In 2015, QUEER|ART|FILM curators Ira Sachs and Adam Baran tapped film director and producer Stephen Winter and poet and performance artist Pamela Sneed to organize the first edition of “Black Summer Nights,” featuring four monthly screenings presented by black LGBTQ artists who were invited to reflect on black queer experience and its representations in cinema. This summer, Winter and Sneed were back for a second edition of the beloved special season at IFC Center, this year with a particular focus on stories set in and around New York City. For each event, a different black queer artist was invited to screen a film that has deeply inspired and influenced them, and then participate in a post-screening discussion that further explored issues related to black queer life and art.
Black Summer Nights 2: Summer in the City was an electric display of Winter and Sneed’s curatorial talent. Featuring an interdisciplinary cast of presenters including New York Times bestselling author David Barclay Moore, writer and Black Lives Matter activist Erica Cardwell, playwright Robert O’Hara, and poet, mother, and educator JP Howard, audiences were treated to an incredible selection of films and thought provoking conversations.
Winter and Sneed wrapped up the season with JP Howard, who presented a powerful double feature: Stormé: The Lady of the Jewel Box & Dreams Deferred: The Sakia Gunn Film Project. These selections, two rarely screened films, offered contrasting images of black lesbian identity and experience. Dreams Deferred tells the story of Sakia Gunn, a masculine-presenting teen who in 2003 was stabbed to death on the streets of Newark in a brutal act of hate. Stormé, meanwhile, offers a portrait of 1950s male impersonator, civil rights pioneer, and emcee of the legendary Jewel Box Revue: Stormé Delavarie. “Gunn’s death did not receive the same attention as Matthew Shepard,” Howard notes, while finding it “empowering to see Stormé, a biracial, butch-presenting lesbian, talk confidently about her life's path."
Following the final screening, Queer|Art reached out to Pamela Sneed, Stephen Winter, and JP Howard for their reflections.
“The screening of documentaries
Stormé and Dreams DeferreD
was part black queer magic, part
honoring black lesbian ancestors,
and part call to action”
Howard chose Stormé and Dreams Deferred because both films center the experiences of black lesbians and impacted her at significant points in her life. JP states that these films are instructive to us as a community: “The screening of documentaries Stormé: The Lady of the Jewel Box and Dreams Deferred: The Sakia Gunn Film Project was part black queer magic, part honoring black lesbian ancestors, and part call to action.”
“I first saw Stormé soon after I had come out as a lesbian.” JP Howard shares. “It was empowering to watch Stormé DeLarverie, a biracial butch-presenting lesbian talk confidently about her life’s path. I was fascinated to learn that she was the sole male impersonator of the Jewel Box Revue, one of the first integrated female impersonation shows for nearly 15 years and later, to learn that she worked as a bouncer at one of my favorite NY dyke bars, the Cubby Hole.”
In her years as a “male impersonator”, Stormé remarked that “it was easy, all I had to do was be me and let people use their imaginations.” For JP Howard, Stormé was an early queer role model, comfortable in her own body, an activist who helped launch the Stonewall Riots and a tireless advocate for the queer community.
“It was easy, all I had to do was be me
and let people use their imaginations.”
The house at IFC was packed and the presenters and audience alike were collectively moved. For Pamela Sneed, the theater that evening became a church, the best part of it, for queer people of color. “The first word that comes to mind when I think about the screening of Stormé and Dreams Deferred is HOLY.” Sneed references Aretha Franklin’s passing as a contributor to the energy of the night, “I’m not sure if it’s because Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, died recently and she, as a singer, made it safe for me to embrace and reclaim my roots coming out of a Black Baptist Church.”
Sneed continues, “Aretha made gospel music that transcended sometimes religiosity and its patriarchal trappings. One summer I was in love with a woman and constantly played and sang Aretha’s HOLY HOLY to describe our love. That’s how I felt the other night at Queer|Art|Film as a co-curator with Stephen Winter sitting in the room packed full of queer people of all colors who showed up. When Aretha Franklin sang, it was spiritual. It was about Blackness, the soul, it was about yearning and emancipation, freedom, and flying.”
Dreams Deferred: The Sakia Gunn Film Project spoke on these forms of transcendence and legacy. The film questions larger power dynamics at work through documentation of nation-wide activism, vigils for Sakia Gunn, footage of the trial against her murderer, and interviews with various LGBTQ organizers who work to empower queer youth nation-wide.
JP Howard had been out of the closet for over twenty years when she viewed Dreams Deferred in 2008 at The Center. “My wife and I were Mamas of two young sons by then; the film had a profound effect on me, both as a parent and a black lesbian. I had remembered Sakia’s story; a 15-year old brilliant black lesbian, who had been victim of a hate crime in Newark, NJ back in 2003, when she was murdered.”
“Our stories and our contribution to history/herstory are important.”
“There was hardly any national media coverage at the time of Sakia’s death,” JP Howard recalls, “in stark contrast to Matthew Shepard, a young white gay man, also a hate crime victim, whose murder in 1998, had sparked national outrage. On the night Sakia was murdered, she and her girlfriends were returning to Jersey after socializing in NYC on the Piers near Christopher Street. I had spent so many late nights hanging out in that same exact spot in my late teens, early twenties with my queer women friends and felt an immediate connection to Sakia. Those Piers had long been a queer youth rite of passage.”
Immediately after the conclusion of the two screenings, Pamela Sneed introduced a few surprise guests: Sakia Gunn’s family. In the front row of the theater sat Latona Gunn (Sakia’s mother), Valencia Bailey and her mother (Sakia’s cousin and aunt). Their personal accounts were documented in the film project.
Stephen Winter recounts “When the lights came up, the family of Sakia Gunn rose from the first row and the 14 years between the tragic time of the documentary melted away into the razor present-day. These astounding women—steeped in history and in the wake of Ms. Aretha’s recent passing – marched onward from the front row of the theater to testify. In this way, Sakia’s gorgeous family allowed themselves to be seen and we opened our selves to hear their matchless, catastrophic and superb zone in the sky of life.”
This is not a choice. This is who we are,
this is who I am.”
Pamela Sneed remarks, “Of the many thoughts I had during the screening, the prevailing one was that a mother lost her lesbian daughter to a hate crime and how horrible it must feel to bury a child, your child. I was grateful that we were all there to support her and to say that Sakia was important and we remember her and would not forget.”
“I felt in watching both films and for all who showed up to witness that Black lesbian lives in the scheme of things and current movements DO matter. Our stories and our contribution to history/herstory are important.”
Though the stories of Stormé and Sakia Gunn began decades ago, these films resonate deeply in their relevance to contemporary narratives of heterosexism and violence against queer and trans black people. As JP Howard reflects, “It is ten years after the film’s release and queer youth continue to be victims of hate crimes due to their gender identity and presentation, homophobia and transphobia. Ultimately, the film serves as a powerful tribute to Sakia and a call to action for community to support and protect our queer youth.” ∎
To learn more about the Sakia Gunn Film Project, check out this video by Out at The Center, created in collaboration with LGBTQ+ activists and the filmmaker, Charles Brack: