Cheryl Dunye is an award-winning filmmaker and native of Liberia whose work as a queer black cinema artist attempts to provide visibility to disenfranchised identities and bring the most marginalized of our society to the center. She has five feature films under her belt and currently works as an Associate Professor of Film, Diversity Studies, and the Graduate Writing Programs at California College of the Arts.
Now, Dunye is working on a new project titled "Black Is Blue," a short film she plans to develop into a larger work that follows the experiences of a black trans male security guard who struggles with his identity after confronting an ex from his former life.
The Huffington Post recently caught up with Dunye to discuss this new project, the mainstreaming of content highlighted by her previous films, such as women of color in prison via shows like "Orange Is The New Black," as well as her own personal experiences and journey as a queer black cinema artist.
The Huffington Post: Can you talk a bit about your past films and the general trajectory of your career for those that may not be familiar with your work?
Cheryl Dunye: Sure! I’ve been making films for about 20-plus years -- about 13 projects and five of them are features. I’m about to embark on my 14th. I think I’m most known for this project called “The Watermelon Woman,” which I produced way back in the beginning of what Ruby Rich calls New Queer Cinema. It was one of the sort of renegade projects that wasn’t made by the Christine Vachon team that really put queer film on the map and that went on to win the Teddy Award in Berlin. It’s a story about coming out and into empowerment around being a black woman queer filmmaker and placing yourself within queer and black film history -- and having to invent that because we’re invisible.
(For a more detailed look at Dunye's career trajectory and her five major films, view the slideshow at the bottom of the this story.)
You refer to yourself as a “queer black cinema artist that is committed to making work that pushes margins to the center.” Can you tell me more about what this identity signifier means to you personally and how it guides and influences your work?
Definitely. The fact that by living in America with the body and sexuality and composition of who I am, I’m sort of outside looking in most of the time. It took me a long time to grow into that comfortably back in the '80s and position myself as one to use that not as a place of anger and rage but as a place of creativity and empowerment and strength and having a great eye and story to tell. So I use that to let it speak through me. My filmmaking speaks through me as an artist who uses film, video, digital, Internet and media to tell those stories that sort of speak through me and my shifts as a person to talk about what I see and my politics. My marginality is my strength.
Do you ever feel pressured, whether culturally or financially, as a queer black cinema artist to sacrifice parts of your autonomy or agency over your work in order to subscribe to the expectations of others?
I think financially is the bigger thing. I mean, we live in the capitalist society. Filmmaking does cost money and living wage is something that we all struggle with to just pay bills. I think my filmmaking definitely is one about collaboration and community and I have a lot of folks who want to collaborate and collectively make work with me. I love that and that’s the strength of my work and how I exchange stuff. But when I have to exchange outside of that it’s a struggle and I think we all are trying to hustle and flow, as they say, to get stuff done and because of that race/gender/sex/politics body I’m invisible sometimes and it’s a difficult thing to get paid and put that to my work and my family – even my comfort. Creatively there’s no problem, I have zillions of ideas and would love to be in, say, a startup or tech development place, because I have a lot of stories that could bring them closer to a whole bunch of different communities. But getting there as a token, as Essex Hemphill used to tell me, is really hard because I don’t have the money sometimes and money does give you agency within America right now.
It’s interesting that you brought up “Orange Is The New Black” when discussing your previous work [see slideshow below], because it definitely came to my mind. How does it make you feel that this subject matter surrounding the experiences of women of color in prisons is out there now in such a prominent, visible way?
Yeah, “Orange Is The New Black” is really interesting. I loved the work of that team with “Weeds” and was really intrigued to see this adaptation turned into a very successful Netflix series going on to a second season. The cast is new and has fresh faces, which I really love -- giving women of color actors of different bodies visibility, I’m completely down for that. In it’s relation to sort of social justice stuff, I was hesitant to become a big fan of it, but I watch everything so I’m right there laughing and whatnot. But definitely, again, the prison population and my politics around that, Angela Davis, all my compositions around being a social justice type of filmmaker with a consciousness, raises the flag in me and really inspires me to continue the work I do. Media is not the answer -- it’s a spotlight and it should open the door and encourage us to make the work that we do. We go to media for entertainment and a release, as well as education and inspiration, so definitely “Orange Is The New Black” continues to inspire to me to say, “There’s more to tell about the story.” I really love what they’re doing and even felt a lot of similarities with the work I did in “Stranger Inside” and cable and getting that out to the world. I love the cast and crew I worked in around that -- Effie Brown, Maud Nadler, Yolonda Ross, all the other actors, Medusa. Hopefully this project opens people up to taking a look at the criminal justice system in America and its relationship to what’s going on inside.
(For more on Duyne’s work involving women of color in the prison system, see the slideshow below detailing her past films.)
The show itself ["Orange Is The New Black"] seems very much to be a point of entry for these important conversations to start happening.
Yeah, it’s a challenge in the age of distraction -- tools of mass distraction as is said at this church service, Science of The Mind, I go to here in Oakland. This wonderful reverend talks about how we’re in this age of mass distraction and, you know, it’s true. We’re sort of distracted from our inner goals and I definitely am realigning myself with my inner goals. Thus, why I’m going back to making a short film as a way to lead to making a bigger film and really going to my heart to make work, even in this age where I could run and make something really commercial or an action film or whatnot. I think we have to be committed to not just making film and money, but to making cinema. I think there are very few people out there making cinema with my body, spirit, mind and politics and not being afraid of that -- to change the form or change the story. I’m definitely committed to that -- that’s all I am.
Let’s talk about your new film, “Black Is Blue."
“Black Is Blue” is a wonderful story and the beginning of something that I’m going to develop into a bigger feature. This is one thing that Ted Hope, who’s head of the San Francisco film society who worked with James Schamus back at Good Machine, they gave me this sort of method and politics that I actually teach -- it’s the short film. Not just a trailer, not just a whatever -- make a short film to get out there that’s complete. So that’s what I’m doing first before I jump into other forms of it.
“Black Is Blue” is a short film that explores not just another coming out story but a real life story about a black trans man security guard who one night at work sees coming into the building that he is a security guard at, his ex from his former life. It opens a lot of triggers and doors for him as he continues on his shift and, of course, because of a noise complaint he has to really go up and engage with and meet his ex, Déjá, and comes into a confrontation with her by the end of the film where a lot of feelings and conflicts come up. I don’t want to give it away but he has to look into himself and where he was and where he came from, but also how does he go on with his life. It’s another project, again, that is not putting a period on this politics and identity but opens the door to look at really what the life is for black trans men who definitely are at the bottom of a totem pole in transitioning. When you are a white trans man you are able to sort of walk into white male privilege but when you are a black trans man you walk into a legacy of this identity of being a black man in America. So, the film really explores what those things mean socially, politically, financially and all those things that even I struggle with who I am.
What would you say are some of the biggest obstacles for a cinema artist whose films center around issues of identity and trying to bring visibility to the most marginalized of our society?
I think the biggest obstacle is the individual artist themselves. I think that people have everything inside them to do their work creatively and I think a lot of, again, noise gets out there about “Oh I have to make it like Hollywood, I have to do it like this person or that person before me” and I think we stop ourselves as artists sometimes to walk through that door of a project. I think that’s the hardest thing for people to kind of get over and get the work done. Writing, art, any sort of making – they put that to the side and get lost in the other things outside of them that stops them from completing the process. So I really do think that the individual themselves sometimes is that stop. Anybody who has talent, which all of us actually have this inner talent, have agency to put that out there in their communities. Though it really is about starting small and believing in yourself and completing your sentences and paragraphs and whatnot, and then moving on to the next one. Because with completion there is growth. I think that we have to complete our processes before we’re able to move through the next door. So I think that’s sort of the biggest roadblock. Everybody has technology right now, has pens and color and musical instruments to make work – just do it.
One final question: With this larger body of work that you’ve been building, where do you see yourself going after this? What is the long-term trajectory that you’re building as a cinema artist?
I think there’s a lot of one hit wonders within the sense of Black Cinema, African American Cinema, Queer Cinema, Women’s Cinema. People make work and disappear. Again, in cinema it’s a body of work -- I know that I’m going to leave having made a body of work that has an impact people can look back at. After all these years of making work I want to write about it. My biggest thing is to strategize around getting behind the screen or computer or pen and paper and really write about my experiences. A lot of people have written about me and what I do and now it’s time to sort of bring in all that data and take a look at it and output it into some scripts or whatever body of writing about my work. I also really want to look at some of the new modes of working -- like what about the musical? [Laughs] What about the graphic novel? Also, I’m sort of inspired and friends with Isaac Julian, he’s someone I run into every once in awhile, who at the base encourages me to remember that I’m an artist and that I have my place not just behind the screen and in cinemas but also in the gallery. So, I’m definitely looking at how to -- and I teach at an arts school, California College of the Arts –- ways to sort of use that space to create some work.
There’s so much to do for this one Dunye. [Laughs] Or actually, not just one Dunye – many Cheryl Dunyes with much community. My partner, Anya deMontigny, who, love her to death, she definitely took me into having a much more somatic relationship to what I’m doing and have a sort of stillness to reflect, to look inward and use that as a point of strength and creativity. So I’m really on that path to sort of slow down and appreciate all the things that I have done. I have it right within me, is the biggest thing.
Be sure to check out the Kickstarter for "Black Is Blue," which only has a couple of days left. Also, follow Cheryl Dunye on Twitter for the latest updates on this project and all of her future endeavors.