Guest Blog: #FilmForward sparks dialogue between Valentine Road director and Detroiters

Shawntai Brown, Guest Blogger

Shawntai Genell Brown is a freelance blogger, playwright, storyteller and poet living in Detroit, Michigan. She is sharing her experience of Film Forward: Michigan on her blog: Shawntai’s Spiral Notebook.

Preparing to meet Latisha
It started sweet. I walked into a sparse but eager room at the U-M Detroit Center Tuesday afternoon and spotted joy: cranberry oatmeal cookies! If you know me, you know that Tuesday is a holiday – TuesdaySaturday. It’s a tradition between friends, created by myself and best friend @NaidraWalls, that occurs every Tuesday for those who work weekends and are devoid of a proper care-free Saturday. As with the tradition of TuesdaySaturday, I decided the screening of Valentine Road at the UMD Center would check off two of my holiday to-dos: supporting a local community and treating myself to something yummy. Those of us who showed for the film introduced ourselves over joyous chewing and proclamations of cookies no one should miss devouring. Maybe we all knew we would need to fill our stomachs ahead of the film, and that the feelings to come would require our full energy and a solid gut.

You don’t have to be familiar with the murder of Larry Latisha King to know the story: a person who is perceived to be drastically different and a societal ill is murdered by someone in their community. We all know a story like this: Matthew Shepherd, Trayvon Martin, James Craig Anderson, etc. When I asked Valentine Road director Marta Cunningham why she chose to tell the Oxnard, Calif. story she said she became angry that no one cared about this kid who did nothing but try to express himself. To start the film, she asked us to recall what it was like to be an eighth grader. I was reciting Animaniacs lines, making origami out of notes passed between my friends, balling all of my confused love feelings for anyone attractive into 1-page poems. Even though I faced death close to home in my family, I was worried about catching cancer from chewing gum and ducking under windows on New Year’s Eve while watching A Christmas Story with my dad and siblings. I wasn’t worried about being shot by a classmate.

Meeting Brandon instead
In 2008, Feb. 14 Latisha died from difficulties inflicted by a gunshot to the head at the hand of her classmate, Brandon McInerney, because she expressed she had a crush on him. Before you hate Brandon, remember that he is in the eighth grade. Know that Brandon’s advocates faded away and that his community supported his anger and prejudice, if not his actions. Also, know that as a 14-year-old, I never shot a boy or girl for an unwanted and perhaps embarrassing cat call.

The film is about Latisha, but also largely about Brandon’s deplorable past that helped to form his hatred into action. Cunningham’s documenting of Brandon’s life brings in issues of child abuse and neglect, domestic partner violence, hate crimes, Nazi philosophy, and homelessness. Remember that Brandon is 14.

Latisha’s life had no shortage of abuse, neglect and misunderstanding either. Yet, the community put their sympathy and support with Brandon. In Cunningham’s opinion, the jury did also.

Following the film, Cunningham spoke about Larry “LaTisha” King with full respect, calling her by her prefered name – something that lacked in the interviews of the documentary. Despite evidence from her closest friends that Latisha prefered the name she gave herself over her legal name, Lawrence, nearly everyone referred to her as “Larry.” The repetition of “Larry” symbolized the overall intolerance of the community on the issues of sexuality, gender, race and advocacy. The community consensus seemed to be that King should have never been dressing “like a girl,” expressing her crush or asking anyone to call her by a girl name. Cunningham said no one was truly advocating for King – not even the teacher who gave her a prom dress. I know this is true for many LGBTQ youth in Detroit in particular.

Heading home
Walking to my car after the screening, I thought about one of my poetry students from last year – an outgoing yet timid seamstress and published author about the same weight and height of Latisha, although slightly older. This student also happened to be homeless for a period of time, taunted by some family and classmates, and brave in a way I never had to be at his age. Last year, he started a Gay-Straight Alliance at his high school and became the school’s first known drag performer. Know that he is 15.

Many DPS schools lack a Gay-Straight Alliance and staff members who will openly and actively strive to create safe environments for all students. Additionally, queer and transgender youth make up a large population of our homeless people in this city. Only a handful of organizations in Detroit seek to serve, protect and support LGBTQ youth. Our community has a continued issue with how we respond to hate crimes.

WXYZ Detroit posted video to the website covering the mob attack of Christian Howard, a young gay man, at Motor City Pride earlier this year. I forget that people don’t know what it’s like to be gay, to be a youth, to be different even among those who look most like you. My reminder was in the comments, which is where I let my eyes wander through the shadow of death for White Supremacy proclamations and the melting pot of racism, classism and extraordinary ignorance. “He looks like a tranny. He probably tried to solicit oral sex from the straight guys and after being turned down, the tranny became violent. Gays are violent, especially when they are doing meth and they want to perform crazy sex acts in public,” DoctaFarkward felt the need to publicly post. And while his inflammatory comments don’t represent the feelings of all Detroiters, I have heard similar words come from the mouths of people in my family, my students, neighbors, acquaintances and business clients, all unaware that they were speaking to a queer woman.

Questions for Thursday
You didn’t miss your opportunity to see the film. Film Forward (the Sundance series responsible for touring the film and its director around Michigan) will screen Valentine Road at the Michigan Theater on Thursday, Sept. 25, at 7:30pm. Come with questions for Marta Cunningham. Come with questions that challenge our communities to do better. Here are a few questions that came up for me:

  • Should juveniles be tried as adults?
  • How do we address racism, homophobia, transphobia and hate?
  • In what ways does our culture, media and education support violence toward LGBTQ people?
  • How do we identify and support children in abusive households?
  • How does media, faith, and cognitive dissonance play a role in trial verdicts?
  • Why oh why are we still victim blaming?

Feel free to talk back and join the nationwide conversation by searching #FilmForward or following me @sb_Diztinction. Happy TuesdaySaturday, folks!

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