Openly Gay, Black Filmmaker Aims To Boost LGBTs In Media
ALLISON KEYES, Host:
Next we'll meet a filmmaker whose mission is to broaden the scope of diversity shown on television and in the movies, as part of LGBT Pride Month. That's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender. We turn to filmmaker Maurice Jamal, who's openly gay himself and is all about putting that community on the media map.
You may have already seen some of Mr. Jamal's work. He's the man behind the 2007 film "Dirty Laundry." It's a black and gay oriented family film that was one of the first such movies released in theaters.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DIRTY LAUNDRY")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Do you realize how hard it was growing up around here? You know, feeling like I never was really a part of anything or feeling like something was wrong with me.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I always raised my kids not to even care about what other people think.
KEYES: Also, Mr. Jamal is featured in the book "Black, Gifted and Gay," by Leyla Farah that came out this past winter. He's with us now at NPR member station KQED in San Francisco. Mr. Jamal, thanks for joining us. And can I call you Maurice?
MAURICE JAMAL: Of course you can. You better.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
JAMAL: Hey, how are you?
KEYES: I'm good. How are you?
JAMAL: I'm great. I'm great.
KEYES: I want to start out by asking you, what made you decide that you wanted or needed to make films and television about the LGBT community?
JAMAL: Well, you know, I've always been a movie freak. I was that weird, awkward little kid that you had to pull from the big television set on a Saturday morning and make me go play outside because I just wanted to watch old films. And so for me I've always wanted to work in the industry. That's always been what I wanted to do ever since I was a little kid, and started out acting, and then writing and directing for theater. And then moved on to a film career.
And I think for me, the first film I ever - my first feature film was a film called "The Ski Trip," and it was this romantic comedy and it was about this gay couple. I played one of the characters. And, you know, I didn't necessarily start out wanting to just make films or make stories about the LGBT community. It's just that as a writer, it just seemed a little disingenuous for me to write a Julia Roberts film and I'm substituting my relationship drama for hers. So I just kind of wrote what I knew and I wrote about the people who were around me. And I wrote about the circumstances that I had been in.
And part of me sort of knew or felt that people really just like good entertainment. They love good stories. They love a good romance. They love a good drama. And it doesn't necessarily matter if the people look just like you or if their lifestyles are like yours if they can relate to it.
KEYES: I'm interested that you brought up "Ski Trip" because I seem to remember when that movie came out. You were already talking to friends about whether or not to come out publicly as gay. And then something happened at the movie screening that made that decision for you. Tell us a little about that.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
JAMAL: Yeah, most definitely. You know, I was working with a collective group of filmmakers who were looking at new ways of how to make films. And so "Ski Trip" was our first feature experiment. We shot it in 10 days for about $12,000. I always say the only reason I was able to do that is because I was ignorant and I was drinking a lot of espressos at the time.
And, you know, there's a term in our community - straight privilege - and I recognized that I benefited from a certain amount of straight privilege that...
KEYES: What does that mean?
JAMAL: Straight privilege is basically you're in the gay and lesbian community - folks who can pass.
KEYES: You mean (unintelligible) like straight.
JAMAL: Yeah. If I don't say too much, if I use neutral pronouns when I'm talking about my partner, people don't necessarily know for sure that I'm gay. And so being young, being black, being a member of the hip hop community, a lot of my friends are, like, Maurice, don't come out. Stay in the closet, even though you've made this gay film because it's going to be tough on you.
And I remember, you know, we were at the premiere of this film and a gentleman stood up and asked me why I made the film. And I was talking about the fact that I like romantic comedies and I wanted to do something really cool. And he's, like, no, no, brother, he's, like, what I mean is, as a straight black man, why did you make this film about gay boys? And that made it really cut and dry for me. And I recognized that I had a choice. I either was going to live my life or I was going to live someone else's.
And I decided I needed to live my life. So I remember taking a really deep breath, and saying, well, actually, as a gay black man, you know, and then there were gasps and oohs and ahs, but - and that was really sort of it. So that was sort of my professional coming out.
KEYES: If you're just joining us, I'm Allison Keyes and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
I'm speaking with black and openly gay filmmaker Maurice Jamal. His movies and television programming focus on the LGBT community. I wonder if you find it difficult to walk a line between the African-American gay, lesbian, transgender and bi community and the rest of the community because there are some that might feel there's been some friction between the two sides.
JAMAL: You know, there definitely is. I'll be honest with you, I - the difficulty I've had, on some level, is all internal. Meaning, it's the struggles that I deal with as a black man of making sure that I'm a good, respectable, upstanding black man and that I'm doing something positive in our community. But what I had to recognize is if there are people in our community who aren't supporting LGBT issues, who aren't in favor of equality, who can't really talk about gender and sexuality diversity - those folks are actually the ones who are doing a disservice to our community, and not someone like me or the other people in the LGBT community, who are living their lives honestly and with integrity.
And so for me I don't have a problem walking that line right now because I almost don't even perceive that there is a line. For me it's about living my life. It's about creating amazing art that inspires people. It's about telling stories with honesty and integrity, and if I do that, then whatever side of the line folks fall on is OK with me.
KEYES: Maurice, let me ask you a political question. President Obama's re-election campaign is hosting a fundraising gala with the LGBT community in New York City next week. I'm curious as to how you think he is handling that community's issues. I mean, and your Glo TV section about your website. You have a section called "A Message from the President and, No, We Don't Mean Barack Obama." So this might make us think you're displeased. Are you?
JAMAL: No. Not really. I mean, that was more of a joke because everybody at the network always refers to me as the president so it was just sort of a running joke of ours. I actually think that the president's done a pretty standup job in dealing with the gay and lesbian community. I know over the last year or so there have been some conversations and there have been some critiques from some of our major organizations, most of which I'm members of, in reference to the president and how he's handled the gay community.
But, you know, he has done more in the two years of his presidency than all of the previous administrations have done combined. And I remember the night of the election when he won and sitting on the couch crying. I voted for him. I was a big supporter. And when he mentioned gays and lesbians in his speech on election night, I knew that we were in for something different.
Are all of his policies perfect? No. I would push and challenge the president around marriage equality, because I think it's a fundamental issue and I think it's a moral issue in this country. And I think that people who are on the side of marriage equality are on the right side.
KEYES: Maurice, let me ask you - and so far, with the 2012 Republican presidential race beginning to shape up, are there any people from the Republican Party that you think have been supportive of your community?
JAMAL: I would say no. The reality is they're just on the wrong side of these issues. They have been traditionally and they continue to be. And unfortunately, you know, I just watched the Republican debate in New Hampshire the other evening and all of the candidates pandered to the social conservatives on this issue. They talked about defense of marriage. I mean, when you hear them talk about that, when you hear them talk about women's rights, when you hear them talk about abortion and education, it's just amazing how far right I think the Republican Party has pivoted. And that's unfortunate because there used to be a number of people in that party whose opinions I respected even if I disagreed with them.
KEYES: Maurice, in the really short time we have left, I just want to ask, what do you hope that your programming could maybe have a greater impact on LGBT policy and issues by allowing people to get a clearer glimpse of what's happening in the community?
JAMAL: Definitely. I mean, certainly, you know, we hope that the Glo programming reaches those individuals who are making change. But if I could say one thing, Allison, it would be that change actually comes from individuals. And so if the programming on Glo allows a kid in Oklahoma to recognize that he's OK, if it allows a lesbian college student somewhere in New York City or New Jersey to recognize that she's got the ability and that she has a voice and that people support her, those individuals are going to begin to demand change.
Because when we have pride in ourselves, when we recognize ourselves, when we see ourselves reflected in film and television in loving and positive and honest ways, and with integrity, we can't help but then realize that there's things that we can do and we begin to take accountability for making the change in our communities.
KEYES: Maurice, I'm sorry, we've got to leave it there. Maurice Jamal is a filmmaker and the founder and president of Glo TV, an urban LGBT online television network. He joined us from NPR member station KQED in San Francisco, California. Thanks so much.
JAMAL: Thank you, Allison.
KEYES: And good luck to you with your network.
JAMAL: Thank you, love, I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.