The year 2015 was submerged under relentless waves of death, brutality, and injustice. The pain, outrage, and empty spaces simultaneously ignited a blaring call to action for black people to dig deeper into their communities, express themselves unapologetically, and command places at tables where there hadn’t been seats before. This Black History Month, The FADER is celebrating the groundbreaking strides that some brilliant Young Black Heroes are taking to mobilize change through mediums like art, film/television, education and music.
Scholar, writer, and emerging filmmaker Jamal T. Lewis is unapologetically shedding light on the narratives of queer, marginalized, and gender nonconforming beings with his film in progress, No Fats, No Femmes. The film, set to be released in Fall 2017, is an insightful documentary showing the stories of five black subjects who navigate the world outside our societal standards of beauty, body shape, and gender. The film was inspired by the specific preferences that Lewis saw others post about on dating apps, which then moved them to explore the politics of desirability.
While balancing their graduate program at The New School for Public Engagement as a Media Studies student and speaking at universities about gender and sexuality, Lewis is diving into the passion project while addressing and reconciling their own position as a creative who operates outside of a spectrum. Lewis’ choice to live in their truth and refusal to shy to away from the intricate layers of their identity, has inspired others to embrace themselves while also stepping up to the challenge of exploring what we like and why.
The FADER spoke with Lewis about the importance of having an all-black cast and crew, where their sense of responsibility came from, and why they’re committed to a life around telling transformative stories for healing.
Before you started working on No Fats, No Femmes, you’d been mobilizing these concepts and doing a lot of organizing and advocating for safe spaces in the LGBTQ community. What were some of the experiences that really motivated you to commit yourself to this specific narrative?
My organizing at Morehouse and even my political organizing work today. Working to expand work around gender and gender based violence in black liberation movements. Those things motivated me to put this kind of work out because I know the language that is used on these gay hook-up dating sites also informs how people move throughout public spaces and they carry those same kind of attitudes. I’ve realized how it impacted me then and I would only talk about it at the time to a few friends. So, I was writing it down and saying that I wanted to do this film. After I graduated from Morehouse and moved to New York for graduate school, I kept the idea with me and I’m like, “I’m not letting this idea go.” So I just kept feeding it and it’s amazing to witness this project and how it’s lived inside of me and also even more amazing to watch it grow and then to give birth to it.
You have five subjects in the film. Can you tell me a little about them? How’d you find them?
I’m not following the rules of the traditional documentary in choosing 3 subjects, I have five. It’s going to be very experimental. For me, following the rules is boring [laughs] and I think that we experience levels of transformation when we break rules so I’m breaking the rules and I have five amazing subjects. Wow, I met all of them online. Yes, gaaaag [laughs]. I met everybody online and some of them in person but our relationships have been sustained online because of how far we live from each other. One subject is in Johannesburg, South Africa where I’ll be traveling to. They’re all different and they’re all black too. That’s one that that’s important to me to have an all-black cast. So, Johannesburg, Missouri, Brooklyn, one from Ohio who’s now based in Brooklyn, and another one from Virginia. They’re all queer but they all range from cis, trans, and non-gender binary people. Some of them are fat, disabled, trans—they run the spectrum of these identities who have all been marginalized and silenced. So, I’m just really excited to get that perspective and how this notion affects us and impacts our daily lives. How those issues of desirability and accessibility affect them.
I could easily have chosen a white counterpart to make my project more palatable and more marketable to people but I want to do the hard and slow work of grinding to make it happen with what I have.
Why is it important for you to have an all-black cast?
It’s important to me that they’re all black because I want to make this a film that challenges desirability through a racial lense because often times, our notions of our desirability is often centered around whiteness and I want to interrogate that. I don’t see a lot of people choosing to make a film about black people, by black people, and for black people, directed by black people. It’s really important to me that my cast and crew are black. I could easily have chosen a white counterpart to make my project more palatable and more marketable people but I want to do the hard and slow work of grinding to make it happen with what I have. That’s what’s worth it to me.
When did this sense of responsibility and come about?
This has been something that’s been rising in me since high school. I think that’s where I first started to feel like an outsider. After that, I mustered up the courage to invite everyone in my world into who I was. What that does is it just shows you how hard it is to move about the world and I started learning about so much stuff and I was like, “Damn… Damn.” It invigorated something in me and I need to make sure that I have found a place in the world and a voice within me and amplifying that. In doing that, I’ll get to meet so many other people like me and I recognize whose story is like mine and also their own. I recognize that in our current media environment only certain kind of stories get told and are told in certain ways that make people want to invest in it in certain ways. There are stories that won’t get told because it doesn’t have a certain kind of "sexy" buzz to it or doesn’t bring this kind of press. That’s what moves and drives me to do this.
While reading about, No Fats, No Femmes, I was thinking like, “Damn. What I am trying to be reaffirmed by? Why do I like who I like?” Have you also traveled on an introspective journey while you've been working on the doc?
Yeah! That’s what inspired the work. I have sat with this shit. One of the things that I want to come across on the project. I think I’m still able to offer this as a project and I’ve spent the time and continue to. It’s something that I’ll never stop doing because I’m a person that’s interested in critiquing culture or being a culture critic. It takes for you to be very, very empathetic and to not give into apathy. To also hold the mirror up to yourself and I’ve been on this journey for a really long time and I still struggle because it is an everyday process. It’s nothing that you just wash yourself clean of. It’s something you have to work towards with yourself everyday because it really shows up in so many other ways. Often times, people try and relegate sex to the bedroom but it informs so much outside of bedroom and we can’t just relegate it to the bedroom only.
No matter how hard I think I try to be a very hard and shelled person, that softness and that vulnerability always finds a way to swim back up to the surface.
Our generation really has an issue with it. I think it ties into even being able to reconcile with the things that you like and the things that you want. How do you tackle being vulnerable and through your social media the things that you share, they’re really personal. In working on this film, you’re addressing and checking yourself. How’ve you achieved that?
When you’re a soft girl, [laughs] you just really don’t have a choice and I think I speak this way for black women, femmes, and girls. I am vulnerable because it what makes me feel the most free—I feel most like myself and I feel most alive. Sometimes, I think I do perform this hardness because that’s what life does to you especially when you are a black person. Life will do a number on you, many numbers especially given our current social and political terrain where black people are being killed. One response to it is hardness because people don’t know how to protect or defend themselves otherwise than to be hard and to put a shell around who they are and protect themselves. It’s because they recognize a softness in themselves that they don’t want anybody else to hurt or damage. I want to project that softness because it’s who I am, I’m a soft girl. No matter how hard I think I try to be a very hard and shelled person, that softness and that vulnerability always finds a way to swim back up to the surface.
Vulnerability reminds us that we have feelings and feelings remind us that we’re human. So, it’s been a really long journey and I think a lot of me being introspective dealt with the fact that I was bullied for a lot of my life. For being fat and for being a feminine black male and also coming into gay communities and maintaining a feminine position within gay black male spaces. After dealing with all of those things, my response was always to project myself as a tough badass with a “don’t give a fuck” attitude but that shit is exhausting. I realized that being that kind of person was not helpful or healthy to me in any kind of way so I took myself out of those spaces and committed myself to what I need and what’s going to help me live a purpose driven life and one that pleasures me and that I’m satisfied and happy with. Being on that journey doesn’t take me away from being in a community with other people but I think it helps me.
Tell me about your self-care regimen. You're so self-loving & self-aware. In this work, you're constantly dealing with intricate issues that require lots of nurturing. How do you maintain self-care?
I like to sleep a lot [laughs]. One because I need to be rested but because I like to sleep. In the winter time, it’s challenging for me because I’m not able to go to the beach. Living on the east coast, that’s challenging. Being near the water is one of the most healing and deeply spiritual things for me; just thinking about black people’s connection to water through the Transatlantic. Spending time laughing—I’m not taking myself and my life too fucking seriously. I’m a very goofy person. To allow myself to fall and trip. Girl, I fell the other day walking down the stairs in front of a lot of people. I ain’t feel embarrassed. I got the fuck up and laughed at myself and went off to my destination [laughs]. Allowing myself the space and time to not be perfect. I like to have a polished image but that’s self-care—allowing myself the space and opportunity to fail and fall and to laugh at it. Listening to music and singing. The more that I’m traveling and doing things, I actually value the time that I have to be at home and be in my room writing and watching documentaries which is something as an emerging filmmaker I love to do.
Who do you do this for? What voices do you want to amplify?
The voices of queer and gender-conforming people and making work that isn’t projecting them in a way that tokenizes and sensationalizes their bodies. I want to tell honest narratives that are in turn transformative and healing for various people.