From August 10-12, 2012, ‘M.I., A Different Kind of Girl’, a riveting documentary by Leslie Cunningham and Alana Jones, about a little known LGBTQ sub-culture will be showcased at the 2012 North Carolina Gay and Lesbian Film Festival at the Carolina Theatre in Durham, NC. Recollective producer Jeremy Helton spoke with Leslie and Alana to learn more about the film and the community it documents.
Jeremy: Were there any documentary projects that inspired or informed M.I.?
Leslie: The film was inspired by ‘Paris is Burning’, a 1990 documentary film directed by Jennie Livingston, chronicling the New York City ball culture and the African American and Latino, gay and transgender communities that made it an underground phenomenon. As (Alana and I) watched ‘Paris is Burning’, just as we read our favorite LGBT news papers, or watch our favorite LGBT movies, we had to ask: where are the voices of lesbian women? Where are the lesbian women of color?
Jeremy: Can you tell me about a couple of the performers in the film?
Alana: Nation Tyre is the film’s primary informant. She is a spirited and passionate male impersonator, born on North Carolina’s rural coast. Nation cut her performing teeth on stages in Atlanta, Georgia, but found the gender categories within their black drag community too confining and, thus, returned to her home state to continue her career as an M.I.- Male Illusionist- freed from pressures to “be” male all the time and empowered to define her own gender identity. Breyannah Allure and Paris Brooks are title winning North Carolina drag queens and fixtures on the Raleigh LGBT nightclub scene. Breyannah is a self-identified trans woman while Paris is an old-school queen on the ball circuit and member of the House of Brooks.
Jeremy: I had a chance to see a sneak preview of the film and I really love the part where a few of the performers are talking about how they define themselves and their performances. Was it surprising to you to hear such varied self-definition from what appears to be a pretty rarefied group of people?
Leslie: Absolutely. As we set out on this journey, our first question to each of our informants was “are you transgendered?” and it appeared, in the beginning, that the reluctance to label oneself as such spoke directly to homophobia within the black community and fear among our informants of being too queer within their black gay communities even as LGBT communities gain recognition in the mainstream popular consciousness.However, we quickly learned that our assumptions were flawed. The discourse must be more nuanced, and, in fact, the boxes our informants refused to inhabit were defined by both straight and gay, the marginalized and the mainstream, and were as problematic for these unique individuals as any overdetermined set of assumptions. Ultimately, we learned that even within this distinct subculture there is still the desire and need to rail against stereotypes.
Jeremy: With out revealing too much of the film, can you talk a little bit about the extent to which the the “performance” goes beyond the stage for some of these male illusionists?
Alana: In Atlanta’s black LGBT community, we found that for drag stars and gay lay people, alike, gender performance is extremely important, determining how one is regarded, who one may date, how one may love, and much more. Black, gay, individuals in this context must choose to either perform a feminine gender identity or a masculine one and consistently or incur the wrath and ridicule of their peers.For the Tyres, our M.I. informants in Atlanta, this means performing the male illusion unfailingly, in every moment of their daily lives, lest they meet rejection from fans at clubs on the drag circuit. Still, as members of this black gay Atlanta community, they are also themselves wholly committed to these categories in their personal lives and thus draw no distinction between performing drag on-stage and performing gender in their private lives.
Jeremy: Where can people see M.I. next after the festival in Durham?
Leslie: We are currently on a Black Pride festival tour, the next stop is Nashville, TN for their annual Black Pride celebration.
Jeremy: I feel like the term I often hear to describe these performers is “drag king” where did the term ” male illusionist” come from?
Alana: As we see in Livingston’s ‘Paris is Burning’, there have always been discourses in the black LGBT community that challenge the power of the white mainstream LGBT terms and categories. While, there are certainly differences between the act of female-to-male dragging and that of male illusion, most notably the taping down of one’s breasts and the tendency of M.I.s to be more masculine off-stage, these are, in my opinion, incidental.The most important difference is that M.I.s are a group that speaks to and for the black female LGBT community and are committed to their own terms and categories as an act of resistance against the marginalization of blackness within LGBT society and, on some level, the preeminence of ‘queens’ (male-to-female performers) over ‘kings’ (biological women) on the drag stage.
Jeremy: The two of you working on any other projects at the moment?
Leslie: We are currently working on a feature documentary film about a “jig” show called Harlem in Havana which documents the legacy of my grandfather, Leon Claxton, the ‘Bronze Ziegfeld’ of Chicago, and one of the twentieth century’s most successful traveling show producers.