There’s a new film entitled “Dirty Laundry” that opened up in both Los Angeles and New York on Friday, December 7th.
The film follows the life of an African-American gay magazine writer with a near perfect life after turning his back on his southern roots by escaping to New York City--until an 11-year-old boy changes everything for him and his partner.
A new comedy with a stellar cast, “Dirty Laundry” stars Rockmond Dunbar, Loretta Devine, Jenifer Lewis, Terri J. Vaughn, Joey Costello, with a cameo appearance from Dr. Bobby Jones.
The film is initially opened in Los Angeles and New York, with more cities to follow on December 28th.
The 'Magic' That Happens Between Black Films in Black Theaters
Now riddle me this? When was the last time a new film where the majority of the cast was Black and didn’t open in your local African-American neighborhood theater, like a Magic Johnson’s theater?
For me, it was 1998 and the film was Black director Hype Williams' “Belly,” an urban drama starring rappers DMX and Nas as Tommy and Sincere, former partners in crime who become estranged after Sincere decides to go straight and Tommy takes on a major drug deal from a Jamaican drug lord. “Belly” also starred Taral Hicks, rappers Method Man and Vita, dancehall artist Louie Rankin and R&B singer T-Boz from TLC.
Magic Johnson, who in 1994 opened a theater in the heart of Los Angeles’ African-American community, refused to show "Belly" in his Magic Johnson Theaters.
His reason was to avoid any potential violence. "I'm in gang territory already," he said. Magic continued by saying that he had concerns for his patrons, but is equally concerned about the media's attitude toward his theaters. "Hollywood told us our idea would not work, but we've been doing this for four years. If violence would have broken out at my theater, the story would have been front page."
Johnson said that his decision was not a contradiction to his campaign of supporting other Blacks and Black businesses.
"If someone else makes a film like that, I'll make the same decision... There are going to be Black films I don't show and white films I don't show."
Well that’s a subject for another day because there were a lot of films that opened up at the Magic Johnson Theaters in Los Angeles that in my opinion were more violent than “Belly.” Try Quentin Tarratino’s “Kill Bill” for example. However, maybe that was after his theater chain was taken over by AMC Cinema.
But back to the Magic Johnson Theaters.
The focus of Magic Theaters was to build first-rate multiplexes in urban (i.e. Black) communities. Magic wanted to bring high quality facilities and technology, job development, and encourage local economic growth. With six theaters, including one in Los Angeles and in Harlem, Magic has succeeded in providing modern movie theaters in where there previously were none. Kudos.
So here we are nearly ten years since “Belly,” with a film that is undeniably “Black,” and instead of opening up in Los Angeles’ Crenshaw district and Harlem, it’s opening up on the Westside of Los Angeles at the Beverly Center and in Chelsea. And unlike “Belly,” “Dirty Laundry” is a family friendly comedy that doesn’t portray African-Americans in any of those stereotypical characters, you know the gangsta, the killer, or the dope dealer. I mean, isn’t that what we’ve been fighting for, more films that feature African-Americans in positive roles? So exactly who decided not to place “Dirty Laundry” in the Magic Johnson Theaters in Los Angeles and Harlem, the distributor’s or the theater? Inquiring minds want to know because just about any film with a Black lead or a majority Black cast can almost be counted on to do so? The most recent examples being “The Perfect Holiday” starring Queen “Is She or Is She Not A Lesbian” Latifah, Terrence Howard, Gabrielle Union, Morris Chestnut, Faizon Love, and Katt “I’ll Wear a Noose on the Red Carpet of the BET Awards If I Want To” Williams, and “American Gangster” starring Denzel Washington, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cuba Gooding Jr., Ruby Dee, T.I. Idris Elba, and rappers Common and RZA among others.
This year Black filmmaker Tyler Perry’s “Why Did I Get Married” marks the third time Perry has opened a film at number 1. There’s a reason why all of Black filmmaker Tyler Perry’s films open up at Magic Johnson Theaters around the country. Just like there’s a reason why we show up there to see them. Perry is nobody’s fool and he knows where his audience is. Which is not to say that Perry’s films aren’t in other theaters, but opening up at Magic’s and at theaters in urban communities earned him $21.3 million to lead the box-office race its opening weekend, finishing ahead of George Clooney's “Michael Clayton.”
When Blacks Play Gay Characters
You might not have caught that from viewing the trailer, which by the way has the same look and feel of a Tyler Perry film, but yes, Rockmond Dunbar’s character is an African-American openly gay male.
And yes, this is the same Rockmond Dunbar who is best known for his leading role as Kenny Chadway on the critically-acclaimed television series “Soul Food” and as Benjamin Miles "C-Note" Franklin on the television series “Prison Break.” He’s also the same Rockmond Dunbar who starred in the independent feature film “Punks,” a romantic comedy about four Black gay friends living in L.A., which co-starred Seth Gilliam of the hit HBO series OZ. He also made a guest appearance on the MTV Logo series hit “Noah’s Arc.”
There’s no arguing that Blacks, despite all, have continued to excel in filmmaking on both sides of the cameras. Likewise, so has the inclusion of gay characters in films. However, Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender characters on the silver screen are often far and few between much less in a “Black film.” And no, closeted Black actors don’t count or Tyler Perry as Madea, so please spare me your emails.
But to name a few films with Black openly gay or otherwise implied characters: “Blind Faith,” “Brother To Brother,” “But I'm a Cheerleader,” “Get on the Bus,” Mannequin,” “Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil,” Norman... Is That You?,” “Players Ball,” “Punks,” “Revenge of the Nerds,” “Set It Off,” “Six Degrees of Separation,” “Ski Trip,” Smokin' Aces,” “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” “The Color Purple,” “The Crying Game,” “The Fifth Element,” and “To Wong Foo.” Isaiah Washington, Academy Award-nominees Will Smith and Queen Latifah, Chris Tucker, Academy Award winners Forest Whitaker and Whoopi Goldberg, and others have played these characters. And I think you’ll agree by looking at the names listed, none of their careers have suffered from it.
Reading Between the Lines
On the popular Internet website IMDB.com, America’s Internet Movie Database that allows registered users to contribute to an online database of information about movies, actors, television shows, production crew personnel, and video games, I noticed that under keywords for the film “Dirty Laundry” listed was the following: Prodigal Son, Mother Son Relationship, Son , Partner , Gay , Brother , Family , New York City, Surprise , Southern U.S. , Writer , Secret , Magazine , Sister, and Return.
I then looked up the keywords for “This Christmas”: African American, Interracial Relationship, Christmas, and Family.
“The Perfect Holiday” : African American, Christmas, Divorcee, Mall Santa, and Mother Daughter Relationship.
“American Gangster”: New York City, Urban Decay, Vietnam War, Black American, and Organized Crime.
“Belly”: Inner City, Teenage Boy, Desert Eagle, Lasersight, and African American.
All I’m saying is that you have to read between the lines and ask why?
How Black Films Succeed
In a Chicago Tribune article Brandon Gray, president of Box Office Mojo stated "You will get a picture like 'Why Did I Get Married' or 'Soul Food' or 'The Best Man,' and it will do well, and the industry will act shocked and surprised by it, as if it came out of the blue. But there is this sense that the audience isn't being as consistently served as it could be, because it is a lucrative market. These films tend to be relatively low budget, and they tend to post good grosses. None has been a real blockbuster, but they don't need to be blockbusters. They have a built-in audience.”
In the same article, "This Christmas" producer Will Packer explained, "A studio's traditional thinking was if you want to pull in an urban audience, you need to have a hip-hop element. Over the past 10 or 15 years, hip-hop was a new and emerging form that pulled in that core African-American audience as well as had that crossover potential. It was a business decision more than anything. What is happening now -- and it's a great time as far as I'm concerned to be making films about the African-American experience -- is Hollywood realizes that there is an audience out there that doesn't regularly see themselves on film."
Incidentally, acclaimed actress Loretta Devine who is also starring in “This Christmas,” opened in theaters on November 21st and its playing at Magic’s theaters.
Can Black Audiences Deal With Gay Characters?
Enter “Dirty Laundry,” a film by all accounts that shares a part of the African-American story that is rarely ever even talked about, including in the campaign of the Black presidential candidate.
On the day of the film's opening, Teri J. Vaugn, one of the film's co-stars went on Los Angeles radio station KJLH 102.3 FM to plug the film. Not once during Teri's interview about the film did she ever mention the word gay or anything eluding to Rockmond's character being gay.
“Dirty Laundry” is a film that features a Black openly gay character that’s not on drugs, a prostitute, on the downlow, a hair dresser, choir director, or sashaying all over the screen. You know, those stereotypical representations of the gay community that seem to envelope most roles that call for a Black gay characters. Which is not to say that I’m hating on those types of brothas, but just like all lesbians aren’t Cleo (Queen Latifah in "Set It Off"), all gay men aren’t fabulous finger snapping hair dressers.
"Dirty Laundry" is rated PG-13. There's no sex or violence in the film. Let me repeat that. "Dirty Laundry" is a Black film with a gay character that doesn't feature sex or violence. It's truly a film that you can take your momma and your momma's momma too and not have to worry.
During a time when national theatrical releases of “Black films” are far and few between, it seems like sabotage from the start to open a film like “Dirty Laundry” which has all of the right ingredients to do just as well as films like “This Christmas” and “Why Did I Get Married?,” in one theater in two major markets. Couple that with the fact that the theater isn’t even located in the cities “urban” area, but rather its gay friendly neighborhoods.
Which is weird to me because one look at the trailer and Teri’s interview on a Black radio station and it’s clear that this film is being marketed not towards gays, but Blacks. But when you read the film’s synopsis online, it’s the other way around. What gives?
Some have argued that if “Dirty Laundry” opened up at Magic Johnson Theaters that would discourage Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people from attending for fear of being retaliated against or worst yet, being identified as gay. One friend even gave his example of going to see “Higher Learning” in Harlem and remembering the scores of Blacks in the audience booing when two women kissed on screen.
There may be some merit to that argument given the fact that five Black men attending a movie together will take up ten seats, but not much. If we can embrace Tyler Perry’s cross dressing to play his signature character Madea and Taraji P. Henson’s lesbian assassin character in “Smokin’ Aces,” then surely we can get through 90 minutes of laughter, love, and storytelling with some of our most beloved Black actors. And to borrow a line from Magic Johnson, we can do it in our community.
Where Race, Class, and Film Meet
It’s no secret who lives in West Hollywood and who lives in Chelsea. What is a secret is the methodology used to conclude that this is where “Dirty Laundry” should open.
At a time when gay issues and gay people are still seen as being white, and during a presidential campaigning season where sooner or later gays will become an issue, for all of the candidates, a film like “Dirty Laundry” has the potential to speak for and give life to a community people that continue to be ostracized and marginalized by both the African-American community and the gay community. And it wouldn’t be the first time that comedy was used to approach a sensitive subject, R.I.P. Richard Pryor.
Black films do well with Black audiences. The proof is in the numbers, including "Waiting to Exhale" which brought in $67 million while "Soul Food" cleared $43.7 million, and "The Best Man" made $34.1 million according to boxofficemojo.com. It’s no secret that if “Dirty Laundry” doesn’t clear the numbers set out for its opening weekend by the films financiers, you can kiss it goodbye for now and wait for its DVD release.
“Dirty Laundry” is a Black film and it’s a gay film. Why should a Black gay movie be limited to one theater in one neighborhood? The success of “Dirty Laundry” will be in the film’s ability to reach multiple audiences, Black, white, gay, straight, female, male, etc. and one theater in a major market is going to do it.
The powers that be are doing the film and its audience a disservice by not making sure that it’s easily accessible to all of its communities. It makes no sense to market the film via its trailer as a “Black” family comedy but then place the film in one theater clear on the other side of town to cater to a gay audience whom is probably figured not so willing to travel to Crenshaw and King Boulevards where the Magic Johnson Theater is located to see it.
Truth be told, most Black gays in L.A. do not live in West Hollywood, they live where Blacks have traditionally lived in Los Angeles, try Baldwin Hills, West Adams, Windsor Hills, South L.A., Compton, Inglewood, and Long Beach. But since gay is still synonymous with white and even though the films central character is Black and gay, the
While we’re happy to see a film in theaters that positively portrays African-Americas and includes an openly gay character that is Black, it’s important that those race and class issues that often come into play with all things Black and gay don’t get the better of “Dirty Laundry” on its opening weekend. This is precisely the type of film that Blacks need to see, I’d argue more so than many of films we champion that tend to glamorize guns, violence, and negative images of Blacks.
The Bottom Line
“Dirty Laundry” by virtue of its cast ensemble is a Black film and should be shown in community that it depicts as well as in other theaters, like every other “Black” film before it. Anything less might be viewed as an attempt to set the film up for failure.
Regardless of whether the film is in theaters in urban communities or not, we still have to show up. We have to show up for the cast, the crew, and in hopes of having more independent Black films reach theatrical distribution. More importantly, we have to show the powers that be that there is an audience for a film with a Black gay character as the lead. Plainly put, we have to show up for us.
So if you’re lucky enough to be in L.A. or New York this week, please make sure to go and see “Dirty Laundry.” The film will be opening in other cities on the 28th, and depending on how it goes (i.e. how much money the film makes), “Dirty Laundry” may get an extended run and more markets added to its roster. Please do your part to make sure that happens.
According to boxofficemojo.com, "Dirty Laundry" grossed $15,400 in its two theaters its opening weekend (December 7-9) with an average $7,700.