For the Love of Black Queer Cinema: A Conversation with Stephen Winter
Stephen Winter’s subversive, imaginative work simultaneously celebrates Black queer culture and fiercely threatens cinematic and societal conventions. In conversation as in his work, the director, producer, and writer deftly balances a warm wit with strikingly incisive honesty. Winter has played several roles throughout his career, producing Jonathan Caouette’s acclaimed documentary Tarnation in 2004 and the recent fictional podcast series Adventures in New America. But it’s in his own films that his singular voice most clearly comes through. In 1996, Winter broke onto the scene with his incendiary feature Chocolate Babies, which imagined the exploits of a gay street gang who call themselves “Black faggots with a political agenda.” The film was a merciless critique of the government’s response to the AIDS plague and an audacious portrait of queer life. Nearly two decades later, in 2015, Winter released his second feature, Jason and Shirley, which radically restages the creation of Shirley Clarke’s landmark 1967 film Portrait of Jason.
Although Winter’s work has been less remarked upon than the filmographies of his queer compatriots Gregg Araki and John Waters, he has created scenes just as shocking. These cinematic moments have resonated with the likes of playwright Jeremy O. Harris and avant-garde cinema pioneer Jonas Mekas, who remarked after viewing Jason and Shirley that the film was so “amazingly true,” he felt he was “back in Shirley’s apartment.” Suffused with a punk ethos, Winter’s worlds leave a lasting impression.
With both Chocolate Babies and Jason and Shirley now available on the Criterion Channel, the artist spoke with me about the racist inequality of the Hollywood system; his influences, ranging from Marlon Riggs to Adam West’s Batman; and the debated existence of a current queer cinema.
Can you tell me about what you remember from your days starting out in the New Queer Cinema of the nineties?
Well, I came to New York at a really exciting time. New Queer Cinema was breaking new ground not only in the kind of stories that could be told, with queer protagonists, but also in the forms used to tell these stories. We were drawing from disparate influences. Godard, Cassavetes, Spike Lee, Stan Brakhage. You could see all that stuff in the films of Todd Haynes, Tom Kalin, Cheryl Dunye, and all of us who were bopping around in the nineties back then.
The eighties were a terrible time for Black film. The seventies had the so-called blaxploitation movement, where a whole bunch of wild and wonderful films were made, but the operational powers of the film industry did not allow for Black directors, producers, or writers to succeed. The films were dominated by their stars, but these stars were more or less not allowed to do anything except those Black films. And then when the eighties came, and the Spielberg of it all began, Hollywood said, okay, that’s enough Black stuff for now.
Aside from Eddie Murphy’s films, or the occasional big-budget drama like The Color Purple—also, by the way, directed by a white person—Black people disappeared from film in the eighties. It wasn’t until Spike Lee started breaking that new ground that that began to change. So when I arrived in New York in the nineties, it was very exciting. Everybody kind of lived in the same neighborhoods; we all went to the same bars and the same dinner parties and screenings. Film festivals were not only business conventions but also a real, central opportunity to grow relationships, many of which I still have to this day. But the opportunity for my films to be presented was somewhat limited by the structures of that day.
Well, queer film back then, for the most part, meant white film. I sort of naively thought, if I make a good film with great characters, and it’s an expression of my particularity, then that is part of what is the currency of today’s marketplace. Everybody was working from their particularities. But the combinations of Black and queer and punk rock . . . Chocolate Babies premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, which was very fancy. And I appreciate even more now how rare of an opportunity that was. We’d play festivals across the country and across the world, and we’d always get great audience reactions and whispers of winning awards, but we always left empty-handed and without distribution, which was disappointing.