Art Doc of the Week | Out and Bad: London’s LGBT Dancehall Scene
“I love my country,” says Jamaican black trans man Jah Phyah early in the Noisey Films short documentary Out and Bad: London’s LGBT Dancehall Scene, “but being who I am, I couldn’t live there.”
One of the most salient points made in Out and Bad is that the relationship LGBT people have to the cultures they’re born into – particularly if the culture is baldly homophobic – is often much more complicated than simply hating it. It’s about navigating your complicated love for it. Women (of all sexualities) and queer/same-gender-loving male hip-hop fans have long made a related point when discussing their love of rap, noting that sometimes you have to tune out the lyrics and give in to the power of the beat. Out and Bad co-directors Kartel Brown and Daisy-May Hudson are tasked with illustrating the struggle when the culture is dancehall and, for many of the film’s subjects, the conflict isn’t just with the music but with the larger culture of Jamaica, birthplace of both dancehall and some of the black LGBT people in the film.
Out and Bad focuses primarily on two hugely important queer dancehall/bashment clubs that cater to black clientele – the legendary and now defunct Caribana, and the still-thriving Bootylicious. The film opens with a couple of friends getting ready for a night at the latter, and then opens up into larger issues of black queer identity in London. The shared insights on chosen and consciously formed families echoes those found in Paris is Burning. (It’s one of many echoes to Jenny Livingston’s classic film on American ball culture.) But from the start the film’s core weakness is apparent. Brown and Hudson, in a mistake made by many documentarians, are so enthralled with their subjects that they sometimes let them meander rather than edit their comments down to what is substantive and truly relevant.
The film is at its best when it actually goes into the club, an otherworldly realm whose programmed lighting casts blues, reds and yellows over the gyrating, sweating bodies. The energy is off the charts, then, and the film’s own pulse picks up. It’s here that we see a span of bodies of all sizes and hues of blackness. And we see the ways in which the sexual frankness and freedom that are a given for hetero dancehall fans in straight dancehall venues are fiercely claimed by queer folk. Visually, Out and Bad comes to life nearly two-thirds in when the work of a photographer who’d been documenting Caribana is rolled out, and the images are absolutely dazzling, especially when they’re given a near 3D effect. Here’s hoping a collection of those works makes its way into a book or online forum.
But the film also drops the ball in crucial ways. First, lesbian and trans presence could have been greatly expanded. Second, while the homophobia of Jamaica and black culture is dutifully cited as a major source of despair and alienation for black LGBT people, the segregation and anti-black racism often encountered in “queer” circles/venues is only noted accidentally, in a throwaway line of a black speaker who notes, “When I went to [iconic gay dance club] Heaven on a Saturday night, it – the urban room –was all black people.” For him, the sight was a welcome one, and a revelation, but it also unintentionally speaks to the racial divides in queer culture, a rarely commented upon source of alienation and despair for many queer people of color.
The real takeaway of the documentary is something that a lot of queer activists in big cities miss or simply ignore, particularly those whose race, gender presentation and class status afford them options and privileges not given to all queer bodies. It’s true that sometimes the places people come from are so horrible they can’t wait to get away and leave all traces behind. But sometimes those places – small towns or villages in middle-America or European countries; countries and cultures that are unabashedly black or brown – speak to and for queer folk in ways that cannot be easily discounted, in ways that actually sustain the best part of them. That includes music, food, the rhythms of everyday life, and certain culturally specific traditions and practices.
The LGBT folk in the film make it clear that they are appreciative of the freedoms they have in London, and they’re grateful not to have to endure the horrors that many LGBT people suffer in Jamaica. But it’s also quite telling that one of them, when describing club Caribana, says wistfully, “It was like Jamaica.”