The ‘Diversity Test’: Is the London LGBT Film Festival a white-only affair? by Christina Fonthes
Now in its 28th year, the highly-anticipated London Lesbian Gay Film Festival returned to the Southbank this year boasting a new name: BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival.
The festival, which is headed by the British Film Institute (BFI), is one of the longest running festivals of its kind in the world, and is much-loved by Queer folk and cinephiles alike. This year’s festival-goers were treated to three gala films -Hong Khaou’s Lilting; Sophie Hyde’s 52 Tuesdays; and Antonio Hen’s The Last Match -, over 50 feature films from 20 countries, as well as a number of expositions and panel discussions.
The head of BFI’s Cinemas and Festivals, Australian-born Claire Stewart, said the rename was to
“reflect the increasing diversity of the programme and the people who identify with and embrace it”.
Alarm bells immediately set off whenever I hear that one of our formidable British institutions decides to be more ‘diverse’. The term ‘diversity’ is usually followed by words such as ‘multicultural’, ‘celebrate’, ‘embrace’, ‘heritage’, ‘inclusive’, ‘equality’and other mundane and unoriginal terms and phrases that have been recycled so much by politicians, the media and arts organisations that they have become meaningless.
The festival received criticism for removing the words ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ from the name, and has been accused of appealing to a straighter and younger audience. As a black queer woman, the biggest qualm, for me, remains the issue of race. From the organisational structure to the audience that attend the screenings, the festival is, and always has been, a celebration of white Queer culture.
The ‘Diversity Test’
Out of the 122 features, shorts and archive films that were screened at the festival, only six have two or more (named) main characters that are black:
- The Abominable Crime – a documentary exploring homophobia in Jamaica
- Veil of Silence – a documentary exploring homophobia in Nigeria
- Trans Lives Matter! Justice for Islan Nettles – a moving document of a community vigil for Islan Nettles, a victim of transphobia
- Born This Way – a documentary about homophobia in Cameroon
- Fashion Girls – a documentary about a group of gay men and transwomen in Brazil talking about their lives and their dance troupe
- Big Words – a feature film about a group of black American men who used to be in a hip-hop band
And of the six films, four are about black homophobia/transphobia, and two are about black people singing and dancing.
From this short list, it is safe to say that the BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival is inline with the mainstream media’s agenda to keep black faces invisible. And like with all the other media organisations in the UK, when it comes to the representation of black people on screen – the representation we have become so accustomed to it seems, at times, futile to challenge it – we are presented with the same one-dimensional images of black people who are either engaged in violence and criminal activity or entertaining (through the mediums of sports and music) – the latter usually being within the form of dancing or singing/rapping to Hip Hop and/or RnB music accompanied by images of hypermasculine men and over- sexualised women.
The LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) community are not exempt from racism (be it institutional or otherwise), and the conversation about stereotypes and the limited narrative of black people must also include them. To me, it comes as no surprise that less than five per cent of the festival’s films featured black people; but is worth noting that the invisibility of black queer faces and voices within LGBT spaces fuel the stereotype that black queers do not exist and that all black people are homophobic.
Film is a powerful medium for raising awareness of social and political issues, and whilst it is extremely important to highlight the homophobic and transphobic violence that occurs within black communities, it is just as important to ask why it is that the only narratives about black queers are centred around black homophobia/transphobia and violence.
The under-representation of black people at the festival, and within the wider context of queer cinema, says that black queer lives are not significant enough to document. I ask: where are the short films about our first same-sex school crushes? Where are the comedies about our coming-out experiences? Where are the dramas about being turned away from nightclubs because the bouncers do not think black people are gay? Where are our biopics? Where are our films about suicide, depression, sex, love, romance and friendship? Where are the insights into bisexuality, polyamory and gender-non-conforming identities?
Funding and the ‘White Saviour Complex’
The lack of representation and the misrepresentation of black queers can be attributed to two key factors: first, the lack of funding and fiscal sponsors; black filmmakers (both queer and non-queer) struggle to secure funding from sources that are easily accessed by their white counterparts. Of the few films that are out there, the majority have a black cast and a white production. The recent wave of cutbacks from the government and arts organisations will no doubt contribute to this problematic situation.
The second factor is the White Saviour Complex – although the term was originally used to refer to white Americans, its characteristics can also be applied to white British people. The white saviour complex allows the white LGBT community to view black queers not as equals facing homophobia but as an ‘other’, an oppressed people who need to be saved. This is illustrated in the news and media coverage of the anti-LGBT laws and policies that were recently introduced by Nigeria and Uganda, which differed immensely to the coverage of the draconian laws introduced in Russia. The latter is presented as a modern country whose harsh laws call for international support and solidarity with Russian LGBT people, whilst the other nations are presented as barbaric, backwards and in need of help.
As Britain and America continue to hold themselves up as the beacons of civilisation and the LGBT voice of reason, we ought to remember that same-sex marriage was only made legal last month in the UK. And, Texas, Louisiana, South Carolina and several other states in America have always had anti-LGBT laws and policies identical to those recently introduced in Nigeria and Uganda.
The need for collaboration and solidarity
In twenty years time when black queer youth are trying to find images and representations of themselves, they will Google ‘black gay films’, and the only thing that will come up will be films about violence and homophobia/transphobia. They will not know about studs and femmes; they will not know that Angela Davis and Bayard Rustin, two great leaders of the civil rights movement, were queer. They will not know about the plethora of black queer night clubs in the streets of London; they will not know of the work of fine art photographer Ajamu or his ‘Fierce: Portraits of young black queers’
Audre Lorde’s revolutionary phrase:
“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change”
should be the mantra of all black writers, creatives and activists. It would be irresponsible of us to leave it up to organisations like the BFI, who deemed it appropriate to host a prison-themed after party, to have more representations of positive black queer and non-queer experiences. At best, all they can offer is tokenistic gestures. The only real way to challenge the absence of black queer stories and the over-representation of white male narratives is by pooling resources and collaborating and supporting one another in order to create, publish and distribute our own stories.
Christina Fonthes is a Manchester-based translator, and Afrofeminist blogger. Born in Kinshasa, Congo and raised in London, she is an advocate for LGBTQ (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer) rights. She is a founding member of Rainbow Noir, a safe space created for and by Queer People of Colour in Manchester. Christina is a regular contributor at Black Feminists Manchester She can be found on Twitter at @CongoMuse and Musings of a Congolese Lesbian blog . Also see her article British Film and Television: Where Are All The Black Gays?