The Power of Being Seen

As Pride Month ends, writer-director Morgan Jon Fox shares his feelings on representation and intersectionality in LGBTQ film.

In the late ’90s in Memphis, Tennessee, as an employee of Blockbuster Video, I can vividly recall the nervousness and excitement I felt while scanning the backs of VHS tapes, desperately looking for some hint of a gay character. As a still-closeted 19-year-old, this furtive mission generally had the best outcomes while stocking and organizing the foreign section. To my luck, I eventually came across a French film called Wild Reeds. I’ll never forget flipping over to the back of the box and stopping dead in my tracks as I gazed at the image of two young men locked in a tender embrace. My gay teenaged heart fluttered as I read, “This bittersweet tale delves into the life of François, a sensitive young man uncertain of his sexuality.” When I got home that night, I popped the film in the VCR and my life was forever changed.

Stéphane Rideau and Gaël Morel in Wild Reeds.

Everyone wants to see themselves represented somewhere around them, whether in literature, movies and television or amongst their peers. Living in the South in the late 1990s, I didn’t know a single gay person my age, at least not who was out. For all I knew, these intense feelings of attraction that I felt were my island of solitude, and I was destined to remain there for all of eternity. This feeling of being the silent other waged a war on me emotionally, turning me into a rage-filled, angry teenager, but all of that changed the night I watched this 1995 French film. Made by the accomplished, post-New Wave director André Téchiné, Wild Reeds follows a group of peers at a boarding school in the south of France set against the backdrop of France’s war with Algeria. A love triangle begins to form between three friends and in a spectacular scene, the protagonist François stares into a mirror in a confessional spout of anger and frustration, coming to terms with being gay. As I watched in awe, I also came to terms with being gay. I rewound and replayed that elegant, unsentimental film so many times I lost count, each time like a therapy session that peeled back layer after layer of shame, guilt and uncertainty. Although I regret the years I lost being trapped inside some horrible closet, I thank Téchiné’s alluring depiction of queer youth for catapulting me right out of it. There is no question about it, representation matters, and I’m not being melodramatic when I say that this film saved my life.

Morgan Jon Fox as a teenager.

The massive personal journey Wild Reeds took me on was the direct impetus for my drive to make films for the rest of my life. With four feature films, an episodic series and a few shorts under my belt, I have remained steadfast in my initial mission: to create stories about queer people in the South, with the hope that my work could harness even an ounce of the ethereal, transformative qualities of Wild Reeds. As a gay white male, I will be the first to admit that the overwhelming majority of my work for the last 15 years has told the stories of other gay white males. Although there are still places I would be reticent to hold my husband’s hand due to fear of being on the wrong side of a hate crime, the truth is that white gay males are going to be fine. We have become very palatable in the mainstream milieu of all things consumable. We were the first in the expansive queer spectrum to gain representation in films and TV, which no doubt has had a direct impact on the systemic acceptance and social progress we’ve attained. White privilege is real, and we’ve greatly benefitted from it, whereas other communities have not, and it is our duty to rectify this long overdue problem plaguing our industry.

Morgan Jon Fox, around the time he worked at Blockbuster in Memphis.

Intersectionality, first conceptualized by Black feminist scholar and activist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, is a framework for examining how multiple forms of privilege or oppression may intersect. It is essential that we embrace intersectionality in our work, and more importantly, that we encourage and empower new voices to tell their stories. It’s essential that we work to eradicate the structural inequalities that exist within the creative world, both in front of and behind the camera. We must do these things not only because it’s the right damn thing to do, but also because if we do not we will lose the potential of film to truly transform lives. The transcendent quality of intersectional representation is its ability to speak truth to the humanity in a person whose mere identity and existence is threatened. If we look at it another way, when we make the choice not to represent a marginalized character in our work, we are essentially upholding the systemic oppression of people who are marginalized in everyday life. I am, of course, not talking about tokenism, but fully fleshed-out, rich, well-developed characters that would pass the Vito Russo Test (the queer version of the Bechdel Test), which uses a bullet-pointed list measuring the way that queer characters are portrayed and situated within a narrative.

In late 2018, when I wrote my short film The One You Never Forget, I decided to make all of the main characters Black, and that choice was a simple one. It didn’t change anything about the story, which is about a 14-year-old preparing for his first dance, while his parents reminisce about their own. In discussions with my producers and the actors in the film, I made it clear that everyone’s input and voice was not only welcome but vital. I have had reservations about creating work that “isn’t my story” and I feel that this issue requires delicate and arduous attention in order to make certain we create from an honest, well-informed and collaborative space. We’ve too often seen films with marginalized characters that grossly get it wrong.

In a fateful full-circle moment, my first feature film, Blue Citrus Hearts, was purchased by Blockbuster and carried in stores all across the country. I was incredibly overwhelmed when I began to receive emails from queer kids in small towns across America sharing their delight in seeing themselves reflected in the grainy DIY coming-out story set in Memphis. And the experience of screening The One You Never Forget has been a furthering of the mission too. After a lengthy festival run, we recently had an extremely memorable screening at a LGBTQ+ Summit which took place at a Chicago public high school. The decidedly diverse crowd of teens both vocally worried for the fate of the young lead character in the story’s main conflict, and then exclaimed with cheers of joy when the film’s resolution was positive.

Joshua Peter Laurenzi and Paul Foster in Morgan Jon Fox’s Blue Citrus Hearts.

The beauty, power and potential this medium has when its intent and heart is centered around feeding life into characters that rarely have a light shone upon them truly is magical. For me, the importance of a film like Wild Reeds was that I saw myself on that screen and therefore I knew that I existed. And as long as we continue with the antiquated norm of casting lily-white leads, with only minimal supporting roles for non-white, lesbian, or trans characters, we will fail to harness the potential of this medium to be the best that it can be. Not only must we embrace intersectionality in our work, but even more importantly, it’s a must that we encourage and empower new voices to tell their own stories. That’s where the real change happens.

I have fond memories of my time working at Blockbuster, and so I’ll end with this … that giant chain which once dominated the American landscape ultimately failed because of its arrogance in the face of a changing industry, refusing to adapt. (Others would say it was because of the late fees.) Let’s not follow in their footsteps.

Named one of the “25 New Faces of Independent Film” by Filmmaker magazine, Morgan Jon Fox is a writer-director from Memphis, currently living in Chicago, whose work has focused primarily on youth and self-discovery in the South. His short film The One You Never Forget is now streaming on Vimeo here. (Picture by Breezy Lucia.)