PRINT April 2012


Cheryl Dunye’s Mommy Is Coming

Cheryl Dunye, Mommy Is Coming, 2012, still from a color video, 65 minutes. Hans Eberhardt (Wieland Speck) and Helen Eberhardt (Maggie Tapert).

“BLACK FEMALE FILMMAKER” might be the most obvious label with which to describe Cheryl Dunye, but it fails to capture the way in which she explodes categorical pieties, not only regarding medium but also in terms of sexual and racial politics. In the early 1990s, Dunye became known for experimental videos that frankly and humorously addressed black lesbian sexuality, such as She Don’t Fade, 1991, and The Potluck and the Passion, 1993. These short videos were shown in art contexts (including the Whitney Biennial) and played in queer film festivals around the world. Dunye’s breakthrough mock documentary, The Watermelon Woman (1996), which she wrote, directed, and acted in, was heralded as the first African-American lesbian feature ever made. The film’s scrambling of fiction and reality to create speculative histories and challenge the truth claims of representation has become something of a hallmark for the artist. But this does not mean she has been confined to the esoteric or marginal. Her narrative Stranger Inside (2001), the culmination of four years of research and interviews with incarcerated women, was produced by cable juggernaut HBO. And, in another departure from her usual conceptual frame, she directed a mainstream motion-picture comedy, My Baby’s Daddy, a box-office success in 2004. More recently, Dunye directed The OWLs (2010), a collectively conceived film produced to rethink “how to make films that matter outside the system,” to quote its promotional materials. Here, a group of Older Wiser Lesbians (the titular OWLs) face the decline of their own idealism, and the story plays out both within the context of a scripted narrative and in talking-head segments in which the actors directly address the camera and talk about their relationships to their characters.

With her latest project, Mommy Is Coming (2012), which was cowritten with novelist Sarah Schulman and premiered in Berlin this February, Dunye looks again at queer sexuality, presenting it in its most flamboyant registers. An international cast drawn from loosely defined queer and gender-deviant creative communities is here conscripted into a meditation on the tropes and clichés of pornography. The film involves many explicit sex scenes, strung together with only the thinnest of narrative tissue: Within the first few minutes, a woman gets fucked with a pistol in the back of a cab in broad daylight. Dunye often acts in her own films, and here she makes literal the implicit equation of director as voyeur: She is the cabbie who watches the action via her rearview mirror.

Dunye’s foray fits into the wider lineage of queercore porn: It was coproduced by Jürgen Brüning, who also produced Bruce LaBruce’s foundational works in that genre, including the features No Skin off My Ass (1993) and The Raspberry Reich (2004). But with its embrace of older bodies, bodies of color, and bodies that do not fit into any one gender, the film also reflects an ever more fluid sense of erotic queer representation. All manner of configurations of desire are on display here, as an astonishing array of objects and appendages are inserted and received in various orifices. These scenes take place in an underground s/m nightclub, an upscale hotel, and other venues in Berlin—a city whose anything-goes atmosphere is presented in a way that brings to mind its legendary openness during the Weimar era.

Dunye is savvy about genre, and even in its raunchy set pieces, Mommy Is Coming underscores that porn is always full of camp theatricality. In some ways, Dunye is less queering the form than she is pointing out what is already funny and freaky about it. The absurd and improbable plot not only echoes a typical porn script but also points to the ways in which Mommy Is Coming is an affectionate homage to screwball romantic comedies—specifically Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1972)—as well as French bedroom farces, with their slammed doors and cases of mistaken identity. The double entendre in the title of Dunye’s film lives up to its promise. Spoiler alert: Mother fucking actually happens. Yet even here, as Dunye confronts the taboo of sex with one’s own mother, she mines maternal erotic power for both shock value and comedic effect. Dunye also uses some of her previously established self-reflexive techniques, such as actors speaking directly into the camera, to bring new awareness to the conventions of porn. Still, in large part the film’s intent, like that of all pornography, is to arouse.

Purposefully raw, Dunye’s film emphasizes a collective process of making rather than a polished finished product. In this, it might be compared to the contemporary art porn of A. K. Burns and A. L. Steiner’s Community Action Center, 2010, which strings together inventive vignettes across the spectrum of queer perversity, including pony play and other interactions for which no words have yet been invented. The two films are very different—the stylized Community Action Center has virtually no dialogue, for instance—but both propose that communities, even more than individuals, propel desires.

Julia Bryan-Wilson is an associate professor of modern and contemporary art at the University of California, Berkeley.