‘Studs’, as defined by popular LGBT culture, especially Black culture, are lesbian women who possess and exude a certain masculine swagger, and are perhaps more dominant and aggressive in nature. As per the candid and enlightening conversation with British filmmaker Campbell X, who identifies as a ‘stud’ herself, in the queer community, there are many labels around desire and self-identification – studs, femmes, soft-studs, touch-me-not studs, etc. However, it’s a complex and intricate culture that many have not been exposed to, especially in cinema.
For her feature film debut Stud Life, described as a “homage to Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It and Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies And Videotape,” Campbell X wanted to share with the world a very real and urban, yet underground black queer culture in London, where she grew up in. “London is very integrated, so there’s a queer subculture that people of all colors participate in,” says Campbell, “You’ll have white queer people using Patois because they grew up with Black people and they’re not strangers to them. So I wanted to show that world as well.”
Campbell X admits however, that London isn’t necessarily less segregated in the matters of race when compared to America. “It’s kind of a false dichotomy because there are some friendship patterns that are segregated,” says the filmmaker, adding,“There’s some that are not. Even in the UK there are people that don’t know about that underground culture.”
Stud Life, screening next at New York’s NewFest – a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Film Festival from July 27-31, stars British actress T’Nia Miller who completely transforms for an amazing performance as JJ, a black British stud who lives with her gay best gay best friend Seb (Kyle Treslove). JJ and Seb run the London LGBT nightlife scene. At their regular hot spot, a nightclub infused with hip hop and reggae beats, JJ meets the sexy and electrifying femme Elle (Robyn Kerr), and the two dive in head first into a love affair.
But at the core of the film are the friendship between JJ and Seb; both who confront daily queer bashing in the London streets. Their close bond is threatened by JJ’s capricious new girlfriend, who refuses to be the third wheel in the trio and causes a rift between JJ and Seb. Meanwhile Seb, who is the apple of the eye of a drug dealer (Simon Savory), has been engaging in online hook-ups with closeted men.
Campbell X says she’s always been interested in female masculinity and gender, which are the main inspirations for her film, “I wanted to have a friendship between a masculine woman and a feminine gay man. I was at a film festival and there was an effeminate gay man in his mid twenties; he was saying there was a fear of femininity amongst gay men now as opposed to back in the day. It was kind of an intergenerational discussion.”
When it comes to the female stud, the director says that even certain feminists and lesbians problematize its figure, “They don’t like the image, the look and the ideal. There are a lot of negative connotations.”
And It’s a fascinating underground culture, especially when it comes to many lesbian relationships, which adopt many similarities from heterosexual relationships, yet simultaneously are distinctively very unique.
And interesting to note in our conversation is the assumption that, “Two women, oh my god, they know what to do!” says Campbell, adding, “People don’t have those conversations. I didn’t want to have a lesbian sex scene that shows that they know what to do.”
There’s a popular misconception that when it comes to terms of self-identification and desires, the stud is trying to be like a man – which is, however, the case in transgender persons. In the case of Stud Life’s protagonist, JJ embodies masculine energy, which femmes respond to. “You don’t have to look a certain way. Femmes like different kinds of studs,” reiterates Campbell, explaining that, “Lesbian sexuality is quite hidden. We tend to use a template of heterosexual sex because that’s not hidden and you have to enter into a different headspace. A lot of the sex is based on a male/female paradigm.”
Casting for the roles of the stud JJ and the femme Elle was challenging for Campbell, who saw many studs who weren’t actors and were self-conscious about presenting a stud persona unlike themselves. But British actress T’Nia Miller, a femme in real life, blew Campbell away at the audition. “She’s amazing. She had done her research. We rehearsed for two weeks, in which I made her live as a stud. She experienced a lot of the prejudices and desires studs experience on the street,” says Campbell of Miller, pointing out that, “She had to live it [life as a stud] as well, which was a challenge for her being a femme. People reacted to her very differently and were very hostile towards her.”
Casting the role of JJ’s girlfriend Elle, played with sexual assertiveness by Robyn Kerr, was trying as well. Campbell wanted someone to express strong, active desire as a femme. “She blew me away because nobody would do it except her. All these women coming in they couldn’t show desire. It’s almost like they can only be the receptacles of desire,” says Campbell of Kerr’s audition.
Kyle Treslove, who plays JJ’s gay best friend Seb, slipped into the role naturally and convincingly. “Kyle is incredible. He’s familiar with that culture and that generation of gay men that is comfortable with black culture and he’s part of it,” says Campbell.
After a two-week rehearsal, it was a tough, rousing 10-day shoot, in which, according to Campbell, the actors were intensely submerged in their roles, “Crying was real, deep into the roles man,” says Campbell, who admitted that after one of the climactic scenes, “We had to break. It was intense for us as well.”
Although the filmmaker didn’t experience physical violence at the hand of queer bashers, it’s a reality for many in the LGBT community. “A lot of my friends have been queer bashed because they’re masculine females and my gay men friends have also been queer bashed. I had to put it there because it does exist. That’s a cold harsh reality.”
When it came to developing the narrative of the relationship between JJ and Elle, Campbell didn’t shy from illustrating its volatile highs and lows – the rapid courtship and commitment to the crash and burn. “It is an issue,” says Campbell of the love dynamics in many real life relationships between two women.
We joked about the saying in the lesbian community, “What happens after the second date? She brings the U-Haul.” Joking aside, “It showed in the relationship because they don’t really know each other, but they go really fast and they start finding out well, who is this person I’m in love with?,” said Campbell of JJ and Elle, the latter who reveals her trade secret to an enraged and heartbroken JJ later in the film.
Despite their downfalls, we discussed how many of these relationships seem more passionate and intimate than their heterosexual counterparts, hence the unique quality and bond between women, women who engage fully and love freely.
Campbell wanted to present a slice of this life, often filled with misnomers and ill pre-conceived notions, through the eyes of JJ, who despite of her masculine swagger and pretense, can also be vulnerable and insecure, just like the rest of us, regardless of sexual orientation. Campbell elaborated on her inspiration for Stud Life:
“I identify as a stud. A lot of my friends identify as stud or butch. I think there’s a swagger that people have, there’s a performance that’s a front, but when people are faced with their own vulnerabilities around sex, their bodies, desire and all sorts of things, it’s always private. I wanted to turn it inside out in film.”