Film

MoMA’s “Black Intimacy” Retrospective Honors the Movies That Knew That Black Love Matters

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It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the Museum of Modern Art would screen a film series called “Black Intimacy” mere months after the Academy Awards had three films in its Best Picture category — Fences, Hidden Figures, and eventual winner Moonlight — that mostly focused on intimate moments between African Americans. There’s certainly an audience eager for a series devoted to black people showing love and affection for each other. One of the biggest hits of the summer, Girls Trip, was a comedy about a quartet of black female friends who party hard during a New Orleans music festival, but mostly spend time bonding, healing old wounds, and ultimately showing how much they love one another. Amid all the superhero bullshit and failed franchise launches, Trip proved once again (as Figures did earlier in the year) that a movie about loyal, black female friends can connect — and make money.

Despite these monster successes, filmmakers still always seem to face an uphill battle when bringing black love to the big screen. These days, it’s easier to find that on TV, whether it’s in acclaimed, awards-snatching dramedies like Atlanta and Insecure or in multilayered family dramas like the Ava DuVernay–created Queen Sugar or even over-the-top soaps like Empire and Power.

But this series, curated by MoMA/Studio Museum in Harlem fellow Adeze Wilford, is here to remind people that black love has been seen in movies here and there throughout much of film history, with titles dating back to 1961. The first showing out of the gate is The Learning Tree, the late author-photographer-overall bad muhfucka Gordon Parks’s 1969 Warner Bros.’ adaptation of his own semi-autobiographical novel. I first saw this film more than two decades ago, back in college, and I’ll always remember the opening: In small-town Kansas, the lead teenage character (Kyle Johnson) gets lost during a tornado and is discovered by an older, voluptuous neighbor (Carol Lamond), who whisks him back to an abandoned shack and nurses him back to health by popping his cherry. Yeah, that’s definitely black love, gotdammit.

“Intimacy,” which is made up of sixteen features, two shorts, and one TV episode, also shows how filmmakers went outside of Hollywood to give unique perspectives of personal, black America. The next two movies, Charles Burnett’s legendary Killer of Sheep (which was made in the Seventies but didn’t get a proper release until 2007) and Michael Roemer’s trailblazing Nothing but a Man (1964) are eye-opening indies both featuring a black, male protagonist so frustrated with his own struggles that his home life suffers, making it close to impossible for each to express his feelings to his dedicated significant other. Both movies remind audiences that black indie films have been around for more than a minute, while also offering a fly-on-the-wall look at repressed black masculinity. It’s rare we see brothas psychologically stifled by their own ideas of how to be black and proud.

The big attraction at “Intimacy” is the appearance of Lena Waithe, fresh off her Emmy win for co-writing the Master of None episode “Thanksgiving.” She will be in attendance on October 10 to screen that episode and 1996’s The Watermelon Woman. It’s fitting that the out-and-proud Waithe would be around for Woman: It’s a movie about a gay, black, female filmmaker (made by gay, black writer-director Cheryl Dunye) who searches for the whereabouts of a long-lost 1930s black actress while romancing a white woman (Guinevere Turner, who co-wrote Mary Harron’s American Psycho and The Notorious Bettie Page). The movie, which was partially funded by a grant by the National Endowment for the Arts, became a cause célèbre when some Republican politician from Michigan thought that taxpayer money was being used to make films that featured girl-on-girl action. Much like the excellent “Thanksgiving,” it revealed just how scary some people still find lesbian love, especially black lesbian love.    

Not all the selections are winners. While “Intimacy” features Matty Rich’s solemn 1991 debut, Straight Out of Brooklyn, a film included for its portrait of black family life in the inner city, we also get Rich’s 1994 follow-up, The Inkwell, the major-studio release he did for Disney. This Summer of ’42 retread was a misfire that novelist–original screenwriter Trey Ellis famously disowned (he thought Rich was making the movie too stereotypically black), taking his name off the credits and replacing it with “Tom Ricostronza” — loosely translated, that last name means “full of excrement.” 

Ironically, the problem Ellis had with Rich’s handling of Inkwell is what “Intimacy” strives to achieve. As Ellis told Entertainment Weekly in 1994, “We black people want to see ourselves going to school, going to work, kissing each other.” All the movies that’ll be unspooling are examples of black people being other than larger-than-life heroes uplifting the race or lower-class folk scratching and surviving. Black people have problems just like everyone else. We have flaws. We have issues. We have layers. And, more importantly, as “Black Intimacy” wonderfully lays out, we will always care about each other.

‘Black Intimacy’
Through October 16, Museum of Modern Art

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