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Cheryl Dunye talks ‘Lovecraft Country,’ making movies, ‘The Gilda Stories’

Director Cheryl Dunye knows a few things about shapeshifting.

Dunye, the first self-identified Black lesbian to direct a feature film, called the shots behind-the-camera on episode five of the HBO Max horror-drama “Lovecraft Country,” which aired earlier this month.

‘Lovecraft Country’

The series, based on Matt Ruff’s novel of the same name, follows Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) as he meets up with his friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) and his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) to embark on a road trip across 1950s Jim Crow America in search of his missing father (Michael Kenneth Williams).

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Their journey defines a struggle to survive and overcome both the racist terrors of white America and the terrifying monsters that could be ripped from a Howard Phillips Lovecraft paperback.

In Dunye’s episode, “Strange Case,” some of the characters stay alive by shapeshifting their Black and queer identities.

Dunye told MotionPictures.org that the “Lovecraft County” storyline in “Strange Case” metaphorically mirrors real life for Black people and the LGBTQ community.

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“African American people and queer people shift so many times during the day. Shifting between who you are at home, to being who you are in a white environment, to being who you are in a gendered environment,” Dunye told the publication. “There’s so much shapeshifting we do just to get a piece of bread, or get into the door somewhere, or get on the bus to get home.”

‘The Gilda Stories’ coming to TV with Cheryl Dunye attached as writer, director

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‘The Watermelon Woman’

Dunye burst onto the film scene in 1996 with her feature film directorial debut, “The Watermelon Woman.” In the romance film, Dunye incorporates politics, race, sexuality, and history.

As a result of that work, film critics included Dunye among queer indie movie makers who pushed the boundarings of LGBTQ voices and stories and comprised the New Queer Cinema in the 1990s.

In “The Watermelon Woman,” Dunye portrays Cheryl, the lead character. She’s an aspiring filmmaker and video store clerk who embarks on a documentary project. She hopes to learn the identity of an unidentified Black actress who appeared in movies made in the 1930s and 40s.

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While Cheryl uncovers more information about the mysterious “Watermelon Woman,” and as a romantic relationship with a white woman, Diana (Guinevere Turner), grows, Cheryl’s life parallels the life of “The Watermelon Woman.”

Dunye has made more than 15 films, including “Mommy Is Coming,” “The Owls,” “My Baby’s Daddy,” and HBO’s “Stranger Inside.”

Most of Dunye’s films address the intersectionality of identity, race, and sexuality.

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Dunye also has worked on television. She has directed episodes of “Queen Sugar,” Claws,” “David Makes Man,” “The Fosters,” “Love Is,” and “Star.”

Lovecraft Country Cheryl Dunye

Cheryl Dunye directed the “Lovecraft County” episode “Strange Case.” The storyline dealt with some characters staying alive by shapeshifting their Black and queer identities. Photo: HBO Max.

‘The Gilda Stories’

Dunye will return to episodic television when she writes and directs “The Gilda Stories.” It will be based on the 1991 novel of the same name by author-playwright-activist Jewelle Gomez. The story follows an escaped Black slave and bisexual vampire who comes of age during 200 years of Black history.

In an interview with Q Voice News, Dunye, 54, who lives in Oakland, talks about her identity,  her work, the intersectionality of the two, and “The Gilda Stories.”

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Here are some excerpts.

Her identity

“I’m both lesbian and queer,” Dunye says. “I’ve been through many lives in coming to form who I am. I’m sort of like Audre Lorde. I’m a mother. I’m a warrior, I’m an activist. I’m an artist. There’s lots of labels. But definitely, I’m queer and lesbian.”

Her identity and her work

“My identity impacts my work as a filmmaker because I really started making work because I wanted to see images of people like me out there and there were none, that’s all the way back in the 1980s,” Dunye says.

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“Looking at television, looking at cinema, looking even in the art world, there was nothing being produced about the kind of life and experience and body and gender I was wanting to find out about,” Dunye says. “That’s why I make work — To insert my life and my lifestyle and diversify the world of storytelling.”

Universal themes in her work

“I’m more about the smaller moments. I’m not trying to say anything loud,” Dunye says. “I’m just looking at life, looking at the every day. I’m looking at the simple narratives of who we are and what unites us and more universal themes.

“I wasn’t one to scream about injustice all the time. But the injustice comes at not seeing that everybody is occupying a very similar narrative of being human and existing in, at least, Western society right now,” Dunye says. “Capitalism and racism, it impacts us all. I’m just telling my version of it.”

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Working on TV

“Television has moved into a place where a few people have run in and been able to create shows that represent the lifestyles, living, and conflicts that I believe in. ‘Queen Sugar’ has been one of them, and Ava DuVernay created that.

“Tarell McCraney has been another. What’s so amazing about working with him on ‘David Makes Man’ is that not only am I working on a show by somebody who’s Black, but also somebody who’s gay.”

(McCraney is the openly gay, Academy Award winning co-writer of the semi-autobiographical “Moonlight,” which also won the best picture Oscar in 2017.)

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“I’ve also worked on “The Chi” with Lena Waithe,” Dunye says. “This is something that’s amazing in this time, to see Black, gay, and lesbian showrunners.

Blessed to be directing

“There’s a lot of footprints and steps and kicking in doors and just transitions to what’s natural around the work that they do that allowed these wonderful folks to make their mark and get their shows out there,” Dunye says.

“I am so blessed as somebody who does direct, to be on those shows,” Dunye says. “It feels comfortable. I feel like I found home. I feel like I’m able to move and to go further in these worlds. I’m looking to create shows of my own and continually to direct shows like ‘David Makes Man’ and others.”

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What LGBTQ Pride means

“What does pride mean to me? A feeling of self respect and personal worth, and being satisfied with the achievements of, the history of, and the future of LGBTQI people,” Dunye says.

“I was a Pride Parade community grand marshall in San Francisco last year,” she says. “It was great to be able to see Pride from different sides of the Pride coin — From being a young person back in the 80s and early 90s, as somebody who just attended Pride, to now being somebody who’s a grand marshall. I’ve done it all. I’m prideful.”

Pride Parades have changed

“As somebody on the ground back in those days, it felt a little bit more like a march,” Dunye says. “Now it feels like a very organized, commercial venture, a day out with thousands of people, everybody’s not LGBTQ in the audience, sponsored by corporations.”

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‘The Gilda Stories’

The episodic TV series from Dunye will be based on the 1991 novel of the same name by author-playwright-activist Jewelle Gomez. The book is a prime example of Afrofuturism, a form of science fiction rooted in and celebrates African history, traditions, culture, and a Black identity. 

Dunye also will be the series’ showrunner. A production start date has not yet been announced.

“Jewelle Gomez is an amazing friend and colleague and mother of us all, in the sense of being a storyteller,” Dunye says. “That’s one of my COVID development projects right now. We’re pulling together a pitch and something will happen in the next year in the episodic world of television. That’s what I’m shaping it for.

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Lesbian vampires

(I was drawn to the project by) “it’s form. Its content. It’s lesbian vampires, who wouldn’t? And just the way she tells the stories about somebody I can identify with as a Black, queer-lesbian woman,” Dunye says.

“I asked Jewelle for years and years and years. Every time I would see her at a Queer Women Of Color Media Arts Project, because we’re both on the board, I said, ‘Jewelle, give me the story. Jewelle, please, please.’

“She was like ‘Oh, no. I’m not ready.’

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 “A couple of years back, she was finally ready,” Dunye says.

“What’s exciting for Jewelle, and exciting for our collaboration, is that it is a collaboration. She lives about 12 minutes from me. It’s really about Oakland, really about this moment, and really about connecting the world of Black, lesbian lives,” Dunye says.

“Jewelle wrote this at a different time, and she’s somebody who has lived a few more lesbian lives than I have,” Dunye says. “There’s lots of stuff going on here, and it’s a very exciting moment.”

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About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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