Living in New York City gives you a perspective of struggle, of hustle — the belief that if you deprive yourself and focus on your craft, you, too, can have it all. Leaving New York, even for a day, can deliver a certain clarity, akin to learning that razor blades are not an effective form of weight loss.
New York is seen as a mecca for culture and diversity — a view that is both our gift and our curse. We are a city wrapped in ourselves; we dwell in our circles and use our friends and interests to reinforce our views of the world. The city keeps a lot of artists suffocated like the roots of a plant that has overgrown its pot.
Darius Clark Monroe, John Goff and I left our tightly woven Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, community for a much-needed vacation, exchanging our unlimited Metro cards for the highway. My friend Darius' latest short film, Slow, was in competition at the 2011 Martha's Vineyard African-American Film Festival.
Slow is the story of two black men who arrange a date after meeting on the Internet. The film had previously premiered at some of the more esteemed gay film festivals, but Martha's Vineyard was its first foray into the black arena.
Martha's Vineyard is a small island off the coast of Massachusetts that has a year-round community, but its notoriety comes from the many notables who call this place home during the summer months. Esteemed intellectuals and celebrities such as Bill Clinton, Henry Louis Gates Jr. (editor-in-chief of The Root) and Vernon Jordan have been known to frequent the island. The Vineyard can serve as a vacation spot for people trying to rehash memories and those trying to create them — we fell into the latter.
Being on the East Coast always invokes a historical perspective. Such concepts as "the pursuit of happiness" and "all men are created equal" seem plausible in these surroundings. As narrow as the Founding Fathers' initial vision may have been, it encompassed the feel of the Vineyard. Rolling hills and salty waves colliding with green grass and pebble beaches — when you're in the middle of this kind of landscape, only concepts of freedom can emerge.
Upon our arrival on the Vineyard, we feasted. Battered shrimp, clam strips and oysters were served with heaping portions of french fries and cole slaw. Our host poured a lovely sauvignon blanc, and we drank, ate and laughed well into the wee hours of the morning. The subtle crunch and sweetness of the shrimp was complemented by the oakiness of the wine. The eruption of laughter, toasting of glasses and roar of the crickets served as sound track for the evening. Serene.
After waking up late in the morning, we spent the afternoon socializing. Various meet and greets for the directors and a few panel discussions all made for an informative day. The island was filled with black filmmakers; some came from Iowa, and there was a group from Los Angeles.
A large bunch of us were Brooklyn-based and meeting for the first time. Before the final screening, my friends and I relaxed with a bottle of wine and discussed the probability of actually winning the festival. Since we had viewed the film numerous times, we agreed that we would watch the audience's reaction to the film. The audience would be mostly black, and we hoped that Slow would allow for an opportunity to show the black community different shades of humanity and sexuality.
The film featured a surprising four murders — all gunshots to the head — in its brief run time. Every scene seemed to captivate the audience, every death more impressive than the one before. The crowd was silent and tense save for a few gasps. The film ended. The audience applauded.
The lights went up, and the heat of the room seemed to lift a bit. The director bowed, the lights went down and Slow began.
The narration creaked through the speakers. As I watched, the audience — who moments before had sat riveted by point-blank murder — still seemed to be on edge, waiting for more gunshots. None came. Eventually the audience began to shift and fidget, like children in church.
As the film progressed, head scratches became audible. A mother grabbed up her small children and walked out, followed by another gentleman and an older woman. A woman sat with her head down, seemingly afraid to look up. Within the short 13 minutes of the film, the energy in the old church had shifted, and the room buzzed with confusion and misunderstanding.
The applause seemed tepid, but it managed to grow to a slow rumble. Darius' success, we realized, was that the film had indeed made people uncomfortable. The idea of a gay relationship forming from an online hookup had startled people.
In this age of "down-low brothers" and an abundance of effeminate gay best friends, there are still black people who can't accept gay intimacy. The reaction, while far from pitchforks and protests, showed us that even as black people expand and reach newer heights, we leave our art behind to dwell in the same shallow pools. We need to embrace all areas of our culture — this includes homosexuality.
Once all the finalist films had been shown, it was time to announce a winner. A roar of applause and cheers greeted the surprising news that Slow had been selected as best short film at the festival. It seems that winning is just as infectious as fear, and now it was victory's turn to circulate through the room. That night we danced and celebrated.
Leaving the next day for New York was difficult. We boarded our ferry knowing that our vacation was fading. Our minds drifted to what stories we would tell next, and how far out of Brooklyn they could take us. Our freedom comes not only from exploring new places but also from seeing how wide our range of expression can be.
You can watch Slow on Vimeo here.
Obatala Mawusi is a writer, filmmaker and actor based in Brooklyn, N.Y.