The Repulsive Depiction and Reception of Queer Men in African Films
by Wale Owoade
In The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo reviews the representations of homosexuality in America’s pop culture darling, Hollywood. Russo’s assessment reveals how censorship and conservative ideologies constraint the depiction of queer identity in American pictures. Before the 1970s, Hollywood’s picture of American queer life was largely reduced to gender nonconformity via images of the butch woman and the sissy man. However, pop culture is recently changing attitudes towards queer identity. The prevalent degenerating media depiction is changing, there is almost a universal acceptance and oppositions to gay rights are tilting toward support for gays.
Universally, pop culture shapes public culture and opinion and this has been more possible through mainstream digital technology and new media. The concurrence of cultural products such as film and the social media effects rapid cultural responsiveness of millennials. Films now accurately portray the reality of being queer and recently in Hollywood, as seen in Were the World Mine (2008), North Sea Texas (2011), Laurence Anyways (2012), The Way He Looks (2014), The Handmaiden (2016), Moonlight (2016) and God’s Own Country (2017), scriptwriters are giving queer stories the happy ending they lacked in the past and these films are changing cultural perceptions about humans and sexuality.
Films go a long way to introduce and reflect cultural percipience; they emphasise the perceptions of a society, culture, and ideas and in turn, influence popular culture. In Africa, films are widely consumed due to the inaccessibility of high culture (such as fine art, opera and theatre) to the African middle and lower classes. The highbrow requirements of high culture make films, a popular culture channel, exclusive to the masses. But even with the height of film consumption in Africa, the prevalence of queer identity that is embedded in Western popular culture is repulsively projected in African films. Like America’s Hollywood before the 1970s, Africa’s mainstream film franchises like Nollywood have been repelling in their depiction of queer identity. The reception and consumption of queer films have been equally repulsive.
In 1997, Mohamed Camara, a Guinean, wrote and directed the first West African gay film, Dakan (AKA Destiny). The film depicts the conflict between homosexual characters, their immediate family and the society. It was the first film by a Black African to come close to that subject but it was widely protested. The film is about the lovers, Manga and Sory, two young men in their 20s. Apparently, Camara began making the film with funds from the French and the Guinean governments but the Guinea withdrew support when it realised that homosexuality is the central theme. The Guinea government’s pessimism opened a series of protests against the film, which led to widespread controversies and disruption of the filming. These series of events during the production and screening of Dakan began the culture of repulsive reception to queer films in Africa.
In a world where Joanne the Scammer gets a full-length TV show produced by Super Deluxe, where Star Trek: Discovery features a gay couple in the storied franchise, where Twitter is asking for a boyfriend for Captain America, African films and media continue to dismiss the diversity of queer life and instead delineate homosexuals as gender inverts, psychologically troubled and social misfits, to project and satisfy conventional ideological agendas. Gay’s Diary Reloaded is a 22-minute Nigerian film featuring Humble Dhera F, Amaka Smart, Ubi Onuomah, Ikeh Ejedike and others. It is a story of two gay lovers in homophobic Nigeria. The low budget film scores with good acting and positive gay characters. However, surprisingly, the story tilted to an aversely common cliche: a religious opium that homosexuality is a curable disease. At the end, the two lovers were delivered, cured and became best friends. When NoStringsNG, a queer media platform contacted the producers of the film, Humble Dhera Francis, the CEO said “We were looking at Nigerian society so it won’t look like we are encouraging gayism, because our constitution is against it”.
In Daudu (2017), where popular Nigerian actor, Odunlade Adekola played the role of Daudu, a gay male character, the acting and the ideas of the film lack in the understanding of homosexuality. Following a stereotypical ideology, cinematic actions depict Daudu as transgender, and he is seen with lipsticks, head ties and feminine characters. The acting is an exaggerated attempt to mock a popular Instagram personality, Bobrisky. The film intends to be funny but it empowers a belief that queers are social misfits. Universally, this stereotype is popular in queer films. However wrongly, when gay men are portrayed as sissy and as a girl’s best friend in films, the reception and consumption increase. It occurred in Madonna’s and Rupert Everett’s The Next Best Thing, Jennifer Anniston’s and Paul Rudd’s The Object of My Affection, and the TV series Will and Grace.
Also, there is the popular stereotype of treating homosexualism as demonic and infectious in African films. In Busted (2018), a Lina Olu-produced movie that features Kate Henshaw, Liz Benson, Tony Umez, IK Ogbonna, Brian Okwara, Chika Okpara, and Queen Edwards, whose character was born into a rich family and initiated into lesbianism by a maid. The story exhumes an outrageous cliché on homosexuality and confirms the lack of research in African homosexual films. However, even with the negative depictions of queer identity and homosexuality in African films, the reception and reactions to the films are still very repulsive. In the past, the Nigerian audience has criticised and questioned the morals and ideals of Femi Adebayo, Odunlade Adekola and Kate Henshaw among other actors when they play queer roles.
Also, the reception of positive gay films has been fierce, a South African film The Wound: Inxeba (2017) was systemically censored by South Africa’s Film and Publication Board (FBP). Upon its release, the film was classified as 16Ls but was later reclassified as X18 after complaints by the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa and other cultural and religious bodies. Inxeba is accused of cultural insensitivity for its disclosure of initiation rituals. However, the underlying notion for the complaints is homophobia as the film centres around three gay male characters. The producers and cast of the film went into hiding after receiving a series of death threats.
The depiction of queer life in African films work hand-in-hand with its reception, the latter empowers the former and vice versa. It is unfortunate that African cultural identity, after several years of conventional ideological influence and postcolonial culture, defiantly resists the reality of homosexuality, a ‘repulsive’ culture that is backed up by political ideologies, religious and moral analogies, and these conceptions reflect in films, a medium through which balance and accurate understanding of queer life and identity could begin.
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