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Dual Identity Makes an Outcast in Two Communities

Providence Productions

When a young, white gay man, Matthew Shepard, was beaten up and tied to a fence to die in Wyoming in 1998, there was international outrage, huge coverage in the mainstream American media, anti-hate crime legislation drafted in his name and even a movie as a result. But Sakia Gunn’s equally homophobic murder five years later was largely ignored – because she was black? A girl? Someone whose sexual identity was a little harder to describe? For whatever reason, Charles Bennett Brack decided to make "Dreams Deferred: The Sakia Gunn Film Project" in an attempt to redress the balance.

Gunn didn’t lend herself to easy labels. She was an "Aggressive" – that is to say, a black woman who dresses as a man without necessarily being gay or confused about her gender. Not the easiest lifestyle to understand from the outside, made no easier when the only mainstream representation of Aggressives one can think of is Queen Latifah’s bank robber in “Set It Off.” But Gunn wasn’t a character in someone’s movie. She was a teenage girl catching the bus home in Newark, N.J., on May 11, 2003 with her best friend and cousin, Valencia Bailey, when they were propositioned by a man, Richard McCullough, twice their age and three times their size. When the girls said they were lesbians, he tried to strangle Ms. Bailey before stabbing Gunn to death. She was 15.

Mr. Brack was able to film the sentencing hearing at which the outrage and overwhelming grief of Gunn’s family lined up in the courtroom to describe their pain and rage at their loss. Ms. Bailey shaking so violently during the hearing that it took three people to console her is not a sight easily forgotten. But where does Mr. Brack go from here? Does he talk to young Aggressives about their experiences of being female, queer and black when to be those things is to be triply marginalized? Does he talk to any young people to describe the impact Gunn’s murder had on her friends, her neighborhood, other young gay people in America? Do we get any sense of the deferred dreams referenced in the film’s title?

Most regrettably, the answer to all these questions is no. Instead we are treated to a series of terribly well-meaning talking-head interviews with gay activists from across the country. They talk a great deal about theories, case studies, statistics and skin privileges, but none of them have any insight into Gunn’s life. There is a brief interview with Ms. Bailey and her mother, who is also a lesbian, but the impression they gave was of people so exhausted by their grief that all they wanted to do, understandably, was move on. There are overlong vox-pops with local passersby giving their opinions as to why they have never heard of Gunn. Finally, there is footage of a candlelight vigil held in Gunn’s memory, at which a variety of local activists and politicians, including Corey Booker, made a lot of speeches promising to fight for justice and equality. But that’s it.

Watching this well-meaning film, one desperately hopes that Gunn’s memory would be fleshed out to show just what her awful death stole from us. Instead, one is left with the nasty sensation that a whole variety of well-meaning people were using this child’s body to further their own agendas. This point is further pressed when the only footage of Aggressives, which appeared to have been shot from a moving car without their knowledge, is repeatedly shown without comment. Finally, there is no reference whatsoever in the film to the Langston Hughes poem which gives the film its title. Since Gunn could have no further dreams to be deferred, the filmmaker probably chose this title as an acknowledgment of what he failed to achieve. This is not the film to do justice to the memory of Sakia Gunn.


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