Arts & Culture » Television

Lavender Tube in Black History Month

by Victoria A. Brownworth

Black gay actor Jussie Smollett ("Empire"). Photo: DMZ
Black gay actor Jussie Smollett ("Empire"). Photo: DMZ  

It's Black History Month — unless you're in Virginia, in which case it's Blackface History Month.

We were raised by socialist Civil Rights worker parents, so we don't get how or why this was ever a thing. We've never been to a party where anyone wore blackface, and we've never known anyone who wore blackface. Seeing a new story nearly every night on TV news in recent days about another politician having worn blackface, approved it for a yearbook, or just shrugged it off with an "it was a long time ago" dismissal has been a reminder of how close we remain to America's worst legacies of institutional racism. That legacy is often highlighted by TV news coverage, which is itself frequently racist in how it approaches and televises news involving black and brown people.

After black gay actor Jussie Smollett was attacked in Chicago on Jan. 29, bleach poured on him and a noose tied around his neck, we watched a roundtable discussion on Logo TV called, "Under Attack: Black and Queer in America." The show was described by Logo as "LGBTQ artists, leaders, and intellectuals within the black queer community address the attack on Jussie Smollett ("Empire") and how it is endemic of a larger problem facing queer people of color in America, while placing the attack in the context of lynching and this country's history of anti-black terrorism."

"Under Attack" premiered on Feb. 6, and it was painful viewing. The immediacy of fear that these black queer men and women felt after learning of the assault is something all of us who are queer can relate to. But that legacy of lynching, exemplified by the noose around Smollett's neck — the historical triggering engendered by that incident, the echo of the 4,000 black men and women lynched in America now memorialized at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama — we can't know how that feels if we aren't black.

The show of solidarity for Smollett among fellow actors of all races, as well as politicians and presidential hopefuls, was extraordinary. Even Pres. Trump, whose race-baiting comments have been linked to other attacks, told the press when asked for his response, "That I can tell you is horrible. It doesn't get worse."

Chicago affiliate ABC7 on Feb. 8 aired an interview with the man who called 911 the night the "Empire" actor was assaulted. Frank Gatson is a well-known choreographer who has worked with Jennifer Lopez and Beyoncé. He is Smollett's creative director. Of the attack he said, "I feel so selfish I didn't walk with him that night. I'm the one that called 911. I'm the one who took him to the hospital. And it was so scary, man. And I was responsible. I said, let's call the cops. Let's go to the hospital."

According to Chicago police, Gatson was there when Smollett came home with a rope around his neck and a cut on his face. Gatson said, "I'm just glad I was the old man at his apartment when he got there. That was a scary night, my stomach was numb."

Freshman Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), the first Muslim woman elected to Congress, tweeted about the incident, "When one of the most famous black and gay men in America is not safe, the message is clearer than it has ever been. The dangerous lies spewing from the right wing are killing & hurting our people. Thinking of you, Jussie Smollett, and my LGBTQ neighbors."

The revelations about politicians with a history of blackface so soon after the Smollett attack underscored Tlaib's message. Who is safe in this climate? How many are hiding a racist history, when even those on our side of the aisle have been found complicit in the most egregious aspects of structural racism? Watching the glib news conference on CNN by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, where he offered to dance like Michael Jackson, was stunning. Just days earlier, when Northam stood so declaratively in defense of a woman's right to choose, we had thought of him as one of the good guys.

"Under Attack" asks us to see through a different lens: a black and queer lens. A lens that shows the heartbreaking reality black queers like the panel and Smollett must endure. As Tlaib noted, if someone of Smollett's celebrity is not safe, where does that leave the rest of us? (If you don't have Logo TV, you can watch "Under Attack" on YouTube.)

Ellen Page asked that question when she appeared on "The Stephen Colbert Show" after the attack. In a deeply emotional interview Page told Colbert, "I am fired up tonight, it feels impossible not to feel this way right now, with the president and Vice Pres. Mike Pence, who wishes I couldn't be married. Let's just be clear. The Vice President of America wishes I didn't have the love with my wife. He wanted to ban that in Indiana."

Page went on to say, "Connect the dots. This is what happens. If you are in a position of power and you hate people and you want to cause suffering to them, you spend your career trying to cause suffering, what do you think is going to happen? Kids are going to be abused, and they are going to kill themselves, and people are going to be beaten on the street. I have traveled the world, and I have met the most marginalized people you can meet. I am lucky to have this time and the privilege to say this. This needs to fucking stop." The audience responded with wild applause.

Part of "connecting the dots" is representation. We felt such a swell of solidarity, seeing all those left women dressed in suffragist white at the SOTU. Representation matters. Part of why that attack on Smollett loomed so large is that we see him every week on "Empire." We've been watching him for several years. He feels familiar to us. We need those connections with TV characters. Think of all the years where there were no black characters, let alone queer ones. We need to see ourselves represented.

Black list

We were thinking about how many black LGBTQ characters there are for Black History Month. We have long said that TV series often do a two-for-one diversity statement by making characters of color LGBTQ. We made a little list of just current black queer characters on current TV series so you could put them in your DVR to check out.

No series on TV has more black and queer people than "RuPaul's Drag Race," now in its 10th season. The inimitable RuPaul has become a queer icon over the years, and has brought many queens of color onto the show. Among the other series that highlight queer black characters: "American Housewife," Angela (Carly Hughes), Katie's lesbian best friend (season three began Feb. 5); "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," Titus (Titus Burgess) is Kimmy's gay bestie; "How to Get Away with Murder," Annalese (Viola Davis) is bisexual; "Black Lightning," Nafessa Williams plays Anissa Pearce, TV's first black lesbian superhero.

On "Queen Sugar," black queers are represented by Nova Bordelon (Rutina Wesley) and Brian Michael Smith, a trans man whose character Toine came out on the show. On "The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina," Ambrose Spellman (Chance Perdomo) is pansexual. "Sex Education" has Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) in a lead role as the flaming black queen bestie of Otis. On "Dear White People," Lionel as gay (DeRon Horton), as is Moira (Samira Wiley) on "The Handmaid's Tale." Tess (Eris Baker) just came out as a lesbian to her aunt and parents on "This Is Us." On "The Bold Type" Kat Edison (Aisha Dee) is bisexual, and Oliver Grayson (Stephen Conrad Moore) is the openly gay head of fashion. "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" has Captain Holt (Andre Braugher), who is happily married and openly gay.

It's not a lot of characters who are black and LGBTQ, so it's critical that they be highlighted, not just on Black History Month, but as we work to achieve some measure of parity for both black and LGBTQ people on TV.

Lena Waithe made history by being the first black woman to win the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series in 2017, for her work on "Master of None." She is openly lesbian and beautifully butch. Waithe is executive producer for the new BET comedy series "Boomerang" that follows the 1992 same-named film. Waithe paired with Halle Berry, who starred in the film, to produce "Boomerang." Of the series, Waithe told Variety she is hoping to "change the face of BET" with the reboot of the film, "by being phenomenal." She noted, "I'm not even saying that out of shade. It's just going to be a phenomenal experience, and I'm going to be in Atlanta making shit happen."

Of working with Berry, she said, "It was me calling Halle and going like, 'Look, I think I'm going to do this. If you had a good experience and you want to do it with me, let's go.' She said, 'I had a great experience, and I'd love to work with you.'" Yas queen.

Among the characters on "Boomerang" are two lesbians. BET describes Tia (Lala Milan) as a "misguided performance artist with high ambitions, a classically trained dancer who wants to topple the patriarchy. She's charismatic and wildly unique. Tia is an activist at heart, but she doesn't mind being a little ratchet every now and then." Tia's girlfriend Rocky (Kimberly Hall) is described as "a lesbian with a dominant personality" who is "very protective over her girlfriend Tia and her career." The series began on Feb. 12, and you can watch online as well. Everything Waithe does is fabulous, so be sure to set the DVR.

There's a slew of new series in the coming weeks, but we binge-watched an Australian series on Netflix last weekend that was so powerful we can't stop thinking about it. "Deep Water" is a crime drama based on the unsolved hate-crime murders of nearly 80 gay men in Sydney's eastern suburbs and beaches in the 1980s and 90s. The four-part miniseries debuted in Australia in 2016, but is just now available on Netflix. For once we are deeply grateful for the algorithm that suggested we would like it.

Two things: It's powerful af, and it's brutal. The violence against gay men happens mostly off-screen, but it does detail some gruesome killings. It's easy to spoil the main story here by giving too many details, but a woman detective, Tori Lustigman (Yael Stone), uncovers a hate crime that leads her to delve into a pattern of murders.

This series is amazingly good, and the acting is superb. Lustigman's quest for justice for gay victims is compelling, and the final scenes in the series will leave you breathless. You can watch it all at once, but it's intense. Two sittings is best.

Netflix also told us to watch the 2018 gay film "Alex Strangelove," which debuted at the SF International Film Festival last spring, so we did. If you missed the film when it premiered, it's delightful. The boys are beautiful, it has the insouciance of youth that's always life-affirming, and it is thoroughly gay.

Netflix describes it: "This coming-of-age comedy-drama follows Alex Truelove (Daniel Doheny), a high school senior who plans to lose his virginity to his girlfriend Claire (Madeline Weinstein). His life is thrown upside-down when he falls for a handsome gay teenager (Antonio Marziale) from the other side of town and discovers his 'true authentic self.'"

When is being pretty not enough? When Ryan Murphy signs out gay Olympian Gus Kenworthy for the next season of "American Horror Story," apparently. There's a backlash against Murphy for casting Kenworthy, who has no acting experience. Kenworthy, whose good-sportsmanship was in evidence at the last Olympics, tweeted, "Interviewer: So how did you prepare for this role? Me: I actually played 'straight' for the first 23 years of my life." Thank u, next.

Kenworthy is an eight-time world champion skier and Olympic silver medalist, and we look forward to his official acting debut. We also loved him tweeting his support for RuPaul: "I love 'RuPaul's Drag Race' more than my family or friends. Congrats on 10 years, RuPaul!" You do not get gayer than that.

You also do not get gayer than the gay parts of the new Netflix series "Russian Doll," which gets 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which we thought was impossible. But "Russian Doll" is taking comedy to a new level and taking us with it. The series was created by "Orange Is the New Black" star Natasha Lyonne with comedy genius Amy Poehler and lesbian director, screenwriter and playwright Leslye Headland.

It's good. Really good. Lyonne, whom we all love in "OITNB," stars as Nadia Vulvokov, a software engineer who finds herself reliving her 36th birthday party in an ongoing time loop wherein she repeatedly dies and the process begins again. Therein lies the device and the do-your-head-in that is this series. If "The Good Place" was hard on your sense of linear narrative, prepare to surrender to "Russian Doll" before you open your Netflix window.

That said, it's full of queerness and fascinating elements that really demand a lot of the viewer. Some have called it the most innovative new series of the past few years. We're not sure about that, but we are sure that it's worth your eight hours of binge time that you will never get back. Settle in, enjoy the ride, try to figure it out after. The fact it's created by an all-female writing team directed by lesbian Jamie Babbitt, and features some spectacular actors including the great Elizabeth Ashley and Chloë Sevigny, is more than reason to watch.

Remember Tyler Posey from "Teen Wolf?" He's playing gay in the new 10-part series from Starz "Now Apocalypse." The comedy series has Posey playing the love interest of the gorgeous Avan Jogia. Starz describes the series as following Ulysses (Avan) and his friends Carly (Kelli Berglund), Ford (Beau Mirchoff) and Severine (Roxane Mesquida) as they navigate love, sex and fame in Los Angeles. Tyler will play Gabriel, a "charismatic and mysterious guy" who meets Ulysses on a dating app. But the group's lives are interrupted when Ulysses becomes convinced that the nightmares he's having are hinting at a "dark and monstrous conspiracy." Premieres March 10.

Some returning faves with queer content include a show we really liked when it debuted last year, "For the People," which we describe as "Grey's Anatomy" with lawyers. It's got Anna Deveare Smith and Hope Davis, and returns to ABC on March 7. It has a strong lesbian storyline, a maybe gay storyline, and is chock-full of social justice stories ripped from the headlines of this abominable administration. It's one of those shows that will give you hope that we can make it through the next two years to a woman president and Trump in prison without LGBTQ people, women and POC being decimated. We need shows like that, don't we?

So for all things black and queer, upsetting the time-space continuum, the always-disturbing-but-cannot-look-away accident that is Washington politics, and some banging new series with a lot of queers, you really must stay tuned.

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