.
I am willing and pleased to acknowledge the forward steps taken by broadcast television and will continue to watch shows like Modern Family and True Blood. Even though my DVR proudly houses nearly every episode of these respective series, I’m going to stay on the soapbox until my DVR is fully packed and possibly broken from sheer episodic overload with series void of flat LGBT characters.