Sunday, July 26, 2020

Cheryl Dunye | Janine/She Don't Fade/Potluck and the Passion


a welcoming embrace: three movies by cheryl dunye of the 90s
by Douglas Messerli

Cheryl Dunye (director and actor) Janine / 1990
Cheryl Dunye (director) She Don’t Fade / 1991
Pat Branch and Cheryl Dunye (writers), Cherly Dunye (director) Potluck and the Passion / 1993

There is something terribly comforting about watching black lesbian director Cheryl Dunye’s films. It is almost as if she greets her viewers at the gate of her own being, like it were a house into which you are immediately invited.
     I am not suggesting that she simplifies or sanitizes the issues of sexuality which these films discuss; but, particularly for those who might be a bit frightened about lesbianism, not to say the racial concerns her work sometimes calls up,  Dunye simply prepares the viewer for what the film is about to show us and the implications of what her work means ahead of time. A bit like the playwright María Irene Fornés, particularly in Fefu and Her Friends, Dunye not only directly introduces many of her films, but invites the audience into the various rooms of her house, the kitchen, living room, bedroom, and sometimes even the bathroom, where we get various perspectives of the action which her actors have already outlined, often sharing with us how they see the characters they are about to perform. Even my unknowingly racist mother, fearful of alternative sexualities, might basically have felt comfortable in watching Dunye’s seemingly amateur videos.
      One of the earliest of this period in her career, the 1990 work Janine is a monologue in which the narrator lights two candles, filmed in color, before she begins her basically black and white framed tale (the black narrator Dunye sporting a white T-shirt) that, in fact, is about a black and white teenage relationship between herself and a fellow student, Janine with whom she played basketball of Mercy of Mary Academy near Philadelphia.
     Janine lived across the “main line” in the wealthy neighborhoods Lower Merion and Bala Cynwyd side with a working mother who drove a BMW, whereas Dunye grew up in far more rustic circumstances in Philadelphia. Although Dunye has sought out the relationship with the blue-eyed, blonde Janine, she admits that, even after they had seeming become friends, there “always was a constant struggle.” “I felt insignificant,” she suggests, and wanted to be more…well white.”
     One incident speaks volumes, as Dunye describes that after a basketball practice she showered in Janine’s house, putting shampoo directly onto her hair, when her friend, observing the act, intervened: “That’s so wrong. We don’t do it that way.” Later, Janine would offer Dunye her used clothes as if her friend’s mother couldn’t afford to properly dress her.
      As she grows older, Dunye begins to perceive her sexual difference, visiting lesbian bars and, always off campus, gradually moving into sexual relationships with other women. Finally, in the 12th grade, Janine’s friend reveals to her that she is lesbian. At first, Janine seems quite at ease with the fact, but later calls to tell her that she cried for a long while after. Finally, Janine’s mother calls, suggesting that she will pay for Dunye to visit a doctor to help her with her problem.
       That ended the relationship between the girls. Yet Dunye felt, justifiably, that Janine and her mother had had the last the word, and sometime later, on a Thanksgiving, called her up, only to be reminded by Janine’s constant mention of the great times they had shared in school—few of which Dunye recalled since her mind had far more centered about her own sexual issues—her “dear” friend from the past announcing that she was now living in Washington, D.C. where she had a $30,000 job and, like her mother, drove a BMW. Several times, apparently, she mentioned to Dunye that she is soon to be married. But the final straw was when Janine brought up the fact that several of their fellow female students had had babies out of wedlock, which Janine felt was a sin.
       Slowly we observe, the two candles lit in the first moments, have now gone out. The narrator has finally realized, with a new self-confidence, that her life and Janine’s have gone in quite opposite directions.
       It is the simple frankness of this confessional narrative that puts all the weight in Dunye’s court, leaving the seemingly perfect Janine looking like a somewhat mindless bigot. The happily ever-after life that Janine is looking forward to will never be as honest, robust, and exciting as Dunye’s life, of which the short film itself is testament.
       The director’s 1991 film, She Don’t Fade hints of what that more exciting, complex, and richer life might entail. This time Dunye plays a character named Shae Clarke, a 29-year-old who explains her role in the plot, such as it is, of this brief presentation of the vagaries of love, and, as she will also in other works, allows the other actors to also explain their characters to the audience. The self-declared “dyke yenta” friend of Shae’s, Zoie Strauss, however, gives the first abbreviated lowdown of the story “about the wild world of lesbianism” where Shae first meets one woman with whom she develops a nice relationship. The video camera, very much presenting this as a cinematic event, even shows the two having a kind of lifeless sex in bed—which Zoie has described as “getting down and dirty. If fact there is absolutely nothing “dirty” about the artful presentation of two woman having sex as the cinematographer maneuvers them into position. Everything in Shae’s life, including her new job as a street vendor and the woman whom she has just met seems to be going extremely well.
      That is, until taking a stairs to a pedestrian bridge to her own apartment she meets another woman going down and falls desperately in love. Without even knowing who the stranger is, Shae breaks up with the first woman, desperately seeking out the other woman who path she has accidentally crossed.
      At a party attended by both her lesbian and gay male friends, Zoie suddenly points out a woman across the room and both Shae and the woman she has seen on the stairs are quickly swept up into a relationship which looks to be more long-lasting than the previous one, particularly since their unbridled sex scene is far steamier than the earlier “staged” coupling.
      It is, as Zoie has told us from start, familiar territory even in Hollywood films: someone falling in love only to quickly find someone else who she loves far more intensely; isn’t that, after all, the story of the Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr film, An Affair to Remember? So Dunye seems to ask, what’s the big deal if its two women instead of a gay man and a woman who played basically prim and proper women (twice as a nun)? Haven’t we now just entered through a back door into a far tamer version of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures?
     Dunye’s even more complex The Potluck and the Passion, which is truly closer to Fornes’ work. To celebrate their 1st yet together, Dunye and her friend decide to invite a select group of each of their best friends, most unknown to one another.
     The funniest pair of these luncheon guests are a lesbian couple living in New York who travel down to the couple’s home without having the proper directions and losing their way several times while attempting to buy their contributions to the potluck in convenience stores along the way, only eventually to eat most of it when they again become lost. They arrive after nearly everyone has dined and made friends with one another—a white Janine-like woman who has brought along a black lesbian woman she has just met responding to her friend’s interest in another invitee by storming out of the event at the very moment the stragglers finally enter.
       Perhaps, however, we should describe her departure as the beginning rather than an ending, since the girl she has dragged along finds not only that she has a great deal in common with another interloper, who has brought a long a delicious spicy chicken dish, but so enjoys the entree that she insists she must watch the other prepare a new batch. In fact, we might argue, the potluck is only the beginning as it leads into a night of new passions, of relationships and deep friendships these women have quickly developed by simply being brought into the hot-house atmosphere of Dunye’s and her lover’s welcoming embrace.

Los Angeles, July 26, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (July 2020).

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