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Cheryl Dunye Wants to Create the Black Lesbian Canon of Fiction

In the first two episodes of OWN's new series "Delilah," director Dunye presents audiences an in-depth look at race, sexuality, and gender.

Cheryl Dunye

Cheryl Dunye

Andrew Corpuz

In the 25 years since she became the first Black lesbian to direct a feature film, the acclaimed “The Watermelon Woman,” Cheryl Dunye has lent her perspective to dozens of stories stretching across various genres on-screen. The NAACP Image Award-nominated director recently put her signature stamp on “Lovecraft Country’s” episode “Strange Case.” Now, she is lending her vision to OWN’s new series, “Delilah,” a legal drama centering Maahra Hill in the titular role as a lawyer trying to juggle her personal and professional lives.

Just as Delilah’s personal life begins to get more complicated she finds herself in the middle of a legal firestorm, facing off against her best friend, Tamara (Jill Marie Jones), for the first time in her career. Through her work on films like “Janine” and “Stranger Inside,” as well as her contributions to series like “All Rise,” “Dear White People,” and “Queen Sugar,”  Dunye consistently gives the world an in-depth look into her views on race, sexuality, and gender.

For the Liberian-born director, it has been a career about creating space for people to see themselves. “Black women like me who are lesbian or queer or have a variety of aspects of themselves exist,” Dunye said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “I’m pushing more toward the authentic. Going back to ‘Janine,’ that was really digging deep into a place of vulnerability. After that, the rest of it was just like, ‘We’ve got to do this because there is no Black lesbian canon of cinema,’ at least in fiction or in formats that are not documentary.”

Though there have been some strides in Black representation, onscreen Black queer women are still very much underrepresented in Hollywood. There was a 15-year gap between Dunye’s “The Watermelon Woman” and Dee Rees’ “Pariah,” which debuted in 2011. “The wait is the issue,” Dunye said. “I would love to stand hand-in-hand with a variety of different kinds of storytelling and stories by Black lesbians from around the diaspora and around the gender spectrum. But, our society has this huge bias to not be inclusive about women that identify and look like us and have stories. There are folks like Lena Waithe and the characters that Lena creates, and we see them now in the DC and the Marvel world. But we also see as Effie Brown says, ‘the dipped-in-chocolate version,’ we don’t see the authentic experience.”

Amid streaming services and shifts in funding, Dunye points out that much of the actual progress regarding inclusivity has been solely on TV. “Technology has allowed more people to have access,” she said. “But, to get work that’s in the feature world, with those budgets that are very high, with talent that is either authentic or inclusive, it does not exist. What I’m waiting for and what I’m working on is to see them on the big screen, to see them as adaptations of novels. Queer women of color have been writing their minds and hands off for years. Yet how many of those stories are getting these epic ‘Queen’s Gambit’ moments? It’s great that we’re having these small feats, but there’s so much work we have to do. Even in the light of what’s happening with documentaries, we see a lot of queer POC directors and subject matters, but nothing that is about a celebration. It’s about still bodies in trouble. A year where we have one of each will be the year that we have figured out one piece of the combination lock.”

For now, Dunye continues to do her part in centering Black women’s stories. Directing the first two episodes of “Delilah,” a story about a Black woman trying to hold it all together, amid a global pandemic forced her to lean into the scrappy tactics that she honed in her early years as a director. “It was very difficult to shoot a pilot,” she said of Hollywood’s COVID-19 protocols. “What I was able to do as a director was to create trust and to go the extra mile to make my cast feel comforted. ‘Delilah’ really was a super hard job.”

Maahra Hill in "Delilah"

Maahra Hill in “Delilah”

OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network

Just as it’s been important for Dunye to help build the cannon for Black lesbians onscreen, she also feels it’s imperative that Black women tell their own stories. Though “Delilah” and “Greenleaf” creator Craig Wright is a white man, he steps away from the table and allows his writer’s room, actors and directors to bring his stories to life. “Certain kinds of filmmaking is about who you are as a person, and I think Hollywood has not evolved enough to see those pairings shift,” Dunye said. “Do I think it’s right that so many white people are telling Black people’s stories? No. We know what’s at stake. A show like ‘Queen Sugar,’ it does need a woman’s voice and women directors.”

Thus far, Dunye’s work and perspective have been about visibility and forcing others to see her. “There’s the concept of creating yourself when there’s nothing there, the invisibility blues that we feel, the disidentification that we feel,” she said. “‘The Watermelon Woman’ allows people to speak from those spaces or gives people that door that they have already walked through so they can continue to walk, tall and proud. It has given people permission to be on their mission. The film says, ‘Get over yourself and be yourself.’ I think that’s the hardest thing for us to do, Black, brown, straight, whatever — we stand in the way of our own possibility. You have everything you need; you have all the tools, all the connections, and all the elements of an epic story. Just let it out and let it live. People need to show up in places where they can be a possibility, as opposed to showing up in those negative spaces where they are in conflict or feel trapped.”

Amid the debut of “Delilah” and helming some forthcoming episodes in Season 3 of “The Umbrella Academy,” Dunye has several stories still left in the canon. “I move on next to shoot another very important women-centric, women directors, women collaborators story, FX’s ‘Y: The Last Man.’ I just optioned Jewelle Gomez’s ‘The Gilda Stories,’ which is an amazing Black women’s sci-fi, time-travel vampire story. I’ve wanted this for years. And there’s also another British novel that I’m attached to and developing called ‘Trumpet’ by Jackie Kay about fictional jazz trumpeter Joss Moody, who hid his transgender identity until his death. I’m sticking in the wheelhouse with what I know and love to do and putting a spotlight on where we came from and where we’re going.”

“Delilah” airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on OWN. 

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