20 Years of Black Lesbian Cinema

A slew of unheralded but significant films helped pave the way for critically acclaimed Pariah.

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Courtesy of Focus Features

Dee Rees' debut film, Pariah, has rightfully been celebrated for its tender coming-out and coming-of-age story of a shy yet sexually curious 17-year-old African-American girl, Alike (Adepero Oduye).

An unprecedented black LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) success at the Sundance Festival in January, the film was immediately picked up by Focus Features for distribution and has since received two nominations for the Spirit Awards, which recognize independent film. In November, Rees was awarded breakthrough director of the year at the Gotham Awards.

Clearly, the movie's positive critical reception owes much to the brilliant dramatic performances of newcomers Oduye and Pernell Walker, veterans Charles Parnell and Kim Wayans, Bradford Young's beautiful cinematography and Rees' subtle yet sophisticated depiction of Alike and her middle-class African-American family's coming to terms with her lesbian identity.

But Pariah is also indebted to a cadre of often overlooked but no less important documentaries and coming-out films released during the height of black lesbian filmmaking from 1991 to 1996.

In 1993 filmmaker Michelle Parkerson wrote about the birth of a "new generation" of gay and lesbian filmmakers of color whose work challenged stereotypes and stigmas about black lesbian and gay lives on the big screen. Filmmaker Yvonne Welbon, founder and director of Sisters in Cinema and curator of the "Sisters in the Life" black lesbian transmedia project, calls 1991-1996 the "golden age" of a black queer cinema.

"That was the period of time when we had the most women producing the widest variety of work," Welbon said in an email interview. "Approximately 50 percent of all work produced was made during that five-year time period. Very little work is being produced today by out black lesbian media makers. So maybe Dee Rees is part of the trend of the mainstreaming of niche content that we see happening across all media platforms."

In her essay " 'Joining the Lesbians': Cinematic Regimes of Black Lesbian Visibility," film critic Kara Keeling attributes the rise of these self-identified "black lesbian films" to their roots in the larger social movements of the late 1960s and 1970s. These filmmakers not only were children of the civil rights, black power, women's and lesbian and gay movements, but also grew up as beneficiaries of a more nuanced identity politics with which they infused their work.

Moreover, this golden age of black lesbian filmmaking should be considered part of the new wave of black cinema that included Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It and Jungle Fever, Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust and, of course, Marlon Riggs' Tongues Untied and Black Is ... Black Ain't, two groundbreaking documentaries that explored racial and sexual identities.

While Parkerson has been making films since 1973, her most notable films -- Storme: The Lady of the Jewel Box, the story of Storme DeLarverie, emcee and male impersonator at the Jewel Box Revue, the first integrated gender-impersonation show; and A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde, co-directed with Ada Gay Griffin -- were released during this heyday of black lesbian filmmaking.

The most critically acclaimed movie of this period was Cheryl Dunye's The Watermelon Woman, a clever mocumentary about a black lesbian filmmaker researching the life of a relatively unknown black actress who played "mammy roles" in the '30s. The main character, Cheryl (played by Dunye), discovers that Fae Richards, the actress dubbed "the Watermelon Woman," was actually in a sexual relationship with the white female director, Martha Page, and was part of a vibrant underground black lesbian community in Philadelphia throughout her life.