Michaela Eubanks / Courtesy photo

In Conversation with Michaela Eubanks on Black Queer Cinema

Think of filmmakers who are well renowned, people who are considered to have made the best films of all time, producers of popular blockbusters and cult classics alike. Out of all the people who instantly come to mind, how many of them are Black? How many of them are queer? How many of them are both? Since the invention of the moving picture, the film industry has been dominated by cisgender white men. The creations of Black filmmakers have historically not been as broadly recognized or well-funded, but regardless, their creations have found a way to thrive.

In the early years of cinema, the film industry was extremely segregated. Black people were limited to playing performers and servants in film. Black filmmakers wanted to give their peers more options and wanted to create more accurate representations of their lives as well; thus, the “race film” genre was born. A pioneer of this genre and one of the first major Black filmmakers was Oscar Micheaux. He created 42 feature films in the span of 29 years from 1919 to 1948. His most popular film, which is now in the Library of Congress, is 1925’s “Body and Soul.” As Micheaux said, Black cinema was all about seeing Black lives “dramatized on the screen as we are living it, the same as other people, the world over.”

What about queer cinema? The oldest surviving feature-length movie with a gay protagonist was a 1919 German film called, “Anders als die Andern” or “Different from the Others,” which was created to advocate for LGBTQ acceptance by gay rights activist Magnus Hirschfeld. Likewise, the 1931 German film, “Mädchen in Uniform” had the first explicitly lesbian love story. Although we got to see inklings of white queerness early in film’s history, we didn’t see a depiction of Black queerness until the late ’60s with white experimental filmmaker Shirley Clarke’s “Portrait of Jason,” which featured an interview with Jason Holliday, a Black gay sex worker and cabaret dancer.

The first popular film made by a Black queer woman didn’t come out until 1996, only 26 years ago, with Cheryl Dunye’s “The Watermelon Woman.” Since then, we’ve had amazing, groundbreaking films such as 2011’s “Pariah,” a semiautobiographical film by director Dee Rees, and 2016’s beautiful “Moonlight” by Barry Jenkins. But unlike cisgender white cinema that has been allowed to flourish and prosper since the creation of the medium in 1888, Black queer creators are just getting started with sharing their stories on the big screen. Michaela Eubanks is one of those creators. The 24-year-old Atlanta native works in the film industry with post-production editing, preproduction writing, and on-set gaffing, lighting, and electricity. I had the pleasure of speaking with her about her art, the intersection of film and literature, and the future of Black queer cinema.

Quotes have been edited for clarity.

 

How would you describe your style as a writer and editor?

I like edits that are rhythmic. A lot of times, I’ll try to find music for it or commission local artists to compose the score. I love working with local artists! I get very meticulous about rhythm pieces, I want it to hit exactly on beat. but even when there’s no music, it’s weird, I feel like I have music in my brain, so I’ll try to sync the edit with the metronome in my head. I know inside of me what I want, and I will not stop working until I get there. It’s very much torturous, but very liberating too.

I really like working with people who bring ideas that I would never think of. So, as far as writing goes, I like to look from different perspectives that I wouldn’t initially default to. Trying to put yourself in a space that you’re not familiar with is something I think we can all work on.

 

What are some of your artistic influences?

I enjoy complex storylines. I also enjoy when the entirety of the set and every part of the film is used to cater to the storyline. Like “Stranger Things,” for example, I like how well they researched different ’80s references and mannerisms that were popular at that time to modify the storyline. I really have an appreciation for that. I love watching projects with vibrant colors and ’80s aesthetics, so it’s [fitting] that I mentioned “Stranger Things, but I also love “Purple Rain” because they were so dramatic with their editing. Also Earth, Wind and Fire [music] videos and anything animated.

 

I barely watch anything with real people in it. My favorite shows are “Steven Universe,” “Bob’s Burgers,” “Love, Death and Robots” and this limited series that’s on HBO, “Fantasmagorías,” which tells horror-based folk tales from various parts of Latin America with a dual story.

 

Can you expand on this love for animation that you mention?

I wrote a whole paper on this, but I think people often see animation as childish just because it’s not as definitively relatable in a very overt way compared to live action. There are a lot of animated series, like “Bojack Horseman,” which is one of the only shows that has seriously made me cry like a baby. Bojack goes deep into evaluating mental health and past traumas, trying to fit that into your adult life and trying to navigate the right route but still messing up regardless. I think since it’s animated, it gives a little more [freedom] in creativity, but also makes these tough topics more palatable. You can explore parental trauma, morality and existential themes in a different way than you can through live action. But I love both mediums.

 

How do you feel the mediums of literature and film relate to one another?

I think that art of any medium tells a story, and the medium dictates how you tell it … [When I went to school at Georgia State University] I thought, well, if I’m going to be working in film, I need to have some type of story background. I knew it would help me understand, as an editor and a writer, what parts of the story are more intriguing. Literature is its own beast, but I think it’s so beautiful. Sometimes when I read books, I think to myself, “Wow, could you imagine composing something this beautiful and eloquent?”

One book that I really like is “Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut; I like nonlinear storytelling. In the beginning, you’re like, what is going on, but then you realize with the three scenes juxtaposed that it’s all part of one large overarching plot. I try to keep stuff like that in mind. I like reading serious graphic novels too. Two different mediums, same concept.

 

What authors inspire you?

I love bell hooks … love bell hooks. Love how Neil Gaiman has these fantastical stories but still writes them from an adult perspective. I love Shel Silverstein. You know when you watch Spongebob as a kid and it’s one thing, but then you watch it as an adult, and you realize that it has all these innuendos? It’s the same thing with Shel Silverstein. One [young adult] book that really helped shape who I am today is a series called “The Name of this Book is Secret,” by Pseudonymous Bosch. Actually, as I got older, I found out he was a queer writer too … chef’s kiss.

 

What is your opinion on the current state of queer cinema & Black queer cinema specifically? Are there any tropes are you tired of seeing? And what kind of stories would you like to see portrayed on screen instead?

I like the idea of where it’s going, but I don’t like the execution. There are very few shows, in my personal opinion, that have properly shown representation for queer, Black and Brown communities without being distasteful or performative. I think we’re progressively getting better, but it almost adds insult to injury whenever we have those moments where we do have queer representation in media, but the actor/writer/producer is not actually queer. Especially when there’s so many talented people within those communities that could portray the character eons better than any cis white straight person.

I think after 2020, we started requiring more out of our media and pop culture. It was a bit of a double-edged sword, because we started getting representation, but it was still these caricatures. We’re getting away from the “token black friend” and “token gay friend,” but now we’re getting the “token gay show” where we’re shown in a more fantastical way that dehumanizes us to an extent. It doesn’t really show a realistic experience. We’re multifaceted, we have stories and human experiences that are not inherently related to our Blackness or our queerness. We have regular ass experiences just like cis-het people, and our experiences are equally valid and equally normal.

Some of the content that is geared specifically toward Black people makes me want to projectile vomit. It’s just so disheartening because there are so many cool ass Black writers, especially in Atlanta, that have so many good stories to tell, yet we keep on getting the same content that is centered around abuse, slavery, and being abused in slavery. It’s also annoying when we have Black writers like Jordan Peele who made this great movie [that was] comical but also served as a critique on so many of the stereotypical tropes, especially in horror, and then non-Black people try to replicate his work, but they make it worse and more traumatic and we just get stuck in this cycle. I want to see some very cool Black shit, you know what I’m saying? Like something whimsical, fantasy or sci-fi.

 

Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to get into filmmaking, specifically in Atlanta? What kind of opportunities are currently available for Black filmmakers & what more do you wish was available?

I always knew I wanted to do film since I was seven years old. I was fortunate enough to end up at an affluent high school, so that’s given me more of an opportunity to pursue that passion because I had more resources at my disposal. We all have to start from somewhere, not everybody has the luxury to work with expensive video editing software or even has the time to learn how to use them. With that in mind, my advice is to find people in your field (or outside of your field) who can support you, because that is the most important thing.

Before film school, my little sister used to act in all of my videos, she was the talent. I would shoot them on this shitty Canon in our backyard. Now, I have six friends on call to help with my projects because they love me and want to see me succeed. My best friend also wants to be an editor. You would think that since we want to do the same thing, it would be competitive, but it’s not! It’s so nice to have someone in your corner that’s doing the same thing as you. I’m not gonna say that anything is possible … I hate that fake positivity, Oprah moments stuff, but if you have people rooting for you, that’s a start.

Also, befriend your professors, because the film industry is all about who you know. and be ready to share your work at any time. It could be on a Wix site or on YouTube or even an unfinished reel.

At one point, I was getting a bunch of commercial photography jobs and all these jobs made me hate photography. So, my last suggestion to Black creatives is don’t just do stuff for money. I know that we all have to get money; truly, I understand, but don’t take away the magic from your work [if you don’t have to]. If you keep doing things you don’t enjoy, it’s going to turn something that was once magical to you into a task and a job and that is one of the most unfortunate things in the world.

As far as specific places you can go to learn filmmaking or places to make films: Atlanta Film Society, Atlanta Film Festival and Georgia Film Academy are great options. If you go to the State of Georgia’s website, there is a specific tab that shows a schedule of different productions that are going on in Atlanta, what studio they’re filming at and what PA jobs are available. There’s this great place, Mixdeity, it’s this studio in Atlanta where you literally pay $15 a month and you get access to their studio whenever you want!

 

Who would be your dream artist to collaborate with?

I unironically love “Atlanta,” so someone I would love to work with is Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino). I love Issa Rae for how she shows the complexity of Black women with a type of story that’s not usually written for us. And I love Rebecca Sugar.

 

What has been your biggest setback as an artist so far?

My biggest issue has been my own confidence in my work. I don’t know if anybody who’s going to be reading this has any mental illnesses, but I can say as someone who’s had several: it can be very difficult to get over those mental hurdles where you get into a vicious cycle of doing nothing, but it’s okay to not be okay. Most people aren’t okay, they just act like they are. You owe it to yourself to not fake it, push through it and try to understand why you’re having these mental hurdles and what can make you feel more confident in your own work. It’s important to tell yourself, “My work is valid, and my work has merit.” I’m excited to see where I’ll be six months from now, a year from now, five years from now, and I’ll be able to look back at these important conversations and say, “Hey do you remember all that stuff you were talking about? Look at you now.”

 

What’s the ultimate goal of your art?

One of my major goals as a content creator is to create representation for Black and Brown queer people that’s more realistic than what is currently shown — also, representation without the insertion of trauma porn. So, my goal as a writer in this industry that is becoming increasingly oversaturated is to show that queer people, Black people, Brown people are much more than these tired ass tropes that are being perpetuated through the content that we consume.

 

Finally, where can people find your work?

On Instagram @squadtographer and online at mceubanks.com.