The deal that E. Lynn Harris and Tracey Edmonds struck to make a series of feature films based on Harris' Invisible Life is historic. This is not just one feature film about gay and bisexual black gay men and black women. It's a series of films about gay and bisexual black men and black women.
It might sound hyperbolic, but there is actually no way to understate just how important these films are going to be. Gay and bisexual black men have almost always and only been portrayed in films as stereotypes and they have too infrequently appeared as the center of a film narrative (with Noah's Arc: Jumping The Broom the most prominent and most problematic, as a result). So these films represent a real opportunity to portray gay and bisexual black men and black women as the complicated, messy, three-dimensional human beings that they are.
If Edmonds and Co. are smart though they will treat the films exactly the way that Warner Bros. treated the Harry Potter films* – with a keen understanding that a world must be built and sustained over the life of the films, a world that most Americans have never seen before and will have to (at the very least) believe and appreciate, if not outright love.
Because there is real danger in these films, real danger in reinscribing harmful, narrow, representations of gay and bisexual black men, black women, and black culture. Harris was unafraid to introduce characters in melodramatic, and sometimes stereotypical, ways and then graft tremendous dimension on them in later books. As a writer juggling multiple perspectives, he understood how to balance the essential humanity of his character and the way that characters were perceived by other characters.
The filmmakers must do the same, and they have to do it earlier in the books in order for the films to work as a series**. Raymond has to be more than just self-loathing, Kyle has to be more than the life of the party, Nicole has to be more than a BAP, and, critically, Yancey and Basil have to be understood as deeply damaged people first, monsters second. The filmmakers have to resist the urge to oversimplify. The early films must be set in the 80s and the later films must reduce the bourgie name-dropping that infected the later books.
And the films have to stay true to the fact that some of the characters do horrible things to one another but for reasons that make sense to them. For instance, they have to keep in mind that John Basil Henderson emerges as the single most complex character in all of Harris' work and, perhaps, the single most fascinating and complicated portraits of a modern black male in contemporary African-American fiction.
And perhaps most importantly, the first film, Invisible Life, has to be Raymond Tyler's story, not Nicole's. Ever since Oprah inflicted JL King on America, we've been inundated with the trope of the DL black man as demon, hellbent on destroying the black community and killing black women***. That cannot happen here. The film will not succeed unless we emphathize with Raymond's inability to choose between Nicole and Quinn and understand why it is so hard for him to do so.
Anything less will be a failure and an insult to Harris, the books, and the audience.
*And like Warner Bros, the filmmakers should cast unknowns in all the principal roles. Though I could see an actress like Irma P. Hall readily as Mama Cee.
**When it comes to Basil and Yancey, the filmmakers should really study the way David Benioff fleshed out Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones so she felt like a real person instead of a cartoon villain as she is portrayed in the books. In fact, the filmmakers should study everything Benioff did with GOT.
***The one exception is the cancelled-far-too-soon The DL Chronicles, in which creators Quincy LeNear and Deondray Gossett did a magnificent job exploring the many ways that sexuality is manifest in black communities.
I’m not at all familiar with any of E. Lynn Harris’ books, but this makes me want to learn more.
I consider myself an involved observer of culture and I would like to see more of who Black people are portrayed more realistically. That includes those of us in the LGBTQ community. I’ll be looking forward to see what treatment these characters receive.
I think his later books leave much to be desired – excepting the marvelous development of the Basil character – but he’s worth reading. A very important author.