Entertainment

The Films, TV, and Books That Celebrate Black Queer Women

Here are the marginalized stories, from 'The Color Purple' to 'Bessie,' that haven’t been airbrushed for mainstream audiences.

by Tari Ngangura
Jun 25 2018, 7:15pm

Images courtesy of Wikipedia Commons. 

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Films featuring black queer characters are incredibly hard to come by. It seems like once in every decade or so something is created that makes people stand up and take momentary notice, Paris is Burning in the early 90s, Punks in the 2000s, Tangerine and Moonlight in the recent 2010s. But if you’re a black queer woman, it is even harder trying to find films or literature which showcase that kind of love. It’s more likely you’ll be left projecting queer relationships onto the heterosexual characters you see; kind of like deciding that Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett would have been the perfect couple in Waiting to Exhale if they’d just left the dusty men in their lives.

Vulture writer Alex Jung wrote about this moment being a cultural peak for LGBTQ representation but with a very manipulative caveat. Instead of telling these marginalized stories with the nuance and depth they need, mainstream media has chosen to brush queer stories with the marketable label of “these people are just like us,” with the us being heterosexual couples. By telling queer stories within a heteronormative media industry that idolizes sameness and takes guidance from whiteness, it’s not difficult to see why an exploration of black queer female relationships is so lacking and largely remains invisible.

As dire as representation is, there have been watershed moments in both literature and films where the relationships of black queer women took center stage and were explored with a radical intimacy and compassion that has made them unforgettable capsules of black queer experiences. Below are ten representations which deserve to be highlighted this Pride Month.

The Color Purple

Celie and Shugg are two characters from Alice Walker’s cultural encyclopedia of Southern black life whose queer relationship was one of the most profound and reflective to appear in literature. Walker portrayed the reality of their black love—how it was affected by both patriarchy, anti-black racism, and domestic violence. Without tying their relationship in a perfect bow and offering it to the readers as a glorious happy-ever-after, she chose to portray it as the calm part in the middle of a consistently raging storm. Because to be black and a woman in the South meant no respite from violence, but Celie and Shugg at least found a sliver of calm by choosing to love each other.

Set it Off

This is already the most fire heist film ever made—sorry entire Ocean’s series. The camaraderie, loyalty, and dreams shared amongst women who just want better for themselves have made it an enduring classic and one of the best parts is the literal ride or die relationship between Cleo (played by Queen Latifah) and her partner Ursula (played by Samantha MacLachlan). I don’t remember Ursula saying anything beyond a whisper and a glance, yet her presence was reassurance that Cleo had someone other than her friends who loved and looked out for her. Also, Ursula’s style was peak femme goals. I mean come on, that platinum short hair? The gold hoops? GOALS.

Zami

In this Audre Lorde autobiography, she combined both myth and personal experiences to talk about the relationships she shared with women that were built off strength, mutual respect, and the fight for survival in the midst of Jim Crow, and political repression during the McCarthy era of the US. Lorde chose to trace her growth through the relationships she had with the women who would ultimately shape her politics. The book is as much about black love between women as it is about America’s failure to love black people.

Rafiki

The first Kenyan film to premiere at the Cannes film festival that was simultaneously banned in its home country for “its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law," is one that dares to highlight a relationship between two women in a country where such an “offense” is punishable by almost 15 years in jail. Irrespective of the harsh environment in the film and in reality, the two leads Kena and Ziki fall in love in a candy-colored haze where all the scenes are captured via a pastel lens. For black queer African women, this film centered the tenuous reality of their daily lives while also showcasing their existence and making it known that, “we see you.”

Bessie

The biographical television movie of Blues legend Bessie Smith starring Queen Latifah touched on quite a few things that affected the trajectory of Bessie’s career. From colorism and American anti-blackness to depression and alcoholism. Bessie’s relationship with Lucille (portrayed by Tika Sumpter) is one of the healthiest relationships Bessie has throughout the film with Lucille being a composition of the different women loved by the real Smith who was openly and proudly queer. In a film and music industry that has always failed to honor and adequately pay homage to black arts pioneers in genres that have now been usurped by whiteness, the story of Bessie is a welcome change.

Under the Udala Trees

The 2015 novel by Nigerian author Chinelo Okparanta is about Ijeoma, a young Nigerian girl whose family is displaced during the Biafran War. In the backdrop of a vicious three-year civil unrest, the book shows the links connecting the love Ijeoma has for herself, the girl she falls in love with, and a country whose traditional culture sees her chosen relationship as a taboo and whose political violence makes it difficult to imagine living a long and fruitful life. The ending finds her settling but not before readers see the journey she takes to find what it is that really matters to her.

Pariah

Premiering at the Sundance film festival almost seven years ago, Pariah showed a nightmare so many queer women dread. Falling in love with a woman who is unable to embrace her queerness and chooses to either keep the relationship a secret or deny its validity. It was heartbreaking seeing Pariah make her peace with what was her first rejection, the second being that of her mother. As Pariah struggled with what these losses meant for her, it was gratifying seeing her at the film’s end fully accepting who she was and slowly starting to fall in love with all the parts of herself.

The Wire

Detective Kima Greggs was one of the only major female characters on the acclaimed HBO series and her relationship with her partner Cheryl was one of the only queer relationships visible on television at the time. For a series known for its realistic and unflinching portrayal of poverty and crime in Baltimore, it would be easy to overlook the fact that Gregg’s queerness came without any sense of internal conflict and external antagonism.

Between Women

The popular web series has carved a niche for itself on the web by portraying heavy-handed issues like infidelity and money woes with a wit and humor that has drawn over a million views to the series. Now in its fourth season, it continues to draw people while staying true to its core audience of queer black women.

Dirty Computer

Janelle Monae’s critically lauded emotion picture was one of the biggest music events of this year. Coming almost eight years after The ArchAndroid, Dirty Computer weaves sci-fi into the life of Zen, Che, and Jane 57821 as they navigate through a totalitarian regime whose government erases the parts of people deemed defective and ultimately “dirty.” The emotion picture/album is over 45 minutes of black queer magic with the fashion, hairstyles, colors, and beats that serve as a killer celebration of black queer resistance in an anti-black, queerphobic world.

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