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Urban Niche: Inner-City LGBT Cinema

Urban Niche: Inner-City LGBT Cinema

The media-driven stereotype of the LGBT community is largely of an affluent white community. The well turned out men of Queer Eye putting you in fancy clothes, decor and food. Will rooming with Grace in a Manhattan apartment. A trendy liberal in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco. To the degree that society wants to think about homosexuals, they want gay to mean happy and fabulous. This isn’t the reality for many, especially LGBT youth from poor urban communities. It’s a sad fact that Black Protestant and Hispanic Catholic parents are often less accepting of homosexuality, leaving these kids in a bind. A few recent films have attempted to shine a light on this reality, though as one director noted, often reduced by distributors to “urban niche” (urban meaning Black and niche meaning LGBT) and not likely to have broad appeal.

Leave It On The Floor is a film that proudly walks in the footsteps of the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning. That documentary highlighted the drag “ball” sub-culture in New York City, an interesting world of improvised fashion and dancing that influenced Madonna’s Vogue. What this culture really provided was a family to those who may no longer be accepted at home. As is often the case, Leave It On The Floor uses the power of fiction narrative to bring a more exposed emotional heart that isn’t always revealed to a documentarian’s lens.

Brad is kicked out of the house by his mother and quickly falls in with a “House” of gay men and trans women who compete in the balls. The ball scenes are high-energy with great dance choreography while the film often uses song to emphasize the more emotional points of the story, ranging from standard relational drama to some moments that really devastate in how they speak to the LGBT experience. This truly is the song and dance for the new generation.

Pariah is another film that goes into the Black community as young lesbian Alike deals with the pressure of coming to terms with her sexual and gender identity while surrounded by a tense family situation. Her mother is determined not to let her daughter go down the path that Alike’s attire indicates to her. It’s a film that could be a bit standard but it sets Alike’s own gender stress up against her sister, who is chided for being too feminine, and her father, surrounded by peer pressures from less dignified men.

Finally, Gun Hill Road has a father come home from prison to find his son has started transitioning to be female. In addition to watching the father’s struggle, the film is notable for observing the significant process of making oneself presentable as another gender, and some of the disconcerting elements that come from trying to do so on the cheap.

Aside from telling powerful stories that are underrepresented in the media landscape, these films are notable for bringing a lot of new talent on the scene in the form of young directors like Dee Rees and Rashaad Ernesto Green and actors like Harmony Santana, Adepero Oduye and Barbie-Q, many of whom are part of the LGBT community. This is all a boon for diversity on the screen and behind the scenes.

-Erik Bondurant