The Right Time: Lesbianism in Middle-Class Black Movies

In the last five to seven years there has a been a surge of feel-good films targeted at the middle-class black community — from ensemble dramas like The Best Man, Waiting to Exhale, The Wood, The Brothers and Kingdom Come to romantic comedies like Brown Sugar, How Stella Got her Groove Back, Love and Basketball, Love Jones, and Two Can Play That Game.

The middle-class, professional, and law-abiding African-American characters in these films have provided a long-awaited contrast to the overwhelming number of African-American movie characters Hollywood has churned out that are poor, self-destructive, and/or criminals (there’s nothing wrong with being poor, of course, but this is hardly representative of all African Americans).

These films were welcome by many because, for the first time, they assumed a middle-class black audience — or at least an audience that is familiar and comfortable with middle-class African Americans.

Bottom line: these films were written and directed by black folks for black folks — and it shows.

So what do these movies say about black lesbians and bisexual women? Nothing good. In fact, from watching these films, one comes away with the following messages about the black community:

1. Straight black people do not have lesbians among their family or friends.

This absence is particularly glaring given that these films encompass such a wide variety of black women — the uptight lawyer, the hairdresser, the obsessed athlete, the stay-at-home mom, the office ho, the dying friend, the workaholic stockbroker in love with a man half her age, the woman whose husband leaves her for a white woman. But no lesbians.

Among the black male characters, you have the ex-convict, the uptight lawyer, the mechanic, the player, the poet, the deadbeat dad, the cheater, and the consummate family man. You even have the black gay man (albeit only occasionally and not usually flatteringly) — from the black gay republican characters in Spike Lee’s Get on the Bus to Gloria’s gay ex-husband and the ubiquitous gay hairdresser in Waiting to Exhale.

There’s every kind of black middle-class character in these movies but the kitchen sink — and lesbians.

This happens even in settings where the context almost requires their inclusion. Love and Basketball, for example, is a movie set in the world of women’s basketball where (in real life) lesbians not only exist, they arguably exist in disproportionate number. But in the movie? Nary a lesbian (of any color) in sight.

2. Lesbians and lesbianism is only acknowledged to serve as a warning to straight black women about how to behave.

The only time lesbianism is referred to in Love and Basketball, for example, is in a conversation between Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and her mother (Alfre Woodard) in which Monica verbalizes her mother’s worst fear:

Monica’s mom: I don’t know why I keep hoping you’ll grow out of this tomboy thing.
Monica: I won’t. I’m a lesbian.
Mom: That’s not funny!
Monica: Well that’s what you think, isn’t it? ‘Cause I’d rather wear a jersey than an apron?

There are no overtly homophobic statements in this exchange, just the assumption that it would break a mother’s heart if her daughter turned out to be a lesbian — and since there are no actual lesbian characters in the movie to present an alternative opinion, this fear is the only impression with which the viewer is left.

In The Best Man, Nia Long’s character is derided by her (male) friends as so "sassy and independent" that she’s "one step from lesbian." In this one statement, the film has both reminded straight black women that they may become undesirable to black men if they are too independent, and characterized lesbianism as a rejection of black men.

These two exchanges are pretty much the extent to which lesbians and/or lesbianism is referenced, included, or acknowledged in these films. Oh, except for one scene in When Stella Got Her Groove Back where a robust white lesbian comically hits on Whoopi Goldberg.

Two insulting comments, one deliberately unattractive white lesbian, and no positive portrayals of lesbian characters anywhere to offset these homophobic depictions?

It’s not enough for black writers/directors/producers just to render black lesbians invisible, they also have to use them as a weapon to remind straight black women to toe the feminine line.

Never mind the contributions of women like Congresswoman Barbara Jordan (the first African-American woman to be elected to the House of Representatives from the South), lawyer Pauli Murray (on whose writings the NAACP based its argument in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education suit which overturned school segregation), anti-racism activist and writer Angela Davis, and the countless other black lesbians who have worked hard to make life better for all women and African-Americans.

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