Tag Archives: LGBT rights

“Iris has left the building…”

14 Oct

Iris Prize

So another Iris Prize Festival has come and gone, and now I’ve got that day-after-Boxing-Day feeling – a combination of extreme lethargy and mild melancholy.

As always, I spent my five days at the festival writing the website’s official blog, which you can read right here, but there were a few films I wanted to mention here, in the Forest of Beasts.



The Iris Prize itself – the opportunity to shoot another short film, with a budget of £25,000, in the UK – went to Gorilla, from Australian director Tim Marshall. It was a surprise choice – my personal favourites were The Last Time I Saw Richard, a quasi-horror-movie set in a psychiatric institution, and For Dorian, about a father’s dawning realisation that his teenage son – who has Down’s syndrome – might be gay. That said, the very unusualness (unusualosity?) of the decision is kind of cool, and demonstrates more than a little “thinking outside the box” on the jury’s behalf.

From Gorilla.

From Gorilla.

The award for Best British Short went to My Mother (pictured, top), from Cardiff-based director Jay Bedwani. If you get the chance to check out this 10 minute portrait of a San Francisco drag artist, please do. It’s warm, intimate and beautifully made, and the subject, Gustavo, is just so frank and endlessly fascinating. Though there were only two UK films in competition this year, My Mother would have been a deserving winner any year.

The features programme included Silent Youth, an excellent German drama about the burgeoning relationship between two inarticulate young men. Inarticulacy is a really difficult thing to pull off in film or literature – the temptation for many writers is to make their characters so much more fluent and confident than anyone in real life, and rendering your characters virtually mute can make them boring – but this movie was utterly gripping and handsomely shot on location in and around Berlin.

From Silent Youth.

From Silent Youth.

Elsewhere, there were more candy-coloured delights to be found in Israeli director Eytan Fox’s Cupcakes and US teen comedy GBF, both of which were very funny and endearing. (Cupcakes went on to win the audience award for Best Feature.)

Possibly the most interesting – or, certainly, the most controversial – feature on show this year was James Franco and Travis Matthews’s Interior. Leather Bar. This is the pseudo-documentary in which Franco and Matthews, playing themselves, set out to recreate the “missing 40 minutes” from William Friedkin’s 1980 movie Cruising. The film is surprisingly funny – much of it is played for giggles – but also very explicit.  However, those expecting out-and-out porn are likely to be disappointed (I’m fairly certain I heard the bored squeaking of leather chaps from those who’d turned up expecting non-stop bondage). Instead, it serves as an interesting essay on movie censorship, and the hypocrisy of a system (mainly, in this case, the MPAA) that is tougher on scenes of intimacy than scenes of barbaric violence.

Pictured: Interior. Leather Bar and Saw 3D. Also: Hypocrisy.

Pictured: Interior. Leather Bar and Saw 3D. Also: Hypocrisy.

Overall, the standard of films this year was another step up. LGBT cinema has come on in leaps in bounds in the 6 years since Iris began. You still get an abundance of “coming out” stories, of course, as you might expect, but these seem to make up a smaller fraction of the programme with each passing year. There will always be room for stories about coming out, for as long as people feel the need to come out, but the onus is on the filmmakers to find new and interesting ways to tell that story.

Shortly before this year’s Iris a friend – who is gay – asked me if I thought there was a specific need for festivals like Iris, or London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, or LA’s Outfest, and – though I know I’m hardly impartial – I replied that there is. Many cinema chains and distributors work along on a principle of “That’s your lot” when it comes to queer cinema. So this year, for example, we’ve had Behind the Candelabra, and it did very well in cinemas, but can you name one other film with gay or lesbian protagonists that played your local multiplex this year? If you live in the States, you didn’t even get to see the Liberace biopic on the big screen.

You were, however, treated to these fucking abominations.

You were, however, treated to these fucking abominations.

Film streaming sites like Netflix – which has a pretty good selection of recent LGBT films – are making it even easier to access queer cinema in the comfort of your own home, as are LGBT interest labels such as TLA in the US and Peccadillo Pictures in the UK, but thanks to a combination of market forces and distributor over-cautiousness, you won’t see many of these titles in the cinema. Niche festivals can give those films a showcase that’s both practical and commercially viable, and which ultimately can appeal to those outside the “community” too. (30% of the audience members at Iris, for example, identify as heterosexual.)

What’s more, in a world where LGBT rights are taking massive, retro-steps toward the Dark Ages in places such Russia, Cameroon and Iran, anything that offers a public platform for LGBT voices from around the world has to be a good thing.

From Blues to Disco – How Gay African-Americans Created Pop Music

29 Oct

Sometimes it’s tough, being a fan of Public Enemy. The tunes are great, the message is – for the best part – passionate and empowering, but every now and then they kind of lose it:

  • “Man to man / I don’t know if they can / From what I know / The parts don’t fit…”

That’s from Meet The G That Killed Meon the album Fear of a Black Planet. Here, Chuck D and friends voice a kind of pub-bore-style bafflement about how homosexuality actually works, and imply – later in the same song – that when a heterosexual catches HIV, it’s ultimately the fault of gay men.

Does it need saying that this man is not one of the world’s leading epidemiologists?

Now I can’t imagine I’d give many other artists the kind of free pass I give Public Enemy (it’s the tunes… I love the tunes) but even so, they’re far from the most homophobic act in hip-hop. GLAAD (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) counted a total of 213 uses of the word “faggot” on VMA-winning rapper Tyler The Creator’s album Goblin, and the recent “coming out” of an artist like Frank Ocean was newsworthy on this side of the Atlantic, despite his relative obscurity over here, for this very reason. What’s amazing about all this is that without African-American gay, lesbian and bisexual singers and musicians, there wouldn’t be any such thing as hip-hop in the first place.

And no, I’m not talking about Dr Dre’s “Jheri Curl” phase.

And I’d go further than that. Without African-American gay, lesbian and bisexual artists, there wouldn’t be any such thing as popular music, full stop.

Oh, there’d be music that was popular, sure, but it would probably sound like that album of Elizabethan madrigals that Sting recorded a few years back.

Make it stop. Make it fucking stop.

First, let’s launch ourselves back to Chattanooga in the year 1894, and the birth of Bessie Smith. Smith is a giant of early blues music, with a personality every bit as big and feisty as her voice suggests. Her private life was turbulent – twice married, and with a string of affairs with other women, she paved the way for every troubled chanteuse since, from Billie Holiday to Amy Winehouse.

In this picture the main thing troubling her is some Old Timey racism.

Moving on a decade or two, you may have heard of Duke Ellington, widely regarded as one of the greatest jazz musicians and composers who ever lived, but it’s less likely you’ll have heard of his songwriting partner and left-hand man, Billy Strayhorn. Strayhorn had a hand in co-writing some of Ellington’s most famous tunes, including Take The A Train and the score to Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder. Strayhorn was openly gay at a time when his skin colour alone would have been enough to see him castigated and ostracized in many parts of the US. Through Ellington’s son Mercer, Strayhorn met jazz pianist Aaron Bridgers, and the two were partners from 1939 until 1947, when Bridgers emigrated to Paris.

Pictured (left to right): Bridgers, Strayhorn and Billie Holiday

Now, while Bessie Smith had the voice and the attitude, and Strayhorn had the intellectual heft and musical dexterity to revolutionise music, our next artist hit the 1950s like a bomb. A great big satin-coated bomb with backcombed hair, guyliner and a drawn-on moustache.

Who else?

To understand the impact Little Richard (born Richard Wayne Penniman) had on the 1950s, try and picture a scenario in which James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Prince got together and then, using their combined sperm and through some bizarre scientific experiment/pagan ritual created a hybrid baby and sent it back in time to Macon, Georgia in 1932, to be raised by mere mortals like some kind of funky, screaming black Superman. Listen to Little Richard singing Tutti Fruiti and you can maybe understand just why your grand- or great-grandparents were so shit-scared of this newfangled rock and roll.

And the version they heard was cleaned up considerably from the version Little Richard originally sang in clubs. Take, for instance, the line, “Tutti frutti, aw-rooty.” In his club version, this had been, “Tutti frutti, good booty.” And that wasn’t a girl’s booty he was singing about, neither.

For one thing, the official term for this is “boo-tay”.

Since then, Little Richard’s sexuality has been something of a mystery. In the mid-1990s he kind of came out of the closet, and then climbed back in again, and his private life is littered with lots of “long-time friends”. But seriously…

This is not the face of a heterosexual. It just isn’t.

So how do we get from a bunch of people born before World War II to the pop music you youngsters are listening to today? Well, easy. Without Bessie Smith, Billy Strayhorn et al, rhythm and blues as we know it wouldn’t have happened. Without rhythm and blues, there’s no rock and roll, and therefore no Little Richard. Without Little Richard, there’s no James Brown. (Seriously, go watch some early footage of James Brown. It’s like he’s auditioning as a Little Richard tribute act.) Without James Brown, there wouldn’t be funk. And what happened to funk when it hit the mid-1970s?

That’s right. In the 1970s funk and soul mutated into disco. Now, contrary to popular belief (or, at least, a popular belief that I just made up) disco was not invented by Barry Gibb, nor was it originally the weekend pastime of white-suited Italian-Americans. Oh no. Disco started life in the predominantly black corners of New York’s underground gay scene, a scene that was still exerting its influence on the pop music white folk were listening to over a decade later, when Madonna decided to copy purloin steal homage its latest dance craze.

The fact is, name any genre of music currently topping the charts, and you can draw its roots back to music in which gay, lesbian and bisexual African-Americans played a vital role.

Rock music? Well, that owes its existence to the blues. RnB? That’ll be rhythm and blues to us oldies. Hip Hop? Started life with a whole load of James Brown samples, and as we’ve already seen, without a (literally) screaming queen like Little Richard, there wouldn’t be any James Brown. And dance music? Why, that’s just disco’s gayby.

“We’re calling her Sylvester.” “Uh-uh. We’re calling her KC.”

So next time Eminem or Tyler the Creator or any other rapper rants about “faggots”, or Nicki Minaj declares “N****r, you softer than a homosexual”, maybe they should ask themselves where they’d be without the amazing African-American gay and lesbians artists who preceded them.


David Llewellyn is the author of six novels, most recently Ibrahim & Reenie, which you can buy here.