It’s a moment many of us experience, sitting in a barber’s chair, that $20 of hard earned money in your pocket, you’re about to doll out for a fresh fade. Or maybe your barber is in in the middle of cutting your head. Then it happens.
The “F” bomb is dropped. Or a gay character flashes across the screen and the crowd winches and someone said something about “them.”
You know the rest of the words.
For Black men going to a barbershop is a cultural ritual akin to church. There is an intimacy between two (more than likely) men, that you rarely see in the African-American community. Within this vulnerable state, in this safe space for many, there is the potential for hypermasculine behavior and sometimes homophobia.
Derrick L. Middleton explores these complicated issue in his short documentary film Shape Up: Gay in the Black Barbershop, a project which just won the Grand Prize in Documentary film at the March on Washington’s Student and Emerging Filmmaker Competition this past week.
“It feels amazing to be recognized for a film that I created to address homophobia in my community especially following the Orlando massacre,” Middleton said in a phone interview. “It’s a great opportunity.”
The MOWFF ran from July 13th through July 23rd with the purpose of bringing continued awareness about the Civil Rights Era and helping to “inspire” people towards activism.
“An important part of the festival is to connect our history to our future,” said Robert Raben, a founder of the film festival. “We offer a platform for people to tell the truth, through film, art and scholarship. We can’t make progress without americans having an accurate understanding of what we’ve been through.”
Now in it’s fourth year, the MOWFF created the film competition to encourage and connect with more youth, Raben explained.
“The existence of this competition has allowed us to reach younger people around the country, and drawn them into the questions of civil rights,” Raben said, adding that the contest received 79 submissions.
Shape Up was one of four other films to be honored with awards.
For Middleton the mechanics of making the film was a years long endeavor which transformed from fear into action.
“Ever since I was a little boy I felt really intimidated in barber shops,” Middleton said. “My family would make jokes about how I was a bit more effeminate. I was hyper aware of the fact that I was different.
“When my father first took me you got the sense that it was extremely hyper masculine I remember multiple incidents (when) I was afraid.”
The film was originally supposed to be a feature, scripted, but as Middleton kept telling people about his idea, more and more people shared their own experiences at the barbershop.
And then a couple years back Middleton was actually kicked out of a chair.
“The barber I regularly went to was unavailable on a particular day,” Middleton said, “So I went around looking for a random barber shop. My process as I walked by was to see if it was crowded the more crowded the more likely you were to be a target.”
One particular barber spotted him looking and invited him in for a cut. Middleton sat in the chair and began describing how he wanted his hair to look.
“He (The barber) cuts me off he said ‘this ain’t no beauty shop. This ain’t no sissy shit.’ I froze,” Middleton continued.
“I walked out the shop and it was just like I was embarrassed and I was ashamed because I didn’t stand up for myself.”
Middleton saw the film as a way to create dialogues around the issue of homosexuality and inclusiveness within the barbershop. Along the way he was surprised at what he learned.
“Heterosexual men have no clue that this issue exists.” Middleton said. “When you go into a barbershop the majority of men assume that everyone is straight.”
He found barbershops that had rules of conduct posted on the wall against profanity but the words “faggot” and “bitch” were actively used despite the warning.
He also found a dotted lined between homophobia and misogyny, “which is why some mothers drop their sons off,” Middleton added.
But the young filmmaker wants to be clear he did not intend to do a takedown piece on black men or barbershops.
“I didn’t set out to show the black barbershop as a hostile environment,” Middleton said. “I actually praise it as a pillar of the community. I wanted to highlight all the great things that happen in barbershop and that gay men have always been there and we want a safe space. A lot of times we sit in silent because we don’t want to be targets.”
The project is already receiving attention from film festivals and press, which is all Middleton said he wished for when doing the project.
“When you put out your work you hope it will start a dialogue,” Middleton said. “The most you could ask for is that people would start thinking about it. And people become aware of the issue.”
Middleton isn’t slowing down. HIs next project is a visual EP entitled “Good People Do Bad Things” under his performing moniker Dexter_Lammar.
Watch the trailer here: https://vimeo.com/160968445