Before I jump into the films, I’d like to share the journey of how I arrived here to begin with, as well as my personal thoughts on the state of black lesbian visibility in film. This film research came about from a sense of loss, and a deep aching desire to see more complex and nourishing imagery of women who are like me, in the media.
My first wave of inspiration to do this research came about, after watching a popular white lesbian youtuber who regularly creates vlogs, offering her witty, in-depth reviews of Sapphic TV shows and movies. I used to watch her content regularly, because I thought she was entertaining and funny. I liked some of the shows she mentioned, and it was cool to see a small community talking about this niche genre in a complex way.
But somehow, I always felt left out of the picture. In all of the vast array content she created, black lesbian media was never highlighted or checked for, and the one time she devoted an entire vlog to reviewing an African lesbian film, it was one of her briefest and most superficial reviews I’d watched. I could also never relate to the endless pining and thirsting over white female actresses, whereas the beauty, talent, and desirability of women who look like me was never seen or acknowledged.
Thus began my initial search for the kind of Sapphic media I wanted to see. In my day, I had definitely watched a couple of solid films that featured black women loving each other, but I wanted to see more. Where was the never-ending stream of diverse, Sapphic black media that was available for us, the way it was available for white women? Upon a few quick google searches, I was unimpressed with the results.
First of all, I was really frustrated with the lack of visibility, in indie blogs that claimed to list “lesbian films” and “Queer filmmaking”. Most “black queer” films are about men (of which the term “queer” obscures who is truly represented), and most lesbian films are about white women. I had also seen a few films labeled as “queer women’s films” that primarily featured heterosexual relationships, or that were written and directed by men. Sorry Sir, but having lesbian activity on screen is not enough to call a film or show “lesbian”. There needs to be lesbian consciousness informing the film, from the ground up.
I was equally frustrated that most mainstream T.V. series, movies, and films which included a black lesbian character on-screen, almost always had her loving a white woman.
Now in a few cases, this was a clear choice made by the black lesbian Indie film writer/director herself. In those circumstances, Ten times out of Ten, it was a dark-skinned masculine black woman partnered with a dainty white or light femme. That whole dynamic is a whole ‘nother conversation, but case in point-I don’t have any desire to feed myself with that level of self-hatred. I’m still proud of these women for making their films. No shade to the handful of black lesbians who are in authentically loving interracial relationships that are free from colonial imprints, but ya girl is tired of the colorism. I might feel a little differently if it was, for once in a blue fucking moon, a black femme paired with a white butch lesbian.
Either way, when I speak on this point, I am primarily speaking of mainstream television and media, which must always depict a black sapphic woman loving up on white folk. In rare circumstance, she may be paired with another light-skinned, non-black woman of color, but never another black woman.
White fragility prescribes that white folks always need to see themselves in a relationship on-screen, in order for them to feel connected to the character. Two black women together, loving each other, would be too foreign, and it was either an afterthought, or the Producers deemed it too much of a risk to offer a diverse audience the chance to connect with black lesbian humanity in their natural, self-loving state. There needed to be some sort of “balancing” filter to water it all down.
(Come to think of it, this reminds of how male directors will often pair a lesbian or bisexual female character with a man-even if just as in quick hookup scene while she’s ‘figuring her sexuality out’- so that male audiences can feel validated, seen, and enjoy a good fantasy.)
Most black lesbian characters I had seen, regardless of who they were paired with, were also in minor, supporting roles. Their stories and characters and lesbian relationships were always sidelined. We were rarely, if ever, front and center.
Now I want to say, there actually IS an entire faction of black lesbian media that has been created, and which abundantly exists in its own class—some of which are films, but much more of which exists in the form of fiction-based youtube web-series.
I’m going to be honest. I never liked these series, and I could barely get through the first few minutes of most of them. The glorification of toxic and abusive relationships for entertainment purposes is rife in some of the most popular black lesbian media, and I can’t get down with that. It saddens me on a very deep level, and because these women are made in my image and the image of those whom I’ve loved, it’s a sadness that is harder to shake off. While I know that myself and many others have lived through abusive relationships, there is a way that Directors and Producers can normalize these on-screen relationships, and keep people salivating to come back for more, next week.
That’s a Hard No for me.
At a point, I thought to myself, “It’s not her (white lesbian youtuber’s) fault for not including our work in her videos. There’s barely any decent representation for us anyway.” I became rather depressed about our lack of media visibility, and the barriers many of us (including myself, as a filmmaker) face to create films that authentically reflect our stories. I was left feeling like we just don’t exist in that realm.
Living in a white liberal, lesbian-centric town, this lack of visibility all compounded the isolation I often felt, being a black woman who prioritizes relationships of all forms with other black women, in a sea filled with white lesbians who are super intent on celebrating their white lesbianness, in their utopic world of whiteness, where black folk are an afterthought, at best.
I unsubscribed to that youtuber, and gave it a rest.
Months later, I created my first Sapphic WOC Space. The Sapphic Space is a redemptive space for myself and other Black/WOC who need a women’s space that is highly intentional around building community with other women who love women, without the fluff and toxicity that is often found in “queer” spaces.
As such, my inspiration was naturally reinvigorated around the pattern of ‘creating my own’ with Black Sapphic media, in the sense of excavating, finding, digging for our stories in film and media, and curating a list that can be shared with others. In this sense, this very blog is its own space, where women like me can come and feel seen. To have a resource to revisit and cherish the quality of work that has been created for us by us, and to be reminded that some of us have gone above and beyond to tell our precious stories, in the midst of major obstacles.
A black woman’s journey to creating media that depicts us honestly, especially those of us who love our own kind, will be considerably different and often littered with challenges and considerations that other groups will never have to face. Yes, it’s true that we do not have an endless stream of media being churned out that represents us, and I don’t have an overwhelmingly long list to share. But….Quality over Quantity. Having had to dig for these gems, it makes me more appreciative of the fact that we created these works against all odds. We Exist! We Are Here!
To be clear, this list is not exhaustive of all black lesbian films, media, or imagery. There are several more out there! It is an intentionally-curated list of films, based on certain criteria that was important for me to highlight.
There were a few qualities that were important for me in curating this list:
- The film must feature a black lesbian or bisexual lead, who is either single, or whose primary love interest is another black woman. Their relationship needed to have substance. If it’s a documentary, our voices needed to be front and center.
- The film must be written and/or directed by a black lesbian. Our authentic voices must inform the story. There was only one film on this list that was an exception (written and directed white lesbians) but I still enjoyed it and felt it worthy of mention.
- The film must not romanticize, sensationalize or normalize toxic relationships, violence, or abuse. Where abuse is depicted, it is either framed as part of an account of someone’s true life story, or it is depicted as it is: a human behavior which actively destroys what is naturally wholesome.
- I wanted to have a variety of media: Narrative Feature Films, Documentaries, Shorts, Animation, and Artsy Films.
- I needed to like the film! I believe all films made by black women are valuable, and I am always proud of the Director for telling her story. However, I am a film snob. Being a filmmaker myself, I have an eye for certain things. I personally like some films more than others, because of the logistics in how they were crafted, or how the story was told. So this list features films that I like, which is influenced by the aforementioned factors, as well as my taste in film. That said, these films are all unique to each other, and are listed in no particular order.
- The film needed to be accessible. I found a few black lesbian films that look amazing, but they are not accessible because they are tucked away in an archive, or they are student short films that have yet to be released to the general public. I didn’t have a way of watching them. Lots of excellent women’s indie films are obscured in that way. Even my film is not available online after 10 years, but it has been well-distributed enough that it’s easy to find in a local library. I wanted everyone to be able to watch these films for themselves, in the comfort of their own home.
So without further ado…D LIST!
- Strange Frame: Love & Sax
I love this film, and I’ve known about it for more than a decade. It’s simply a beautiful, lusciously visual and unique film, with lots of singing and music. Strange Frame offers a futuristic storyline that centers on getting free from oppressive forces, in the spirit of love and creativity. I love animation, and this is simply one of the most beautiful animated films I have ever seen. Naia and Parker live in a parallel world, so they have their own challenges to beat, but it’s one of the few films that features a black lesbian couple who is truly in love, taking on their dystopian nightmare hand-in-hand, and that isn’t shackled by…y’know-the regular Earthly problems like homophobia and relationship abuse. When I was producing my documentary, the film’s Director and head Animator, GB Hajim, came forward to support my work and offer to create a free graphic logo for me. Hajim is a white man, but the Writer and Score producer of the film is Shelley Doty, a black lesbian musician.
Ahhh, Rafiki! One of the most well-known black lesbian films to date. I remember the first time I saw this Kenyan movie upon its release in Berlin back in 2018, the line to get into the theatre was packed and sold out to the brim with a waitlist. Black women had traveled from far just to see its premiere. To me, it was worth it. I loved the colorfulness of this film, the beauty and natural flow of the couple’s relationship, and how uninhibited they were to love each other, despite living in an intensely homophobic society…one that, as we see in the film, is violent towards lesbians. This film was banned in Kenya. African LGB filmmakers who manage to rise to the surface to even create such works that accurately depict our lives deserve so much applause and all of their flowers.
Pariah is a classic. I had first watched Pariah when it came out in theaters years ago, and upon compiling this list, I watched it again just to make sure it fit the criteria I had laid out. It was better than I remembered. There is so much raw emotion from the characters in this film, and so much holistic empathy written into the storyline. I found myself feeling nostalgic from some of the cozy visuals and Afropunk music. Although I’m so much older than the main character of the film, I found myself relating to her struggle in breaking free of her toxic family dynamic and carving out her own path. I was in tears by the end of the film, just like I was the first time. And the fact that we get a sensitive, dark-skinned stud as the lead is so deeply important on all fronts. I’m shy to admit that I almost didn’t include it in the list because I had confused it with another film that I had a pretty strong critique of, so I’m glad I watched it again. Highly recommend this film.
4. Dream: The Lebo Mathosa Story
Okay, so I grew up watching Lebo Mathosa. For those who don’t know, Lebo was a South African singer and entertainer, and she was basically the Beyoncé of Africa. I went to a Nigerian boarding school when I was a teenager, and when they sent us home for mid-term breaks, I would always see her music videos playing on Channel O and MTV Base. She was raw and fiery and powerful in her dancing. Lebo embraced her sexuality, and was just an all-round talented Artist. Little did I know that she died shortly after I came to know about her, in 2006. Just a few years ago, a South African network teamed up with BET and did a biopic TV series about her. She was openly bisexual, and was in a relationship with one of her dancers, who is highlighted as her primary lover and deepest relationship throughout the series.
When I found out about this biopic, I clamored to find a way to watch it. It was totally worth it. The acting is on point, and the series was totally captivating. I felt very connected to Lebo’s story and personal challenges, and I’m glad it was told. I am not sure who wrote it, but I do know that Bongi, her former lover, the same one who is depicted in the film, was part of the film’s production.
I’ll let y’all in on a little secret: there is quite a lot more black lesbian visibility in film, but you have to go to the source of black people, which is Africa. The catch is that Africa is deeply homophobic and patriarchal, and women experience a different sort of pressure there than in Western countries, so there isn’t currently as much lesbian content being produced as there could be, but South Africa is the only place that has legalized same-sex marriage, and where lesbians can live and love openly, with less risk of violence. So there are tons of black South African lesbian youtubers, filmmakers, and actresses who are out. I can’t wait to visit one day!
Due to geographic license restrictions, if you want to watch this (and certain other) South African shows and movies, you’ll need to purchase a VPN to make your IP address appear as though as its in South Africa, and also purchase a South African Showmax subscription, which will all amount to the same cost as a monthly U.S. Netflix subscription. Thankfully, you can watch the entire first episode for free on Youtube, but you need to pay to watch the rest. This is the only film on my list that I needed to do all of that for, but it was well worth it.
5. While You Weren’t Looking
I watched this film because I wanted to see a movie that featured Thishiwe Ziqubu, who did an excellent job portraying her character; Shado, an independent, masculine lesbian living in the townships of Johannesburg. I don’t have much to say other than that-I really just watched it to see Thishiwe in action, and I enjoyed the love scene between her and the main character. 😹✌🏾 Unfortunately, this film also depicts some pretty intense violence towards the black lesbian couple, but I also felt like this was a realistic depiction of what many women in the country are facing, especially in the more dangerous townships. This film was written and directed by white lesbians, so IMO the black lesbian couple (Shado and Asanda) and their lives are not as fleshed out as they could be, but the film is moreso meant to offer perspective on contemporary South African lesbian life. Namely, we get a peek into a couple of other notable relationships, including married life between Asanda’s adoptive parents, an interracial lesbian couple. Overall, I enjoyed the film and I think it is worth checking out.
6. Unomalanga and the Witch
Another South African film! This short film was one that was completely new to me, and I really enjoyed it. The storyline was interesting-a married, Christian woman becomes captivated with her next door neighbor, who is socially outcasted and heavily gossiped about. I am always curious to see how these sorts of storylines play out, but I actually felt like the story carried more depth and substance than what I was expecting. I loved the sensuality depicted in how it felt for Unomalanga to get her hair done for the first time, the pride and sense of renewal she felt walking away from her newfound connection with another woman. There is a lot of richness in the story if you read between the lines, and I felt it was a very well-done film.
7. Vow of Silence
This was a beautifully made short film. It’s somber and meditative, with a few beats of humor. I loved seeing a main character with natty freeform locs, and I felt like the connection formed between Jade and her new love was beautiful, even as it was formed in imperfect circumstances. The silence Jade takes on gives the film a surrealist quality, and the musical score throughout the film by Director Be Steadwell, brings a layered richness to that silence. Highly recommend seeing this.
This is the first documentary on my list, and it’s also one of the very first documentaries I had ever seen that focused exclusively on black lesbian voices. I really appreciate this film. Through a series of interviews, set to a backdrop of softly playing piano, we witness over 50 black lesbians speaking intimately and openly about a variety of issues, including sexuality, relationships, coming out, gender roles, and more. It’s the kind of film that makes you feel like you’re in the same room, sipping tea and getting to know these women. I so appreciate Director, Tiona McClodden for creating this important work.
9. Butch Mystique
Another classic documentary film! Butch Mystique came out in the early 2000’s and I just watched it for the first time a few years ago. I thought it was an excellent window into the black butch perspective. Some snippets of how those women affirmed themselves and their beauty, in a world that doesn’t affirm them, has resonated and stayed with me to this day. I recently caught word that there may be an updated version in the works, “Beyond the Butch Mystique” which revisits interviews with the same women who were in the first edition, and inquires how they are navigating this current landscape with gender identity politics. Pippa Fleming, a gender critical black lesbian (who is also on this list) is the one who told me that she’s going to be interviewed for that edition, so I know it’s going to be spicy. And as such, I am practically salivating for the next release.
10. The Revival : Women and the Word
I had known about this film for a while, but I held off on watching it because I have mixed feelings about spoken word poetry. When I finally gave it a chance, I was pleasantly surprised and found that I not only loved the film, but I felt nourished by it. In fact, it was exactly what the doctor had ordered for me at the time. Offering a look into these women’s journeys gave me nostalgia about a time, about 10 years ago, when there were still plenty of established creative and social spaces for us, by us, in major U.S. cities. I lived in Brooklyn during that time, and now it feels like it’s all gone, especially with many of the creative powerhouse lesbians no longer wanting to identify as women, much less create a space that is centered on womanhood. It was healing to see these women performing to audiences filled with black sapphic women of all persuasions, receiving so much love, and having their tickets sold out. I admired their scrappiness, and the vignettes into their everyday challenges and the unity that helped them prevail. It gave me hope because we had something good, and we can bring it back again. Director Be Steadwell, the creator of Vow of Silence, is also featured in this film. It’s a great film, and I highly recommend watching. I was able to watch for free with my public library card on Kanopy.
11. If She Grows Up Gay
This is a short documentary which I recently discovered. What drew me in, is that it depicts a young black lesbian couple, who engaged to be married, and who were co-parenting, in 1983! This is around the time in the U.S. when lesbians were still stigmatized in broader society, but there was a burgeoning movement and shifting attitudes around homosexuality. I skipped to the part where both women in the relationship were speaking about their lives and family dynamic, and found myself very interested. I also appreciated the narrative one woman offered about her journey as a single Mom, prior to joining that relationship. It’s a simple, no-frills and down to earth film with interviews and some b-roll footage. I think this film is really great for those who are interested in learning about our lives and history from the past.
12. Pippa Back in Town
This is a short documentary made in 2019, featuring butch lesbian Artist, Pippa Fleming, and her return to the pervasive social and cultural landscape of gender ideology in Oakland after some years retreating in Hawaii. She details her experience of how she is newly perceived and assumed to be transgender, for presenting in her natural form: as a butch lesbian. She tells it how it is, honey! And she takes no prisoners. I was deeply inspired by her voice, and it was also interesting to hear an older black lesbian’s perspective on our modern day “LGBT” politics. I highly recommend watching, if you like it spicy and are willing to fasten your seatbelt. This short might be in the works to be made into a longer version.
13. Dirty Computer
Last but not least, Dirty Computer [An Emotion Picture] is probably one of the most aesthetically pleasing films I’ve ever seen that features Sapphic women of color at the forefront. Janelle Monae, obviously having the resources to create whatever fantasy land she wants on film, served us a colorful dreamscape of Sapphic love, empowerment and Afro-futurism. Janelle herself is bisexual and expresses that in the film by sharing love in a polyamorous relationship with both a man and woman, but her Sapphic relationships were definitely more pronounced. I felt inspired watching this film, and as it was released back when I lived in Los Angeles, the backdrop of LA in the film made me feel even more connected to the visual environment. Fun fact, I also met Tessa Thompson (Janelle’s IRL girlfriend and love interest in the film) around that same time, at a women’s spa in Koreatown. We literally met when we were both butt naked LOL. I kind of recognized her but didn’t know from where, and then I just settled in for a soak in the Mugwort tub with Tessa and her Mama, who she kindly introduced me to.