Steel River is the latest urban gay series based on the down-low stereotype, but I thought I'd give it a chance. After a delay and an early sneak peak on YouTube, the Web series finally launched through signal23TV on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013. If you saw the trailer and thought the show would be melodramatic, terribly acted, poorly written and hackneyed, you were right. I hate to judge a book by its cover, but I was right. Meanwhile, another Atlanta-based series that's trying to get picked up, Skin Deep, which focuses on the intersecting lives of a diverse group of gay men, promises to be a better show.
The first episode of Steel River, "Man in the Mirror" (NSFW), is tragic, and not because of what happens in the storyline but because it exists. In the episode, R&B singer Terry (Emani Williams) is lambasted by his manager, Shelton (Wesley Adams), for receiving flowers from another man. Terry is then left to think about "the man in the mirror" and his vocal group, Chance, and confronts his lover, Dexter (Jordan King). As I watched, I kept thinking, "Are these first-time actors who left their day jobs?" As in other series dramatizing down-low relationships, the acting here is laden with screaming and over-emoting.
Also, that creepy, thriller-type music that plagues Cover, a 2008 film that also trafficked in the down-low stereotype, is all too prevalent in this 9-minute clip. I was thinking, "Is this a drama series about black men struggling with love, relationships and sexuality, or is it a horror-thriller movie?" If anyone reading this is planning to put together yet another portrayal of black men on the down low, please don't use this played-out formula. At least the series doesn't feature a woman crying about her deceitful husband or boyfriend with creepy music playing in the background... yet!
I should point out that the second episode of Steel River, "Rejection" (NSFW), which was posted on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013, is somewhat better. The acting isn't as bad, and the episode introduces new characters, so there is more to work with. Nevertheless, the series is problematic. It focuses too much on confrontation, and the character and story development is slow. I would like to learn who the characters are and what their purpose within the premise of the show is, so that I can develop informed opinions about them and care about them. I guess there's only so much that can be done in a 10-minute webisode.
In stark contrast to Steel River, Skin Deep might do the trick. What makes this series original is that it focuses on the intersecting lives of three gay black men and three gay white men from different backgrounds, belief systems, social classes and age groups. Although at this point the show only has a 10-minute teaser clip on YouTube (NSFW), that series' website features character bios and a show synopsis that describes it as Queer as Folk meets Noah's Arc meets Crash. I can kind of see the comparisons, but this show seems more intense yet deconstructed. Although it's clear that the struggles of these gay black and white men with their relationships and with coming out connect them in spite of their differences, the series seems to suggest that what really connects them is simply their shared quest for love.
Although my opinion is an early one, I feel that highlighting diversity in this way is just as important as having formulaic gay romantic comedies that feature couples that just happen to be interracial, for whom issues of race are not main factors in their struggles with love and dating. I'm not expecting to be blown away by Skin Deep, but it's exploring unusual ways or portraying gay relationships that could make it groundbreaking. Skin Deep is based on 150 interviews, to give it realistic story lines, and it plans to explore the experiences of gay men from Asian and Latino backgrounds too, thereby promising to be a more meaningful series for the gay community than Steel River. According to Arch Productions on YouTube, Skin Deep has signed with a company to represent it and is being pitched to networks.
Check out slideshow of media representations of down-low men of color:
Although this film does not feature black men, Latino/Hispanic men -- as men of color in urban neighborhoods and upbringings -- also have been subject to the down-low stigma. This is not just a romance film following two secret gay lovers but a thriller set in the South Side of Chicago. Isaac (Tony Sancho) and Angel (Michael Cortez) are members of rival gangs but are secretly seeing each other. And their relationship is more complicated than just being on the down low: Isaac is ordered to eliminate Angel.
This TV and Web series takes an in-depth look at down-low men. The series highlights four black men from different backgrounds and their struggles with coming to terms with their sexuality. Instead of making them out to be deceitful and evil, the series invites us to sympathize with these men who are already burdened with being black men and now have the extra burden of struggling with black masculinity and suppressing their secret desires for men so that they're not exposed.
Wow. McMillan was really upset (to put it lightly) about her husband coming out as gay. Any woman would justifiably feel betrayed, but Oprah's post-interview commentary on McMillan and Plummer's confrontation and how McMillan <em>had</em> to know something was off about her young husband, even if McMillan couldn't put her finger on it, is insightful. Since the 2005 episode, McMillan has learned to <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AQol2y8G-sM" target="_hplink">forgive and move on</a>, and she has made it perfectly clear that she's never harbored any hatred toward gay people but simply felt betrayed by her ex-husband. She felt like he was cheating with other men.
It seems like <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zondra-hughes/downlow-expert-jl-king-mo_b_761956.html" target="_hplink">J. L. King</a> is in love with producing media about down-low men. For a while King wouldn't identify as gay; <a href="http://www.oprah.com/oprahshow/Free-From-Life-on-the-Down-Low" target="_hplink">he later came out in 2010</a>. <em>On the Down Low: A Journey Into the the Lives of Straight Black Men Who Sleep With Men</em> was a bestselling novel highlighting the lifestyle of down-low men and its risks. King later produced the DVD <em>Top 10 Signs of Down Low Behavior and More...</em>. His highly viewed documentary <em>The DL Exposed</em>, which was featured on BET, focused on "straight-acting" black men leading double lives, having sex with other men and exposing their female partners to hurt and/or HIV/AIDS.
Once again, down-low men are not only black but Latino as well. <em>East Side Story</em> is a romantic comedy featuring a young man, Diego (René Alvarado), having relations with his best friend, Pablo (David Berón) -- that is until Pablo dates Diego's aunt Bianca (Gladys Jimenez) so that he can claim that he's straight and Diego falls for his openly gay (and taken) white neighbor. This urban romance features an interracial couple and gives its lead character, Diego, some depth: He's not simply a young man on the down low (like Pablo) but one who is in the process of coming out. This one gets four stars for the interracial romance and making the distinction between living on the down low and struggling with coming out.
This trailer is upsetting. Not only is the acting exaggerated, but this "drama series," or whatever it should be called, perpetuates the down-low stereotype to the fullest. It features all the negatives: deceit, lies, secrets, hurt women, "straight-acting" men, creeping and, yes, <em>black</em> homophobia. It's like, ugh, is this an authentic drama about men living on the down low, or is it more of a horror film about evil black men leading double lives?
Yes, there are two films titled <em>On the Downlow</em>. This one is a documentary about four men on the down low living in Cleveland, Ohio, and their struggles with coming to terms with their sexuality. All there is left to say is that at least four authentic stories about down-low men told from <em>their</em> perspectives are represented in this documentary.
Rumor has it that this film was originally titled <em>Invisible</em>, and YouTube also features <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s5xEHPpNEhk " target="_hplink">this trailer</a> for it, which appears to be a completely different film. It's not safe to say how the two trailers are connected, but the actual film is directed by Bill Duke, who <a href="http://www.afterelton.com/blog/claycane/bill-dukes-new-film-on-downlow-men" target="_hplink">received some negative feedback</a> for telling an all-too-familiar story about down-low men, including using suspenseful music during the gay sex scenes and showcasing deceived women affected by HIV/AIDS thanks to husbands leading double lives. In 2007 this portrayal of down-low men, the most common portrayal, was already played out.
The film adaptation of Ntozake Shange's 1975 play features plenty of intermixed story lines and poetry, but these days it feels as though if you are talking about the trials and triumphs of black women, one of the storylines has to deal with a black man who harbors a secret worse than cheating with other women. The film highlights the fact that some men in the down-low community view themselves not as gay but just as men who like sex with other men. Once again, this is played out, but the film is supposed to be about the women, not an in-depth look into why down-low men are deceitful. Hill Harper gave a better portrayal of black men in general, but maybe if <em>For Colored Boys</em> ever happened, we would see in-depth portrayals of black men <em>and</em> the women/others in their lives.
Story lines from the two films to the Web series were connected. Greg Marsh (Eugene E. Turner), featured in the two films, is still trying to come to terms with his sexuality, a process that can take time. Enjoy the R&B music featured in this clip as Greg's true feelings and his fear unravel.
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