Zanele Muholi – Beloved II (2005)
I’ve pointed to Muholi’s splendid work before.
I purposely limited my commentary to factual tidbits. This was partly due to the fact that–contrary to how things may appear with my writing here–I don’t think expression is always the best response. Sometimes it’s necessary to sit and be silently present with resonate work. (If you’re a creative individual, a strong sensitivity precedes the development of vocabulary to explain in detail the way in which you respond to the work that moves you.)
The other reason is that although I am hyper-aware of pervasive (and entirely fucking justified) concerns over a lack of diversity in the arts and entertainment, I have no interest in participating in the who’s more ‘woke’, ally pissing contest that is just an elevation of gross tokenism to the status of virtue.
However, looking at this image, my brain automatically jumps to issues of representation. Specifically, like just about everyone else on Tumblr, I’m fond of the series Black Mirror.
When Season 3 was released several months back, a plurality of folks fell all over themselves telling me I had to drop everything and watch the San Junipero episode.
I resisted until I realized it was Black Mirror’s ‘gay’ episode and in the wake of the election and the subsequent spike in hate crimes, and then it seemed like the only thing that seemed like it might be worth watching.
I’m not interested in spoiling it. I’ll only say that I’ve since watched it a half a dozen times. It is every bit as good as I was led to believe. But, there’s something more bittersweet to it that I haven’t be able to put my finger on…
Looking at the image above, I realize what it is–for all the things San Junipero gets right (and trust me, it does get a lot right, a whole lot), the post-coital conversations are flat. I mean they’re shot flat, under too dim lighting. But the interactions are flat, too–I mean compare these scenes with the scenes where they are sitting outside Kelly’s beach rental and talking about their real world lives–some of the most on point dialogue in ages.
Charlie Brooker, the Black Mirror show runner, originally wrote the script to feature a hetero couple. But opted to change it–partly to be subversive (gay marriage wasn’t legal in 1987) and partly for issues of representation. And it works because it’s guided by a fundamental sense of empathy.
Yet, where it falls short, is the assumption that just because self-transcendent love looks the same no matter the race or gender of the lovers, the ways people in that sort of love reach out to each other might as well be as distinct as a thumbprint. These scenes adopt a hetero-post-coital conventional coding–which comes off as flat and lazy.
And that’s why we desperately need greater diversity in not just the characters that populate the stories we see on big and small screens alike; we need the people guiding those stories to tell their stories not according to tradition or convention but from deeply felt personal experience.
Imagine if Yorkie asking Kelly when she knew she was bisexual, had played out in a shot like Muholi’s above instead of the shot-reverse shot of the episode as it is? That would’ve been something because of separating the characters–from each other–you show them together negotiating the context that will come to be their mutual reality as a couple. Small, seemingly insignificant things like this make a world of difference. Or, to borrow advice I was given by someone much wiser than me: sweat the small stuff, the big picture’ll take care of itself.