Recently filmmaker Cheryl Dunye completed Black is Blue, a film starring trans actor Kingston Faraday. In honor of this achievement, I want to take a look back at Dunye’s early work and place her work in the context of Black filmmakers presenting transgender experiences.
The Early Works of Cheryl Dunye presents the six first films of one of the most successful Black lesbian filmmakers in the United States. This collection provides a glimpse into Cheryl Dunye’s creative development. Early Works encapsulates many of the themes Dunye has explored in her later work: the boundary between fact and fiction, racism in the queer community, and autobiography. It also charts the development of a genre that, at first glance, seems to be all her own: the “Dunyementary”
Throughout Early Works, Dunye uses the stylizations of documentary film to tell stories that are both non-fiction and fiction at the same time. The six separate films of Early Works seem to build into a single narrative, due to overlap in both theme and cast. The collection begins with the short Janine, in which Dunye reflects on one of her first crushes. Dunye shoots herself speaking directly into the camera, cut between close-ups of two candles. Dunye describes her budding attraction to a wealthy young white woman and her later efforts to heal from the toxicity of their relationship. From Janine, Dunye transitions into She Don’t Fade, a film that at first appears fictional. Dunye plays Shae, a woman making her living vending on the street corner. She begins a relationship with another Black woman only to leave her for an intriguing stranger. The story is broken up by interviews that document the filmmaking process. This is especially striking during its sex scene. As Shae and her girlfriend begin kissing, the camera pulls back. Dunye leaves in dialog between the camera operators, her co-star and herself. The result is a scene that creates a different intimacy between filmmakers, actresses, and viewers.
At the end of She Don’t Fade, Shae/Dunye has started a relationship with another Black woman who is still her partner in the next short, The Potluck and the Passion. In this film, an anniversary potluck in an apartment Dunye calls “Homoplace” provides the setting for an all-too-realistic story. During a potluck that hits every lesbian cliché in the most delightful way, a Black woman comes to realize that her white date is racist and strikes up a relationship with another Black woman. Dunye intercuts the story with interviews in which cast members comment on their own characters. Dunye brings viewers in and out of her stories, blurring the line between story and fact. She invites viewers to consider themselves and their own viewing and to find pleasure and/or discomfort in similarities between what is on the screen and their own lives. Dunye does all this with a tight budget and limited technology. Somehow, she turns these restrictions to her own advantage. Early Works invites viewers to watch Dunye create her world as an emerging Black lesbian filmmaker. Her characters are engaged in a similar process as they struggle to work, find love, and navigate a queer community. Dunye documents what could be called homoplacemaking.
“Mockumentary,” the use of documentary techniques to tell a fictional story, is more ubiquitous than ever before. Profitable hit TV shows The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Modern Family all fall into the genre. These shows are firmly fictional – though the rise of “fake news” begs questions about the popularity of mockumentary. Dunye, however, is doing something different. In the “Dunyementary,” there’s wry wit, but no mockery. Instead, Dunye is blurring the line between fiction and fact creating a space for herself to imagine new possibilities. In fact, Dunye is telling stories about Black queer lives that can’t be contained within nonfiction.
The “Dunyementary” may seem unique, but Dunye’s approach holds much in common with Black feminist Audre Lorde’s use of biomythography. In his new book Black on Both Sides, C. Riley Snorton writes that Lorde’s biomythography presents a way “to consider how blackness, as it has been given meaning by antiblackness, could acquire new spellings to engender itself (and queerness and transness) as symbolically and materially livable.” Dunye’s films present Black queerness as vibrant, imaginative examples of livability, so it’s no surprise that biomythography suits her purposes. In fact, Black transgender filmmaker and activist Tourmaline’s films use similar techniques. Tourmaline’s short Atlantic is a Sea of Bones and her feature Happy Birthday Marsha are biomythographies of Black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson. These similarities between these films underscore that Dunye is a part of a Black feminist tradition.
Dunye’s Early Works, created between 1990 and 1994, has lost none of its electricity. Its freshness raises the question, how much has changed in the intervening twenty-four years and for whom? Is Dunye’s world more livable? Recently, Dunye created a film that helps answer that question. She teamed up with Ellen Sprio to create a short for NYC MOCA entitled DiAna’s Hair Ego Remix. This three-minute film interviews DiAna, a hair salon operator who has mounted a response to HIV/AIDS in the South Carolina Black community. Unlike Early Works, Remix is straight documentary. However, in keeping with her early work, Dunye remains a character. Likewise, Remix blurs timelines by cutting to the original documentary. That sense of history pressing in on the present is heightened by the interviews themselves. DiAna describes the HIV/AIDS crisis in her community by saying, “It might as well be 1985.” Dunye documents DiAna’s work to ensure the emotional and physical survival of her Black community. As always, Dunye presents with humor and beauty the efforts of Black people to create livable worlds.
The Early Works of Cheryl Dunye prove that little has changed since Dunye first picked up a camera. Despite the advent of marriage equality, Black queer people are imagining and creating livable worlds that still challenge current power structures. We’re lucky that Dunye is here to contribute to that effort from behind her lens.