Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Where Angels Fear To Tread

The San Francisco Chronicle's deliciously irreverent Mark Morford occasionally publishes samples of the hate mail he receives in response to his columns. I'm not the kind of person who gets off on hate crimes or violence. As I once told a friend, the only kind of violence I enjoy watching involves Ann Miller pounding the surface of a coffee table -- or a can of soup -- with her tap shoes.

Nevertheless, fear and hatred of "the other" are common factors in today's world. Thanks in large part to the crudeness of Sarah Palin's supporters, they were key elements of last year's Presidential election. Fear and loathing are front and center in two films being shown at Frameline 33 (the 2009 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival). One approaches homophobia and violence against gay people with a wicked sense of humor. The other leaves no doubt that tragedy is in the offing.

* * * * * * * * * *

Canadian filmmaker Trevor Anderson makes no bones about where he found the inspiration for his hilarious five-minute short entitled The Island (one of the standouts of Frameline's Fun In Boys Shorts program). As we watch a lone figure trudging across what looks like an Arctic ice field, Anderson's voiceover explains that he got the idea for his film after receiving an email that said ""You faggots should all be sent to an island where you can give each other AIDS."

Creative minds react to random stimuli in surprising ways. As a result, Anderson began to wonder exactly what sort of desert island might appeal to gay men -- what kind of lonely place could serve as "our own little Israel, a home for the ass-munching diaspora." All I can tell you is that five minutes of a florid imagination showcased with the use of some stunning animation will give you Anderson's riotously funny answer.

* * * * * * * *

There is absolutely nothing funny about Rivers Wash Over Me, a powerful and deeply disturbing drama set in the deep South that will be screened on Wednesday evening, June 24 at the Castro Theater. An exceptionally well-made film, it follows the path of a young gay African American whose life is quickly going down the toilet -- through no fault of his own.

Sequan Green (Derrick L. Middleton) is an awkward, introverted 15-year-old whose single mother died when a fire erupted in their Brooklyn apartment. Parentless, but still a minor, he travels by bus to a small town in North Carolina to live with his aunt LuEllen (Leslie Jones), who works as a domestic for a white family on the other side of town. LuEllen has two children: a daughter named Xosha (Racine Buchanan) and a son named Michael (Cameron Mitchell Mason).

While Michael's main talent involves basketball, he's also a classic teenage thug struggling with issues of masculinity. After learning that they must share a bedroom, it only takes one look at the frail and slightly effeminate Sequan for Michael to decide that he has the right to terrorize and rape his cousin from New York.

Michael's best friend Ahmed (Duane McLaughlin) may be one of the local basketball stars but, with a thriving business as a drug dealer, he has no intentions of going away to college -- not even if offered a scholarship. His girlfriend, Lori (Elizabeth Dennis), is the bad white girl who loves cocaine and black men. Unlike her bookish gay brother Jake (Aidan Schultz-Meyer), Lori has been kicked out of every school within a 40-mile radius. Her mother Celeste (Julia Carothers Hughes) can't understand why her daughter can't act more like a lady. The family maid (LuEllen) knows enough to keep her mouth shut.

Derrick L. Middleton and Aidan Schultz-Meyer

When the high school principal (Don Striano) reports that his car has been broken into and a loaded gun stolen from its glove compartment, sheriff Charles King (Darien Sills-Evans) tries to investigate. Because he is black (as is the town's Mayor, played by Chester A. Sims, II), King is stymied by a total lack of cooperation from the principal and his secretary (Pamela Stewart), who are both white and may be having an affair.

Sheriff King's no-good brother (Sequan's father) may have been a total loser, but King takes an interest in making sure the new arrival is doing okay. The bruise on Sequan's face from Michael's fist is a sign that things might not be going too smoothly.

Unlike the dullards in his class who think that education is a joke, Sequan is more than willing to answer his teacher's questions (easily displaying a higher level of literacy than anyone else in the room). When invited over to dinner at his uncle's house, he quickly recognizes the sheriff's wife Shawna (Sonequa Martin) to be the author of a popular line of children's books. In their presence, he feels comfortable, assured and welcome. But when he asks if he can live with them instead of LuEllen, Charles backs off.

John G. Young's film is extremely well crafted, tautly-written and aided by a cast of young unknowns. It speaks to the price gay people sometimes pay just for trying to be honest about who they are. Rivers Wash Over Me clearly portrays why so many gay people who grow up in small towns spend their lives feeling "like a fish out of water." For those who escape to the big city (or are born there), the chances of survival are far greater than for anyone who stands out like a sore thumb in the toxic atmosphere of a small Southern town. Here's the trailer:

No comments: