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Seeing and being seen is what it’s all about

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: Laura Spencer as Carrie (left) and Velinda Godfrey as Lauren in ‘Heartland’

Sometimes, breaking news turns out to be a cheap and exploitative tease to garner attention. Often, what is hyped as breaking and up-to-the-minute is a glaringly obvious fact to anyone with at least one working sense (and I’m not sure we need to focus on seeing and hearing).

Last week, Hollywood industry trade magazine Variety broke a story about the latest GLAAD report, citing that the major film studios failed to increase LGBTQ representation last year. The New York-based media advocacy group tallied up a total of only 23 out of 125 films produced by the seven major studios featuring an LGBTQ character. That’s less than 20 percent, but remember the focus is on studio films. The report did highlight the contrast seen when comparing film to television, where there has been a genuine boost in the number of LGBTQ roles in recent years.

As a cultural critic, I would argue that the indie/art house world has also proven more adept at covering the full mosaic of life. Character tends to be the more significant driver over plot and action, which allows for more progressive examinations of social and interpersonal dynamics.

In keeping with this realization, I don’t want to belittle or belabor the point I want to make here, so let me just say that all screens matter. Typing those words addresses the same inherent conflict that arises when we pit the idea of black lives versus all lives. In the case of screens, though, the context is larger than mere viewing format. It speaks to how and where stories are told, which at its core is all about seeing and being seen, especially for marginalized folks.

Eddie Rosenstein’s “The Freedom to Marry,” which hits digital formats on June 6, is a Civil rights documentary chronicling the four-decades-long struggle to change public perceptions and the law granting same-sex couples the right to marry and have those marriages honored across all 50 states. The film captures the modern reality for any movement—the understanding that visibility is key to impacting the hearts and minds of the majority. The narrative and history provide the backdrop, but the audience truly engages thanks to the connections with the movement’s chief architect Evan Wolfson and Mary Bonauto, the main litigator who argued the landmark case before the Supreme Court.

This is what documentaries do. They give voice and context, but audiences rarely flock to theatres for what feels like a rehash of the news. Which sets us up as the real losers, because, in addition to “The Freedom to Marry,” we would miss out on a fascinating biography like “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent,” from director Lydia Tenaglia, which makes the case that Chef Tower, a legendary force on the American food scene from the early 1970s (first at the Alice Waters bedrock Chez Panisse, before founding his own San Francisco empire with Stars in the 1980s), might have created the cult of the “celebrity chef.” It also happens that Tower lived his life as an openly gay man with nonchalance. We need to register his life and presence, weaving his experience into the American cultural fabric.

On the fictional feature side, Maura Anderson’s “Heartland,” another new June 6 digital release, peeks into the world of a struggling artist named Lauren (Velinda Godfrey) in Oklahoma who recently lost her lover to cancer and is forced to move back in with her mother (Beth Grant), a woman who never accepted the truth of her daughter’s relationship. Things get complicated when Lauren’s brother Justin (Aaron Leddick) comes home for a business trip with his uptight fiancé Carrie (Laura Spencer).

The inevitable sparks fly between Lauren and Carrie, but the film never plays things “straight.” Anderson makes us believe in choices all of the characters make and every word they utter. “Heartland” isn’t looking for a pat resolution; much like the subtle topicality of the Thanksgiving episode from the recent season of Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series, Master of None, which surveys the relationship between Dev (Ansari) and Denise (Lena Waithe, who co-wrote the episode) one of his best friends, she embraces her sexual identity and then drags her family along with her, into this brand new proud day.

These are the kinds of examples I look for as an African-American viewer. I don’t need monochromatic reflections on-screen because that’s not the world I live in when I exit the theatre or turn off my smaller screen of choice. I’m a black Catholic raising culturally Jewish daughters with friends who identify across a myriad of spectrums, and we all celebrate and face the inevitable struggles of being who we are in a society that’s not always willing and able to simply let us be and be seen.

That’s not breaking news, just a call for all of us to get and stay woke.