Get On the Bus | “Black-on-Black Love Story”


I found Spike Lee’s 1996 film Get on the Bus to be an interesting, although not satisfying, look at Black American masculinity in its multitude of forms in the mid-1990s. One aspect of the movie that stuck out most for me was the depiction of queer (in this case, gay or MSM) identity. I was particularly interested in the character of Kyle, played by Isaiah Washington, a black, gay republican whose relationship difficulties play out on the bus over the course of the movie. One detail I noticed during the screening is the book that Kyle is reading during the road trip. shot2

The book is called B-Boy Blues: A Seriously Sexy, Fiercely Funny, Black-on-Black Love Story. Referred to by most simply as B-Boy Blues, the book was the debut novel of writer James Earl Hardy. The novel tracks the love affair of Mitchell Crawford and Raheim Rivers, two young Black gay men in the early 1990s. More broadly, B-Boy Blues is  “about the lives of black gay men in New York City [and] is unabashedly and unapologetically written for the African-American male. Rough, sexy, humorous, and authentic, B-Boy Blues is a first-rate love story.”

Many black queer folks talk about the impact that B-Boy Blues had on them– especially the significance of being able to read a love story about someone who looked and talked and loved like them. I’ve attached an article here that I think describes pretty well just how important this work was at this particular period in time.

B-Boy Blues was published in November of 1994, less than two years before the release of Lee’s Get on the Bus.

I probably wouldn’t have noticed B-Boy Blues in Kyle’s hand had I not read the book before. I’m glad that I did though, because Lee’s inclusion of the novel in his film says something about black gay men’s culture in that particular moment– or at least the way that it was being represented in media at the time. Hardy’s B-Boy Blues brought the very siloed conversation of different expressions of black gay identity (i.e. anything other than effeminate expression) out into the mainstream. In some ways, this made the representation of Black gay identity that was Kyle’s character (a macho military-serving, Black, gay, republican on his way to see Farrakhan) possible.


Get On The Bus: Black Male Discussions

The above link is an article that showed up on my newsfeed a few weeks ago.  It highlights something that myself and I’m sure many other black women have talk about, felt, heard about, and discussed, which is the lack of awareness of the male privilege that black men enjoy.  The machismo among the black men that I have been around is all-consuming and in most venues, accepted.  It affects every part of the black men I know’s lives from dating to academics to sports- its evident.  The article above notes that though black men undoubtedly face structural barriers, it should not be lost on them that they too possess privilege that they can either ignore or use to help black women who do not enjoy the same advantages. Even at Amherst, it is clear (to me at least) that black women struggle to fit into the dominant culture more than black men.  I tried to pick just one line to quote, but I think the whole article says what I (having an older brother and being in the presence of  black men often)  have wanted to say for a long time.  And perhaps the men on that bus should read it as well.


I’d love to hear thoughts on this!

Tongues Untied | The Revolutionary Act | Midterm

“Negro faggotry is the rage! Gay black men are not. 
Spike Lee and others like him count on the complicit silence of those who know better, who know the truth of their own lives as well as the diverse truths which inform the total black experience.
Notice is served.
Our silence has ended.
SNAP!” – Marlon Riggs

I’ll start by saying that I love Marlon Riggs. I think his work documented a very important moment in Black queer history. The work he did in Tongues Untied as well as others, such as Black Is… Black Ain’t, illuminates the intersections of blackness, manhood, and queerness in a way that has not often been done on film. Riggs is able to share his own personal history in a way that allows the audience to get a better understanding of black gay life in the late 80s and early 90s.

Tongues Untied was so refreshing for me to watch. Most of what made this film so enthralling for me was that it actually took the time to portray black queer people in a nuanced way. Black gay men could be more than just the flamboyant hairdresser that got two seconds of airtime in a movie. Riggs reminds us that black queer people deserve to be more than just the butt of a homophobic joke. In my opinion, Riggs most clearly makes this point by choosing to include an excerpt from Essex Hemphill’s well-known essay, ‘Without Comment’:

“”I am a 45-year-old-Black-gay-man, who enjoys taking dick in his rectum.” SNAP! “I am not your bitch!” SNAP! “Your bitch is at home with your kids!” SNAP! SNAP!

In this moment, Riggs and Hemphill take a lighthearted approach to pushing back on the idea that gay identity negates a person’s blackness or manhood.

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 12.04.35 AM

The theme that I found most poignant in Tongues Untied is that of the power of black gay love. I think this is a theme that Riggs highlights throughout Tongues Untied. The film asserts this powerful message:


In the end, my opinion is that Tongues Untied served as a much-needed intervention into the heterosexist-misogynistic narrative of manhood and masculinity that we’ve seen this semester, as well as in the patriarchal/homophobic movie industry in general.

Tongues Untied | Lover Man, Where Can You Be?


Marlon Riggs tells the story of an encounter from his adolescence with “a white boy with grey-green eyes.”

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 7.28.47 PMIn a film I already thought of as sincerely confessional, this scene struck me as even more intimate and private. The tender zooming-in and zooming-out on the photo of this “white boy,” overlain by Riggs’s soft, carefully-rehearsed narration and Roberta Flack’s wistful song The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face; these elements allow us to feel the twin affects of pain and primal desire that Riggs associates with this memory. The love of another here is inseparable from a hatred of the self – “What a joy… what a curse.”


Mo’ Better Blues | Phallic Power and the Spinning Camera

The dolly shot is a fairly standard tool in the filmmaker’s arsenal: the camera is mounted on a rig that both stabilises it and allows it to move along an axis or in a circle. In the traditional revolving dolly shot, the camera moves in a circle around a person or object that remains stationary in the middle of the frame.

(Michael Bay, for instance, is really fond of the low angle version of the revolving dolly shot, a.k.a. his “shit just got real” shot – )

The revolving dolly shot in Mo’ Better Blues is a little different. Both times it occurs in the film, the person or people in the middle of the frame that the camera would usually be spinning around are instead spinning along with the camera, so that they appear to stay still while the background spins. The first time we see it is early in the film, when Bleek is fully absorbed in his daily routine of practicing the trumpet in his home:

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 1.21.20 AM

Spike Lee uses it again after Clarke arrives and interrupts Bleek’s regimented practice routine, and the two start getting it on:

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 1.15.58 AM

The tenor in both of these shots is one of intensity; we are made hyperaware of the fact that the people in the centre of the frame are stable, while everything around them is in flux. This technique takes the viewer out of the normal affect of viewing by calling attention to itself as a filmic technique. We know, of course, that the background around the characters isn’t really moving, but it keeps on spinning and spinning just the same. The revolving dolly shot as Spike Lee uses it here seems to suggest that the background spins even though we know it isn’t spinning because in these shots the people in the middle of the frame are experiencing such intensity that everything around them stops mattering. In the first shot the intensity is that of absolute concentration. In Bleek’s eyes we see his singular obsession with his musician’s craft. We know in this shot that Bleek is in his mind palace; he is focused on his music and nothing else. In the second shot the intensity comes from the passion of Bleek and Clarke’s sexual intoxication (and here I think it’s both amusing and appropriate to mention that Denzel Washington insisted that he should keep his shirt on in this scene).

What grabs me about the use of this camera technique is that both times it pops up, it’s to extravagantly reveal a source of what gives Bleek power in the constitution of his masculine self. Over at Blog 2, bzayatz18 has a post on Bleek’s trumpet as a phallic symbol of masculine power, and I thought a couple of especially hazy and sexually-charged shots from the opening credits support that interpretation rather well:

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 1.40.41 AMScreen Shot 2016-03-08 at 1.42.52 AM

On stage, the trumpet stands in for the phallus because it signifies musical aggression, raw expressive power, hardness, and the unleashing of energy by the musician who stands in a position of dominance over the audience. In Bleek’s home, when he practices, the trumpet becomes phallic in a more understated way. Before the phallus can be deployed in a spectacular fashion on stage, it has to be maintained, polished, and meticulously cared for by the man who is preparing to use it.

What the two revolving dolly shots might point us towards is that the source of Bleek’s phallic masculinity does not emanate solely from the trumpet or from his own body, but from both of them together. If Bleek is at his most dominant and masculine when he plays the trumpet on stage (i.e. when he performs the spectacle of his lips touching the trumpet), then these dolly shots break down his masculine power into its two component parts – first, the trumpet itself, and second, his body (and it’s interesting when thinking about exactly what is phallic about Bleek’s body to note that in the second revolving shot, the main body part Bleek is using for sexual arousal is not his penis but his lips).

I think that this reading can be supported by the scene in which all of Bleek’s previous sense of his masculine self is shattered when he is assaulted in the alley – his complete emasculation only comes about when both his trumpet and his body (his lips) are broken.