"When a Brooklyn landmark, the black-owned and operated Starlite, is threatened with eviction by new landlords, its 50-year history as a pre-Stonewall gay bar and dance club is in peril. This film is a history of the club, its patrons and its staff, many of whom are also deserving of national treasure status. It’s not just in London that gentrification and rising property prices tempt landlords to sell to developers in the hope of making a fast buck. The community rallies around in protest, but is it enough? The history of the Starlite and its importance to the black gay community as a privileged space is underlined by the rich testimony from elders and family members for whom the venue is simply a part of their life. With a rich soundtrack of great music, reflecting the club’s influence on the creation of disco, the film is a warning to anyone who thinks their favourite gay bar is a permanent fixture." BFI Flare
We Came To Sweat is both a fascinating snapshot of the death of the gay bar, and a sobering cautionary tale about so-called "gentrification" (a.k.a. ethnic and socio-economic cleansing), and the misplaced priorities of the (specifically black) gay community.
The Starlite Lounge opened in 1962 (yes: 1962) in Crown Heights, Brooklyn by openly gay black entrepreneur Mackie Harris. There it remained for nearly fifty years. We Came To Sweat tells the story of its rise, and tragic fall.
Director Kate Kunath's film documents the Starlite's battle for survival in agonising detail, and even though we know how the story ends, we can't help but hope against hope for a different outcome. After all, fifty years of history, and a place so precious and irreplaceable, is at stake. So the question must be asked how could the Starlite Lounge have been allowed to close? Where were the great and the good of the gay community? (Perhaps off writing a play about the whole sorry episode for the amusement of the dinner party set...) Where were New York City's wealthy black gays when their community needed them? Talk, it seems, is cheap.
We Came To Sweat is tragic, but it isn't a total downer, because Kunath also captures the spirit of the Starlite's beautiful "elders and family members", who'd seen it all, and then some. In the end, they were perhaps just too damn tired. The bad guys won, and now, the Starlite looks like this:
"The nine trans people living in Puerto Rico profiled in this inspiring documentary are a captivating, diverse group. All are treated equally – with great music and absolutely gorgeous cinematography, but without judgement. Paxx, the only trans man in the film, wants to get away from Puerto Rico. As for the women, some dream of being superstar drag queens, others would like a regular job and to just fit in. Either way, they have always looked after their own. Now the trans community is becoming increasingly politicised, fighting employment discrimination and organising a march for equality. 'Mala Mala' is an exuberant celebration of gender expression despite adversity." BFI Flare
"Despite its themes of acceptance within a diverse community, Mala Mala has been notably ignored by many LGBT film festivals around the globe," Indiewire said back in September last year. "Why can't this documentary about transgender Puerto Ricans find a home?" This year, it did, in London.
The answer to Indiewire's question must lie in Mala Mala's content. Is it a harder sell? Sure. Poor pathetic trannies and their hardships? Worthy, but I didn't want to see it. The film was chosen by my good friend Rogue "Marbie" Scott, who last year recorded a series of insightful interviews with a trans man for his YouTube channel. Prior to the screening I remarked - faggot that I am - "At least there'll be some hot Puerto Rican trade in the background" - as if that's all that mattered. Marbie was right, and I was very, very wrong: Mala Mala is - so far - the best thing at this year's BFI Flare.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that Mala Mala looks and sounds (soundtrack, guys?) fantastic. Filmmakers Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles understand that audiences must also be engaged and entertained on their journey (something Selena Blake seemingly forgot with her turgid 2013 docTaboo Yardies).
Santini and Sickles have created something very special, a film not about transgender headlines, transgender statistics, or worse, transgender controversies, but about transgender people and their stories. This is a film about life, and as Shelley Winters says in The Poseidon Adventure, "life always matters very much, doesn't it?"
"An absent mother and a harsh father don’t make for the happiest beginnings and Todd is the brother who left town, while Chet stayed, looked after his father and ran the family hardware store. When Todd’s promiscuous LA lifestyle falls apart and he is forced to return home, the story properly begins. Chet’s shy refusal to engage with a gay lifestyle is thrown into high relief by Todd’s very modern engagement with online sex, outdoor cruising and full-on misbehaving. The clash of cultures forces both of them to re-examine who they are."
It's natural that any talk of Tiger Orange will revolve around Frankie Valenti - better known as the porn star Johnny Hazzard - who stars in Wade Gasque’s debut feature. A porn star gets bums on the seats, and hogs the limelight, voluntarily or not. That burden is unfair on Valenti, and the film, distracting us from what's really important: the story. I went into the cinema blissfully unaware of Valenti's turn: Tiger Orange is just one of twelve features I'm seeing at this year's BFI Flare festival, and by the time I sat down to watch, I couldn't remember a thing I'd read about it. Valenti sure looks familiar, I thought as the film rolled. Where had I seen him before? Another indie flick? A web series? Stepping out of NFT1 (and small town California) and onto the Southbank, I found myself pleasantly surprised when it finally clicked, because Valenti is the best thing in this film. (Darryl Stephens - gay indie royalty and Noah's Arc alumni - has an all too brief cameo.)
Admittedly, he gets the best hand. Valenti is the wild Todd; he gets to be sexy, funny, and out of control. Ty Parker has the thankless task of portraying his boring, stay at home, sexless brother Chet (Varietysays, "The pic is hindered by Chet’s colorlessness: Vanilla is too flavorful a description for the character.")
Tiger Orange is an interesting twist on that hoary old trope, the polar opposite brothers. Chet (Parker) might be straight, but he isn't straight. And Todd (Valenti) isn't trying to get away from smalltown USA: he's come back. And it works. Tiger Orange is a warm, engaging, and rewarding little film - it's a "nice" film, as programmer Brian Robinson said in his introduction (he also said it's very much a "festival film", perhaps to downplay the expectations of thirsty queens who'd come to see Johnny Hazzard and not Frank Valenti). It won't set the world on fire, but anyone who's seen it will look back fondly. "Tiger Orange? That's the one with Johnny Hazzard, right? Yeah, it was a sweet movie. It was nice."
"Randy, a young black man, is wrestling unsuccessfully with his burgeoning sexuality. A member of his church choir, he has a tight cohort of school friends who seem more aware than he is of his sexuality. Meanwhile, at home Randy has to contend with his deeply religious mother, grief-stricken since his sister was mysteriously abducted. An unexpected encounter with a young actor and filmmaker changes things for Randy."
Blackbird arrives bearing a heavy load of expectation. Not only is it based upon the much-loved novel of the same name by Larry Duplechan (who went on to write not one but four sequels), it also follows director Patrik-Ian Polk's The Skinny, which has accrued a devoted fan base (and which I've warmed to in recent years since seeing it in 2012). And, as those of us who frequent gay film festivals know all too well, Blackbird is that most rare of beasts: a film about black gay men.
So how does it hold up? Pretty well, it turns out. This big-hearted picture has laughter, tears, sex and singing in equal measure. Blackbird is blessed with a talented, likeable cast. Newcomer Julian Walker is a joy as Randy, and Noah's Arc: Jumping The Broom veteran Gary LeRoi Gray gets the best lines as wisecracking Efrem. Star turns Mo'Nique and Isaiah Washington both acquit themselves admirably.
That isn't to say Blackbird is without its flaws. It feels a little like there's too many ideas in play in this film adaptation, and not enough time (or, perhaps, interest) in developing all of them. Polk would have done better to stick more closely to the source material (indeed, many of the less positive reviews of the film focus on where it strays from the novel). Efrem is particularly poorly served in this respect, his storyline left dangling. I'd have preferred to spend more time with him than on Crystal's pregnancy. And there's a huge lapse with an ill-judged rape gag - surprising, given that Polk featured a harrowing male rape in The Skinny. Rape jokes might get a big laugh, but that doesn't make them okay.
However, Blackbird is, for the most part, a warm, funny, sexy film, and it deserves every success. If you want to find out what happens next to "Randy" (the book's Johnnie Ray has been renamed here), then you only have to read Blackbird's sequel, Eight Days A Week. Randy has a long road ahead of him, but you won't regret going on it with him for a second.
In the beautiful but treacherous waters of Brazil’s Futuro Beach, two men find themselves in danger. Lifeguard Donato manages to rescue German tourist Konrad, but the other swimmer disappears beneath the waves. Mourning the sudden loss of his friend, Konrad finds solace in the arms of Donato, and the attraction between the two soon evolves into something serious. When Konrad leaves Brazil for Germany, Donato decides to join him, but after a period of happiness Donato’s past begins to haunt him...
Futuro Beach has an impressive pedigree: it's directed by Karim Aïnouz, who brought us the much-vaunted Madame Sata (2002), but his latest film is a damp squib. Leads Wagner Moura and Clemens Schick exude zero charisma; after an hour and three quarters in their company (and some eight of their years) I had no sense of who these men were, of what they were feeling, or what their story was. They're merely bystanders in Aïnouz's picture postcard scenery. I can do silent - I'm a huge fan of Tsai Ming-Liang - but Moura and Schick give me nothing. When Jesuíta Barbosa joins for the third act, he adds some much-needed zest (not to mention eye candy), but it's too little, too late.
Watch it for the stunning scenery (and a very cool sequence in the Berlin Zoo aquarium). But there's nothing else here.
The BFI Flare team may have allowed a non-white member onto the programming team, but - on tonight's offering at least - the festival remains (to coin a phrase) hideously white. It was hard not to feel my heart sinking a bit as one pair of white boys after another wrestled with their feelings in The View From Here, a collection of six shorts on the theme of coming out.
That's not to diminish the films themselves, all of which were, at least, charming and competent. Søren Green's En eftermiddag (An Afternoon) was sweet ("Mathias and Frederik hang out after school. But does Mathias have the courage to tell his friend how he really feels?"), and Neil Ely's Mirrors ("a pair of ‘straight’ guys discuss their feelings in the cramped confines of a gay club toilet cubicle") wryly truthful. But there was a certain sameness to the other films - Gryning (Stockholm Daybreak), Tomorrow, and particularly Simon Anderson's Morning Is Broken - a tired retreading of the old tropes of self-loathing, of fruitlessly pursuing the unattainable straight guy.
Tired doesn't apply to Yohann Kouam's Le Retour (The Return), which stood head and shoulders above the other films, both looking and feeling like a full length feature. Opening with a group of black youths posing for the camera, gazing nonchalantly at the sky, it stars Adama Procida as 15-year-old Willy, who "must make sense of the world around him after he learns the truth about his older brother" (a dazzlingly beautiful Yann Gael). It's a rare glimpse into other lives, other stories; Le Retour alone is worth the price of the ticket.
BFI Flare: In case you didn't get the memo, Black Lives Matter.
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall exchange sexy banter and solve a mystery in Howard Hawks classic version of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1946).
Adapted from the novel by William Faulkner, the story follows private detective Phillip Marlowe (Bogie) as he tries to track down the black mailers of a rich general with two pretty and “pretty wild” daughters (Lauren Bacall and Martha Vickers). The plot is convoluted, the action fast and furious and the dialogue fresh, funny and sexy. It’s an evening of film noir and one of Warner Brothers' best.
Remember when the Cybermen ambushed the Doctor, Tegan and Susan? Back then, you were startled by the dramatic turn of events the veteran sci-fi had taken. But not half as startled as you are now by Iago's epic proportions. "Richard Kilty said he felt 'let down' by absent members of Britain's 4x100m team at the IAAF World Relays in the Bahamas," 19-year-old Iago says. "But Ryan Bailey's thighs and Justin Gatlin's ass more than made up for it!"
Remember when Bluey Robinson went singing on the London Underground? Back then, you were startled by the melodic turn of events life had taken. But not half as startled as you are now by Michael's epic proportions. "The city of Los Angeles is suing Wells Fargo Bank," 22-year-old Michael from London says. "There's no second chances in the land of a thousand dances, the valley of ten million insanities."
Remember when Reggie Yates got his chest waxed on the radio? Back then, you were startled by the painful turn of events BBC Radio 1 had taken. But not half as startled as you are now by Sam's epic proportions. "I remember Halley's Comet from the 1985 Doctor Who serial Attack of the Cybermen," 24-year-old Sam from San Diego says. "I just can't believe it's come around again so soon!"
Remember Raven and Jujubee's devastating lip sync on RuPaul's Allstars Drag Race? Back then, you were startled by the emotional turn of events the show had taken. But not half as startled as you are now by Puru's epic proportions. "Milli Vanilli’s Fab Morvan is attempting an audacious comeback," 23-year-old Puru from the Netherlands says. "Girl, you know it's true!"
Michael Sam on the criticism he receives from the black gay community for dating a white man. “My fiance gave me the strength [to come out]. The challenge I get now is, why are you not dating a gay black guy? Why are you dating a white guy? Why would I do that? Why would I leave someone I fell in love with and have been through so many challenges with.”
Empire's queer family of colour is the real "new normal", writes Karamo Brown: "According to the Census Bureau sampling known as the American Community Survey, African-American or Latino gay couples are twice as likely as whites to be raising children."
Remember Kenny "Bricks" Wangler philosophising? Back then, you were startled by the sobering turn of events Oz had taken. But not half as startled as you are now by Simon's epic proportions. "Shop-bought sandwiches are more calorific than burgers," 20-year-old Simon from Sweden says. "But I just love being the meat between the sliced white."
emember the theme and opening titles for '80s sitcom Watching? Back then, you were startled by the gaudy turn of events the comedy had taken. But not half as startled as you are now by Andre's epic proportions. "I'm startled by the increasing cost of the Bakerloo line's rolling stock," 25-year-old Andre from Utah says. "But they're just the best way to get from Harlesden to Soho!"
Remember when Jerry exposed the secret of Festivus? Back then, you were startled by the shocking turn of events the comedy had taken. But not half as startled as you are now by Victor's epic proportions. "I'm shocked Ben Affleck's distant relative owned slaves," Victor says. "But everyone has a skeleton in the closet, right?"
Remember when the tram derailed from the viaduct and crashed into Coronation Street? Irwin Allen eat your heart out! Back then, you were startled by the shocking turn of events the soap had taken. But not half as startled as you are now by 24-year-old Jaye's epic proportions. "Only Labour will secure our basic human rights," Jaye says. "That's why I'll be voting Miliband in May!"
"I would also like to take this opportunity to squash the persistent rumours about mysterious 'disappearances' and emphasize that rural and urban areas are now enjoying a life of harmony and peace. I'm sure you're glad to hear this. And I'm happy you're glad."