It is 1963. Americans across the South—white activists, black ministers and plenty of ordinary folks—are rising up against segregation, against the hypocrisy of separate but equal. They are sitting-in at lunch counters, fighting for the right to vote, the right to earn equal wages, the right to live in decent homes and send their children to good schools.
The whole world watches while black people are beaten by cops and fire hoses, bitten by vicious dogs. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. comes into national prominence in Birmingham, Alabama, leading marches in protest of continued maltreatment at the hands of local government officials.
Months later, the Ku Klux Klan and its supporters bomb a local church and four little girls are murdered. Dr. King then leads over two hundred thousand civil rights advocates in the historic March on Washington. As the multitudes gather to hear Dr. King deliver his unforgettable “I Have a Dream” speech, somewhere in Wyoming, two white cowboys are on the downlow.
What does one thing have to do with the other? Not a durn thang. Or maybe . . .
I am writing this little ditty on Super Bowl Sunday while most black folks I know are frying and barbecuing and stirring and pouring, entertaining friends, family and a few strangers in honor of the big, fun football sit-down. Although invited to one of these events, I am not in the mood to deal with more than three hours of this. So while everyone else is pigging out between whoops and shouts, my 16-year-old daughter and I head to downtown Berkeley to see Brokeback Mountain.
With all the hype, I expected to be moved by a tender love story between two guys who find each other amidst the mountain ranges, in between the horses, sheep and the macho world of ropin’ and ridin’.
Tender it was not. Their first sexual encounter was almost like a rape. But then, Hollywood has a history of mixing sex with violence, most often with both participants coming away from it mysteriously satisfied. To each his own, I suppose.
Brokeback Mountain opens with two cowboys awaiting work, one Marlboro-weathered with squinty eyes whose mumbling is often uncomprehensible; the other dark-eyed, lively, more comfortable in his skin. He sneaks peeks at his future lover and it is he who eventually initiates their intimate relationship.
But how intimate is it? The film is more about emotional repression than intimacy. Both characters come from poor, working-class families who are isolated and living in bleak circumstances. They are emotionless, rigid, cold. Growing up, both men were estranged from their fathers. They may have admired their fathers’ strengths from a distance but there was no sense of warmth between them.
As the cowboys continue their relationship over a period of perhaps 20 years, they each marry, have children and lie to their wives about who they are and what they are doing.
They never discuss homosexuality in any depth. After their first encounter they each declare: “I ain’t queer.” They refer to their ongoing relationship as “this thing that’s got ahold of us.” One of the wives, bitter over her husband’s deception refers to it as “nasty,” but that’s about it. No discussion of how they feel inside or what it means. Are they gay and pretending to be straight? Bi-sexual? Are they so ignorant and isolated that they are unaware that there are others in the world who are like them and that there are other places that would be more accepting of who they are?
Remember, this romance takes place in 1963. I have to wonder if these two cowboys have any clue as to what is happening in the world around them; any knowledge of the scores of black people who are simultaneously being beaten, lynched and stuffed into jails cells for demanding that they be granted equal rights. It seems not. But still, I have to ask: Would these two lovers empathize with black people who had even fewer rights than they did? Would they see any connection? Would they care?
But, you say, this movie wasn’t about that. No it wasn’t and I’m not saying it should have been. I’m simply describing what most black folks bring with them to the movies—a gnawing sense of invisibility—that is, unless we are bouncing a ball, brandishing a gun, dancing, singing or helping white folks rescue white girls.
After viewing the film, I spoke with a good friend, Patricia Rambo, to get her take on it. She is the mother of a gay, African-American man and she brought me back to what the film did have to offer.
“Relationships don’t have gender,” she told me. “They consist of emotional energy that must be balanced between the two people involved . . . If I were to close my eyes and just listen to the dialogue in the film, I wouldn’t be able to tell the gender
. . . that’s why I related to it as just a love story.”
I agree with Patricia wholeheartedly. Relationships cannot be stereotyped, they are particular to the two individuals involved. Just because I didn’t see much tenderness doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. Just because they didn’t communicate they way I would choose to doesn’t mean that they didn’t share a deep bond. They obviously did.
Patricia and I also noted the lack of courage in either man to stand up and claim who they were, accompanied by the silent suffering of their wives. We both observed a seemingly unspoken agreement between all parties to keep mum in order to keep up appearances, financial and/or familial stability. In this sense, their relationship was not unlike many heterosexual relationships that rest more on convenience than honesty. Perhaps this was the underlying message: that too many of us, regardless of our sexual orientation, move through life in fear, choosing to live only partially fulfilling lives for fear that our honesty might mean that we are forced to face the world alone.
My daughter and I arrive at the tail end of the super bowl party. (She actually found the film to be a bit boring and fell asleep twice.) There are just three minutes left, which drag on for another half an hour.
It seems that everyone in the house has been pulling for the Steelers, so the mood is decidedly upbeat.
“Sorry we’re so late,” I say. “We went to a movie.”
“What’d you see?” asks the hostess.
“Brokeback Mountain,” I reply.
“Did you like it?” she asks.
“Well, I wasn’t really that into it,” I say, looking around to see if there’s any barbecue chicken and potato salad left. “It was OK.”
“That’s what I thought,” she nods her head as she hands me a plate. “It was a white folks’ movie, wasn’t it?”
Well . . . yes and no.