A conversation with longtime Outfest collaborator Taj Paxton, and Katina Parker, Director of Truth.Be.Told. a series of short documentary films from the 2015 Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival.
Taj Paxton – There’s something urgent to me about the title and it’s layout – Truth. Be. Told. What was the idea behind it?
Katina Parker – Truth. Be. Told. is a documentary series that seeks to reclaim the birthright of Queer Black Visionaries within our families and communities by providing a platform for out, Black LGBTQ people to tell their stories of challenge, radical self-inquiry, transformation, and triumph. The series positions the cultivation of personal identity and transformation as a mark of innovation.
Truth. Be. Told. began as an outgrowth of the work I spent years doing through GLAAD – spokesperson training Black LGBTQ people for media opportunities; building communications infrastructures for small local non-profits; and nurturing relationships with Black queer communities and their families, from all over the country. No matter how many media opportunities presented themselves and no matter how big, there was never enough space or time to capture the breadth and nuance of the phenomenal people who I’ve been blessed to call family and community throughout the years.
I decided to create a TV series to capture our stories, and distribute it to digital platforms, and, possibly to a major network, but mostly in the places where Black LGBTQ people congregate, i.e., the digital realm.
I know this series will change lives, hearts, and minds. It already has. When I’ve screened it for people, Black, White, young, old, Queer, straight, the testimonies resonate no matter the demographic – Darnell Moore’s story of learning to love a father who was physically abusive to his mother, but still had some redeeming qualities; Staceyann Chin’s story about becoming a mom and having to re-examine her outspoken, “potty-mouthed” identity now that she is immersed in the tenderness of raising a toddler; Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ story of coming out and knowing that her mother would support her. These are stories we have not heard before in full, as told by Black LGBTQ people. In addition to hearing from queer people that the stories feel affirming, I also hear from straight family members that the series offers insight into the lives of family members who may be more reticent or unable to articulate the complexities of their lives.
The urgency of this series is fueled by the death and danger that threaten and consume so many of us before we find safety, self-love and community. I hope that Truth. Be. Told. will be a balm to those who are coming out; those who are yearning to see affirmations of their beingness in media; and our families, most of whom desire to foster a world that embraces and celebrates our courage.
Taj – How did you decide which artists to select? Was there a dominant idea about each of them?
Katina – To date over 50 Queer Black Visionaries have committed to being interviewed for Seasons 1 and 2, including: Staceyann Chin (Jamaican-born, Tony Award-winning playwright); Emil Wilbekin (Editor at Large for Essence magazine), Patrik-Ian Polk (Creator of Logo TV’s “Noah’s Arc” series); Miss Major (veteran activist for transgender rights); Linda Villarosa (a former Editor for the New York Times); Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs (Co-Creator of the Mobile Homecoming Project); Dr. Kai M. Green (filmmaker/poet/activist); and Darnell Moore (Editor for Mic.com).
We choose people who are good at telling their personal stories, whether high-profile, low-profile, or no profile at all. This has tended to mean storytellers of all forms – writers, filmmakers, artists, singers, photographers, educators, athletes, dancers, and activists, but participation in the series is not defined by personal vocation. It is defined by the strength of one’s personal narrative.
Taj – Some artists think they have to keep their activism separate. Your identities feel fully blended. Was that natural for you or did you have to arrive at this place?
Katina - I spent years compartmentalizing my sexuality, my racial identities, my genders. When I came out in my late 20′s, I decided to be whole and to be honest about who I am wherever I go, to decolonize the imposition of American ideologies that cause most of us to believe we can only bring part of ourselves into mainstream spaces, such as our life’s work, the very place we spend the majority of adulthood exploring, visioning, and creating.
Black. Indian. Queer. Gender Nomad. Gail’s daughter. Gladys and Charles’ grandbaby. Sis’ and Carrie Lee’s great grandbaby. Adele and Ayanna’s Oma. Rachael’s “KP.” Every threshold I cross or surpass, that is who I am.
I am also an artist. I don’t think much about being an activist. I show up to do the work that makes the most sense to my heart. Every since I committed to this path, my life has been filled with joy and wonder. Danger too. But I know that I am protected and prayed for by many. On this path, I get to be honest all the time. That is worth any and all risks.
Taj – You’re a parent. What do you want your kids to see when they watch your films?
Katina - I have a 5-year old daughter and a 6 year-old granddaughter. I have an adult foster son, who became mine after we made a film that he was featured in called “Peace Process.” I also helped raise my sisters. When my family sees my work, I want them to remember that we come from excellence; that we speak life and we speak hope, no matter how gaping the abyss may seem; that we do more than survive, we thrive, in spite of the daily assaults that racism, sexism, homophobia, and elitism wage against our lives.
I am literally loved by thousands. As in my ancestors. They called me forward to help make things right in the world. My work reflects that.
I once thought that my films would be my most important legacy; but my children; my sisters; the depth of my love for my family, for my lady, for my community, for humanity, these are my greatest contributions to the planet. When my kids see my work, I want them to remember that love is more important than any other personal pursuit.
Taj – Does not living in LA have an impact your work – good, bad or otherwise?
Katina - I lived in LA for 12 years – for most of my 20′s into my early 30′s. I got my MFA in Film Production from USC and spent a decade creating video/photos and graphic design work for artists on what was then LA’s burgeoning music scene – Jada Pinkett Smith’s band Wicked Wisdom, Saul Williams, and Cody ChesnuTT. Prior to that I interned at BET Networks, Dreamworks SKG, and Nickelodeon. My life was always an intentional hybrid of studio and indy work. As a Black woman, I never felt comfortable relying on Hollywood to greenlight and fund the type of projects I wanted to do. I’d grown up on the East Coast with artists/hustlers, with people who took nothing and turned into something. I embodied that mentality, until I got burnt out.
I left in 2008 for Durham, North Carolina, after a 3-year stint working at GLAAD as a Media Strategist. I left in pursuit of a woman. The relationship didn’t work out as expected and when it unraveled I fell into a deep depression. I didn’t think I would ever make films, write or shoot photos again. But in 2009 I got a call from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University asking me to teach in their summer institutes. From there I began teaching other classes and found a community of documentary/audio filmmakers. In 2010 I got another call from Justin Thomas Robinson, co-founding member of the Grammy award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, to direct the music video for “Devil’s Teeth.” From there the calls kept coming. They weren’t always steady. There were lots of gaps, lots of freak-out moments around covering bills, lots of difficult consulting gigs that I took to make sure my family could eat.
But it was worth it. In the quiet time of my rural North Carolina life, Truth. Be. Told. was birthed. I met and created a family with the woman I intend to spend the rest of my life loving and learning. The manic sort of self-importance that Hollywood tends to breed fell away and I began to look like the person I’d always wanted to be. I learned how to fund my work, independently of a White patriarchal stereotype-peddling machine that would potentially crush my spirit through unnecessary challenges to my vision and constant comparison to others.
Leaving LA is the best thing I ever did for myself. When I hear Hollywood gatekeeprs paint this antiquated picture of LA as this cut-throat combine that gobbles young talent without apology, I am relieved to know first-hand that those people are dinosaurs and that type of filmmaking ecosystem is quickly becoming extinct. There are multiple film economies outside of LA – both narrative and documentary. These days, I mostly work in documentary, with plans of returning to narrative projects in the coming years.
All that said, I’ve maintained relationships with a handful of studio execs in LA who respect and are willing to fund my work. What’s most important to me is that I respect and trust them too. These visions are my babies. I will only do my work in collaboration with people who fully support the boldness of my progeny.
The three episodes of Truth. Be. Told. featured at Outfest Los Angeles spotlight StaceyAnn Chin: