To the outside observer, political movements can become reduced to a series of rarely-challenged expressions of conventional wisdom. Plenty such axioms exist when it comes to LGBT rights: marriage equality is inevitable in the U.S.; most African-Americans oppose equal marriage rights because of their religion; LGBT people are invisible everywhere but the West. But two new documentaries “The New Black” and “Call Me Kuchu,” which are landing on the scene contemporaneously, present a compelling challenge to these assumptions. “The New Black” just won the audience award for best feature at AFI Docs.
Yoruba Richen’s “The New Black” focuses on the Question 6 campaign in Maryland, a 2012 ballot initiative which asked voters to affirm or reject a marriage equality bill passed earlier by the legislature. Similar campaigns took place in Washington and Maine, but the Maryland campaign was different because of the state’s racial composition: African-Americans make up 30 percent of the state’s population and comprised around a quarter of its electorate in 2012.
For Richen, “The New Black” was born in the aftermath of Proposition 8, California’s 2008 voter-approved marriage equality ban, which was quickly (and incorrectly) attributed in large part to California’s black voters. Richen planned to examine the alleged divide between the LGBT and African-American communities when California went back to the ballot to repeal Prop 8; when Maryland beat California to that punch, though, she knew the film’s moment had come.
The very title “The New Black” is itself a subtle and evocative clue to the puzzle that Yoruba’s film presents. She’s alluding to the frequently stated yet controversial idea that ‘gay is the new black’ — a statement with supporters and detractors in both communities. But Richen’s film is less interested in attacking or defending that concept and more interested in pushing through it to a crucial, often-overlooked question: what about those people who are are LGBT and black?
With this in mind, the two focuses of Richen’s insightful documentary become one. Most of the film is devoted to an examination of the campaign itself through the lens of Maryland’s black community: Richen interviews men and women working both for and against Question 6, capturing the complex diversity of opinion on the issue.
But the film is equally devoted to two young gay activists, members of a new generation that is challenging the status quo both writ large and within their community. As “The New Black” demonstrates, the divide between gay issues and black issues is an illusion and, ultimately, a distraction from a deeper conversation about difference in America.
“Call Me Kuchu” is the debut feature of directors Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall, and like “The New Black,” the film’s title is an invitation to the rich nuances of its story. Centered on David Kato, the first openly gay man in Uganda and a pioneering civil rights advocate, the film channels the affirmation of Kato and his fellow ‘kuchus,’ or LGBT people, that they exist and that their rights should be recognized and protected despite the virulent homophobia of their country.
At the beginning of Zouhali-Worrall and Wright’s time filming in Kampala, Uganda, the anti-gay Member of Parliament David Bahati told the filmmakers, “There is no longer a debate in Uganda as to whether homosexuality is right or not. It is not.” Initially, the two women were inclined to believe him. But when they met Kato, who began introducing them to other members of the kuchu community, they realized that this playful and passionate man was the lynchpin to a major shift taking place in Ugandan society.
In Kato’s image, perhaps, “Call Me Kuchu” is not simply a tale of victimization, although the film does much to present the appalling state of LGBT rights in Uganda. In late 2009, for example, Bahati introduced a stunningly draconian Anti-Homosexuality Bill that would have made homosexuality a capital offense and threatened jail time for those who neglected to turn in LGBT people to the authorities. The true focus of “Call Me Kuchu,” however, is on Kato and his fellow activists, and the daunting work they undertook to advocate for their own rights.
In early 2011, Kato was attacked and murdered in his home. Anti-gay protesters descended on the activist’s funeral, heckling and threatening his contemporaries. At the end of “Call Me Kuchu,” when a fellow activist learns that he is the next target, he shows little fear and begins to pack up his apartment to move to a new neighborhood. “Call Me Kuchu” is at its heart a tale of defiance, a story of a small and vibrant community proudly proclaiming its own vitality.
“They keep saying we are not here,” Kato tells the film’s directors before his death. “But as of late, we are here.”
“The New Black” screened earlier this month in Los Angeles and last week in New York. “Call Me Kuchu” played last week at New York’s Quad Theater, and is currently playing at the Laemmle Music Hall in L.A.
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