Sweet Sipping

Nora Gross & John Jackson explore black, gay masculinity in ‘Making Sweet Tea’

Directors Nora Gross & John Jackson, Jr.

Dean John L. Jackson, Jr. and his former student Nora Gross don’t seem like typical filmmakers. The two move in academic circles; Jackson, as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Gross as a graduate student.

Then author Patrick Johnson’s Making Sweet Tea came along. The book–and resultant stage show–chronicle the lives of several African-American gay men of different generations living across the American South. The seven subjects–Charles, Duncan, Shean, Freddie, Harold, Countess Vivian and Patrick himself–open up about how being queer made them question their genders, their sanity, their faith, their race and their place in broader society.

Making Sweet Tea, the documentary, has earned raves on the festival circuit where it has played limited engagements. At present, the film seeks distribution for a wider audience. Queerty caught up with Gross & Jackson to talk about the film, lending a voice to an under-recognized demographic, and their hopes for a major release.

How did Patrick’s work come to you?

JJ: Patrick and I have been running in similar circles for a long time. I remember when he was writing the book, it was such a long and arduous process. He always threatened, when it was done, to do a one-man show. So I ended up going to the first incarnation of that show in Chicago. And it was like magic. I remember leaving the theatre and telling him, I was so invested, that it really should be a film. And this was over 12 years ago or something.

Wow.

JJ: He claims to have never forgotten that. Then maybe about five years ago…

NG: I was a student in John’s class, my first year of graduate school. This is about a year after John and Patrick started filming preliminary stuff. John was looking for collaborators, and he reached out to a group of grad students on campus who were thinking about the relationship between scholarship and performance. That was interesting to me, so I came on board.

JJ: Right. Part of what was intriguing to me was that Patrick was already someone who was trying to work in multiple mediums at the same time. One of the big things we try to do here at Penn is a multi-modal scholarship. So anything you can write, you can also do in film, in dance in theatre and it can also be considered scholarship. And this felt like the perfect example.

Patrick Johnson

I love that. Obviously, Patrick had already interviewed his subjects. Were his inspirations reluctant to discuss things on camera?

JJ: Some were. The least easy to convince was Charles, I would say. He was also one of the last to see the film.

NG: We made a trip to Hickory in 2014 to film Charles. He was unwilling to be filmed at that point. It took a whole year for him to come around and get excited about it. By the time we actually filmed him, he arranged to have a client come into the salon so he could do her hair. He worked it out with the cabaret so we could film there. So he really took ownership over filming.

Wonderful.

NG: And Patrick did a lot of that negotiation with the men in advance of filming. He really had those relationships.

JJ: And they so trusted Patrick. Eventually, even Charles who was the most skittish, realized he could trust Patrick and these people Patrick had brought to the conversation.

And Charles’ journey is one of the most compelling elements of the film.

JJ: One of the things we think makes the film distinctive from the stage play is asking the men to watch Patrick perform “them” in a space that’s intimate and personal to them. I think [Charles] was intrigued by the idea.

Charles with a client

One thing I really admire about your approach is the lack of judgment. When Charles, for example, talks about his journey of understanding his gender—what it means to be a gay man, rather than a woman. He also talks candidly about taking a vow of celibacy because of his faith. You don’t judge that. But that raises the question of is he self-loathing? Is he homophobic? Does he actually adhere to his celibate vow? What do you think?

JJ: I do think probably different audience members will have a different response. If anything, I would argue Charles is the quintessential example of someone who thinks deeply and philosophizes. You may not agree with his decision, but there is so much rigorous thought and feeling going into his decision over time. For me it would be superficial to see him as simply self-loathing. He’s thinking and feeling in real-time. One of the virtues of the film is that you get to see him reflect on those changes in a way that demonstrates that he’s probably not done with the process of evolving identity.

NG: I agree with that. We are sitting in John’s office and looking at a mug with Charles’ face on it. He’s kind of our poster child.

That’s awesome.

NG: It’s interesting on a meta-level to see him respond to a screening. He was soaking it up.

JJ: The other thing is he’s still a performer, and he has such gravitas. He’s speaking not off the cuff, but out of this deep-seated place of having pondered this stuff. So I do feel like this is someone who is a living, breathing, changing human being. It may sound trite, but he exemplifies how we’re all conflicted about who and what we are. He’s one of the most thoughtful, complicated subjects I’ve been able to put on film.

On those lines, here’s a lot of talk in the film about masculinity, and the nature of manhood especially among African-American gay men. This has come up so many times in interviews I’ve done this year: the notion within the African-American community that if a man loves another man he violates his masculinity. Where does that come from?

JJ: Good question. One thing we were really touched by in Chicago was that we got the AARP award for representation, not just of gay men in general, but of older black gay men. One thing I hope the film does a good job of thematizing is not only are these men who understand the ways in which a certain sexual identity gets stigmatized, but it doesn’t debilitate them. These are men—now we’ve had a few sadly pass—who have lived long lives and seen their lives in a larger society. To go from a place where parents and siblings are hostile, to people accepting them more openly and wholly. I think there’s a version of that arc that to me is hopefully an encouraging one. Folks will never downplay the kind of challenges that come with being stigmatized as not “a man” in the way folks imagine masculinity should be embodied. These folks demonstrate the illogic of those arguments and embrace the fact that they embody some of those misconceptions about manhood.

Countess Vivian

That attitude is no way confined to the African-American community either.

JJ: Absolutely.

It’s something, I think, all queer people face: recognizing and reconciling the nature of society’s gender roles versus who they are personally.

JJ: I think that’s absolutely true. It’s something that sounds so simple but we often forget it.

The role of the church in this story is also very prominent. I think Patrick even talks at one point about all the gay men in his church—the choir director, the organist, whomever. One thing that isn’t clear in that story is if these men were out gay at the time. How do people reconcile the very homophobic attitudes in the church with including and appreciating gay people within it?

JJ: That’s probably above our pay grade.

[Laughter]

JJ: But I will say, is there is a version of how the black church—and this is true of other institutions as well—can accommodate of knowing how to keep the secret “secret enough” so you can still be public. There is a line to cross where you wouldn’t be able to come to church anymore. But it’s more about how do you interact in that environment given the huge expectations in that environment. The black church is an institution that is, historically, very explicit about what it will and will not accept on paper, but in practice is much more open. You will find every position of social proclivity, of an ideological position, of attitude in that space.

Interesting.

JJ: One thing you really don’t know unless you do research or are part of the community is what thing can trip you up so you no longer belong. It isn’t simply because you’ve done something that’s a “sin” it’s also about how that sin unfolds in practice every day, and what other social norms you run afoul of that people are no longer willing to accept you there.

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NG: I would add too that connects to something Patrick says in the film about the South in general. One aspect of Southern culture is that everybody is doing the things they say they’re not supposed to do. Committing adultery, smoking, drinking, being gay. There’s an unspoken subtext that we all know we’re breaking those rules.

Harold Mays with Patrick Johnson

On that level, it’s interesting. We think of the church as having all these dogmatic constructs. But on this level its more of a social construct, whatever that means.

JJ: Agreed.

In the same way, this is very much a Southern story. Southern culture is something that is so much discussed at the moment, both in terms of romanticizing the South, and in terms of all these ugly historical monuments of Confederate figures. I suspect people of color from the South probably don’t favor keeping the Confederate flag or statues of Robert E. Lee around. Is that also true of African-Americans in the south? For some reason, I have a feeling there’s a voice there we’re not hearing.

JJ: Good question. I think there is a version of what the black, Southern men who have been a part of this project would say about those racist symbols of the South. Part of what is demanded of them is a different kind of nuanced understanding of how to navigate whiteness and deal with a racist society that still wants to imagine itself to be genteel. When Duncan, for instance, talks about what it means to interact with white people in the South, it’s a version I heard when I was doing my dissertation in Harlem. The community was gentrifying and changing. There were a lot of wealthy, non-black people moving into the community. Almost every individual I spoke to said when they had enough money they were going to move back down south. A lot of them were from the south or had family there. The argument was that at least in the south when you talk to a white person you can believe what they are saying.

Oh my.

JJ: The idea is that in the north you have to be politically correct. In the south, if they don’t like you, they tell you so you know where you stand. Even if there’s a version of that which is offensive and challenging, at least existentially you know how to situate yourself. In Harlem, you could be having a conversation with a white person saying all the right things, but still not trust what they’re saying. There is an honesty of conversation in the south. It’s different from “we are supporters of the Confederate flag,” there is a kind of recognition by black folks of understanding the cross-cultural facility that comes with living in a landscape like that one, and understanding that you will be dealing with folks who, historically, have been quite clear about their privilege and priority over you. You have to assert yourself in a different way to make sure you and your family have what you need. That isn’t to say the North isn’t full of racism: it just manifests itself differently.

Very interesting. So for those who are not African-American but still care about the hurdles African-American gay men face in the South, what, in your experience of making the film, is the best thing we can do to help queer African-American men feel safe and accepted in our society?

JJ: Wow. That’s a really interesting question. I do think the reason why we’re so proud of this film is that for at least 90 minutes people are going to listen to people talk about a world they inhabit that’s different from mainstream representation. There’s a version of what I’ve heard a couple of philosophers call “listening in color;” just listening humbly, carefully about experiences that often get downplayed or mischaracterized. That’s not a trivial thing, to not jump immediately to the “culture wars” part of this discussion, but to ask what it would really mean to learn about and learn with the experiences of black gay men.

Sure.

JJ: Just to have people think about the ways they can reduce the kind of marginalization and exploitation you don’t realize you’re doing inadvertently. I always go back to the reason Patrick wanted to do this project in the first place is that there wasn’t a record, an archive. Part of the reason the record is important to begin with, I would argue, is because people will at some point open and learn from it. I think that’s the importance of doing films like these.

NG: I think what’s also important about this particular archive is that it has both the very specific and the universal. It has something like Charles’ story, and his complicated trajectory, which is a very specific story. Then something like Freddy’s story of losing his partner is so not about whether his partner is a man or a woman. It’s about loss and grief and love.

And along those lines, you give the last line of the film to Patrick, who says something to the effect of “Everyone wants to know how I got these guys to tell their stories. I just asked. I listened.” So last question as we wrap up: Patrick talks about how he didn’t attend funerals for people with HIV. How does he, and indeed, the larger community reconcile that?

JJ: That’s a longer interview.

NG: My sense was that the realization of that came from his process of Sweet Tea as a bigger project. The play didn’t originally include Patrick’s own story. Early in the film, Patrick wasn’t a central character. One thing we pushed for—and we even filmed three interviews with him—was trying to get him to go deeper into his own life and regrets. He’s such a natural interviewer, he spends less time presenting his own story to the world. He’s still working through that.

Patrick Johnson with Duncan

JJ: I will say that there’s been so much death—both Harolds died, Patrick’s mother—there’s been so much death because these are older folks, that it’s brought [Patrick] back to those moments as well. It’s such a powerful subtext of what the film represents in its final form. His mother died before we even screened it.

NG: And she’d lost a lot of her memory. We got the right moment, but the next time we went back [to interview her] she couldn’t remember.

JJ: To sit with Patrick and watch those scenes is so moving.

Making Sweet Tea is currently seeking distribution, and playing small screenings across the country.