by Isis Asare
If I didn’t define myself for myself,
I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive. ~Audre Lorde
The work of Cheryl Dunye and Yvonne Welbon created an unprecedented level of visibility and access for queer women of color – particularly Black Lesbians – in cinema. The movies and archives they created required major investments of time, energy, and money despite being often overlooked by mainstream media. However, those efforts broke new ground for queer women of color filmmakers.
The section below highlights some of Dunye’s and Welbon ’s most salient accomplishments to date and describe their impact on the queer women of color community.
The Watermelon Woman: The release of The Watermelon Woman was a watershed moment in Black lesbian cinema as it was the first full length feature directed by an African American lesbian. It was theatrically released and distributed by First Run Films in 1996. In that same year, the South African Constitution was amended to protect the LGBTI rights. Almost twenty years later, the film continues to inspire Black Lesbian filmmakers such as Tiona McClodden (black./womyn.:conversations with lesbians of African descent), Nekisa Cooper and Dee Rees (Pariah), and Zanele Muholi (Difficult Love).
Living with Pride – Ruth Ellis @ 100: In 1999, Yvonne Welbon released and self-distributed Living With Pride – Ruth Ellis @ 100. Like The Watermelon Women, the film provides a historical context to Black lesbian life in the United States. The film won 10 best documentary awards in film festivals across the globe. Road to Pride, a documentary centered around one of the first South African pride festivals, follows the lead set by Welbon by using cinema as a medium to record queer history.
Stranger Inside: Stranger Inside was Dunye’s second film. Financed by HBO, it aired in June of 2001 and reached a larger audience in one evening than The Watermelon Woman did in one year of festival release. With its clean-cut photography and linear narrative, it made an overtly Black lesbian film accessible to the general American public. In contrast, images of Black lesbian life are rarely included in South African mainstream media and queer women of color films such as Difficult Love, The World Unseen, and Road to Pride are screened more widely outside of the country.
Sisters In Cinema: Sisters In Cinema, both the website and the 2003 documentary, make a bold proclamation: Black woman filmmakers exist and are relevant. It allows the public to see, often for the first time, the breadth of film created by this community. Her site lists hundreds of films, and continues to inspire African and African American woman, such as Nodi Murphy (OutInAfrica) and Isis Asare (Sistah Sinema), passionate about building communities centered around cinema.
Both Welbon and Dunye are being considered for the Tribeca Film Institute Affinity Grant for African American filmmakers breaking ground in their field of media. The recipient will be selected based upon the results of public online voting. It is exciting to have not one but two lesbian filmmakers to support in the selection process. Supporters can vote twice daily for as many filmmakers as they choose. You can vote here: http://affinity.strutta.com/entries.
About the author
Isis Asare is the founder of Sistah Sinema, a monthly event hosted in various cities screening queer women of color (QWOC) cinema. Asare recently launched Sistah Sinema – Online, a queer women of color (QWOC) video-on-demand channel on BuskFilms.com.
NB: Please note that Inkanyiso will be screening Living with Pride @100 by Yvonne in May 2013.
Check upcoming announcements for exact date, time and place.