By: C Icart, Staff Writer
Content warning: descriptions of anti-Black violence, homophobia, transphobia, and trans misogyny
From August 11–21, Out On Screen hosted the Vancouver Queer Film Festival for the 34th year. The festival “is the largest queer arts event in Western Canada.” This year it was presented by RBC and had both in-person and online screenings. Out of the 97 films shown this year, I chose to watch BLACK AS U R. It included an Indigenous welcome from Sempúlyan, a Two-Spirited Squamish man.
Theatre and film director Michael Rice filmed this documentary in New York at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests. It follows him talking to Black and queer folks about anti-Black violence, homophobia, and transphobia in Black communities. Rice bears witness to the lives of those deemed “too queer” to have their Black lives matter. The documentary relies on interviews with scholars, activists, survivors, and Black queer and trans folks of all ages. Rice also draws on his own experiences to make parallels and connections between current events and historical ones.
As a Black, queer, and trans person, this film hit close to home and was sometimes difficult to watch. It included graphic footage of violent acts and touched on how these clips often go viral. I had to pause multiple times as the film didn’t shy away from the brutal details when telling the stories of queer and trans Black people. The film juxtaposes the media coverage of George Floyd’s murder with the public attack of Iyanna Dior, a Black trans woman, in a convenience store in Minneapolis — the same city.
While recounting how a mob of people beat her, Dior explained she fought to get back into the convenience store as she was being dragged out, stating, “If I’m going to die, I’m going to die on camera.” This was a particularly devastating quote to me because it highlighted some of the complicated feelings I have about footage of anti-Black violence being shared online. But as much as I wish it weren’t true, Dior was right. Had she died that day, that security footage may have been the only way that people would have known the full truth of what happened to her.
Black queer and trans folks have been at the forefront of Black liberation initiatives. Bayard Rustin, the man who designed the March on Washington was gay and two of the three Black Lives Matter founders are queer women. And yet, queer and trans folks are othered in Black communities to the extent of erasure. The film is careful to talk about this phenomenon without implying that Black communities are more homophobic than white communities.
BLACK AS U R is more about how homophobia manifests, alienates, and isolates folks already experiencing other forms of marginalization. As noted on their website, the film asks Black America why it fights “against racial injustice, but disregards injustice” against Black queer and trans individuals when, “after all, we are just as black as you are.”
The film explores several topics, including Christianity, sex work, substance abuse, suicide, and houselessness. It touches on different Black spaces like churches and barbershops and how they can be healing spaces for some Black people, but spaces of violence and trauma for queer and trans Black folks. It is also mindful of including the communities that Black, queer, and trans people build for themselves by touching on the ballroom scene.
BLACK AS U R is required viewing. It is a difficult watch but it is also incredibly powerful. The only way forward is by acknowledging these hard truths and breaking violent cycles. The barbershop scene included a glimpse of what the future could look like if youth were to challenge homophobic and transphobic views. But it’s not enough to rely on the youth — the people experiencing violence today do not have time to wait for another generation.