Lee Daniels recently announced the premise behind his upcoming remake of the ’80s sentimental classic Terms of Endearment. In the original, Debra Winger’s character dies of cancer, but in this filmmaker’s version, which also will feature Oprah Winfrey, one of the leads will have AIDS—a disease she contracted by having sex with a man who is presumably on the down low.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, Daniels believes this storyline is “important.”
“I’ve got to tell stories that are important to me, and so many African-American women died,” he said. “I want to make Flap [played by Jeff Daniels in the 1983 film] gay and infect the Debra Winger character. And then we explore the ’80s in a different way.”
Now, as a journalist who has covered AIDS in black America for over a decade, I commend the effort to bring stories about the epidemic to the screen. Aside from HBO’s Life Support, starring Queen Latifah, black HIV-positive women are usually completely ignored or unfairly demonized (think: Tyler Perry’s Temptation). But there is a way to center these voices without throwing black gay and bisexual men under a bus.
There just has to be.
I’ll admit, I haven’t seen the script, but I have an inkling that I really don’t need to given that these down-low narratives have one goal and one goal only: To paint black queer men as the enemy of our community. And let’s be real, since the down low became a cultural phenomenon in the early 2000s, pop culture’s handling of the topic hasn’t been known for its nuance and empathy.
These bogeyman cautionary tales are just a tired extension of our own paranoia and homophobia. But here’s the gag: It’s all been debunked. Yes, there are closeted black men who sleep with men and women and black women who have been infected by positive closeted men. But study after study has shown that the down low is not fueling HIV among African-American women.
The true culprit is a combination of factors, including high rates of undiagnosed and untreated sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV; disproportionate poverty and poor health; IV drug use; stigma, sexism and homophobia; and mass incarceration in black America that takes significant numbers of black men out of the community, leaving a lot of straight brothas on the outside to share the same female partners. Oh, and straight black men get HIV—roughly 1,900 each year—and 87 percent of the 4,100 black women who are newly diagnosed contract HIV through heterosexual sex ... so I’ll let you connect the dots.
But by all means, let’s keep pointing the finger at gay and bi black men.
It’s not just these alternative facts that infuriate me; it’s also the timing. Wasn’t it just a few months ago that Moonlight won a slew of Oscars, including Best Picture? Barry Jenkins’ insanely beautiful film about the struggles to come to terms with one’s sexuality, the carnage homophobia leaves behind and the beauty of touch between two black men was a real sign that we are truly evolving.
Meanwhile, the premise of Terms of Endearment 2.0 seems to be the exact opposite—dated, irresponsible and pedestrian—kind of like Dave Chappelle’s recent Netflix specials.
Now, before I am reminded that Daniels is an actual black gay man who, through his own life experiences, is capable of penning a multilayered and compassionate screenplay, let’s look at the receipts.
For years, the Empire creator has been caught in the crosshairs of “the sunken place,” making disparaging comments about black women, denying that racism has impacted his own life and career, and insisting that black folks are more homophobic than anyone else. Just a few months ago, he shared that he cast a white actress for the lead of his Fox show Star because “the country needed to heal” and this “white girl is so fabulous that black people will embrace her and white people will embrace her.”
Between these obvious internalized demons and the chronic heavy-handedness of his work in general, we all know how this remake is going to play out. And as a black woman, an HIV/AIDS advocate, an LGBTQ ally and an aspiring filmmaker, I am like Auntie Maxine when it comes to No. 45: I refuse to have a “just wait and see” attitude with this melodramatic mess.
Directors cannot just carve out black gay male characters from vilifying stereotypes and play revisionist history with the HIV epidemic and expect people to give them the benefit of the doubt because they are gay themselves, have a few Oscar nominations under their belt and an extensive IMDb page.
Not in this #StayWoke era.
Right now the state of black film—straight and LGBTQ—is at an interesting intersectional crossroads. Looking at what we’ve seen so far this year and what’s coming down the pipeline, it’s clear that black writers and directors are expanding the rigid notion of what it means to be black in America, and they are doing so by telling fresh and complicated stories about our lives in damn near every genre.
Now is not the time for us to move backward—we cannot afford to. And quiet as it’s kept, Mr. Daniels, neither can you.
Kellee Terrell is an award-winning filmmaker and Chicago-based freelance writer who writes about race, gender, health and pop culture. Her articles and interviews have been featured in Essence, The Advocate, Hello Beautiful, Ebony, Al-Jazeera, The Body and the Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter.