Farewell, My Brother: A Tribute to Jonathan Demme

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Photo above from the June 4, 2014, premiere of Brothers of the Black List at the Jacob Burns Film Center. From left: Sheryl Champen, Kirk Allen, Scott Fein, Sean Gallagher, Hopeton Gordon, and Jonathan Demme.

The first time I met Jonathan Demme, it was from a distance as I watched him direct Married to the Mob, which was filming in my hometown as a teenager; I was in love with Michelle Pfeiffer. A few years later he delicately and intelligently scared me while simultaneously evoking cheers for a cannibal in The Silence of the Lambs.

I wouldn't encounter Demme again for many years. My world changed in the fall of 1992, when I was suddenly thrown into the national spotlight. On September 4 of that year, an elderly woman in a small town in upstate New York reported an attempted rape by a young black man who cut his hand during the altercation. While looking for suspects, police contacted officials at the State University of New York at Oneonta, a which I was attending at the time, and a school administrator handed over a list of names and residences of 125 black male students. For the next several days, those students were interrogated by various small-town police officers who treated us as guilty until proven innocent.

The students sued over their treatment, in what became the longest-litigated civil rights case in American history. My friend Sean Gallagher directed the documentary film about the case, Brothers of the Black List, and when he asked for Jonathan's assistance, Demme put the full force of his name and connections behind the project. It took several years to make the documentary, from 2007 to 2013, and it was released in 2014. By participating in the film, I was finally able to return to a moment of deep angst and shed tears for the pain I felt decades long gone. In the documentary, I and my peers recount the disturbing events that the college and police tried to hush up. The perverse, inflammatory, debasing roundup of all the male African-American and Latino students at SUNY Oneonta was emotionally dismembering. Memories of swastikas and “N------ Go Home” scrawled in marker on our dorm room doors came rushing back.

I was floored that Demme would lend his name and prestige to the film. During the course of filming I learned he was the director of the my favorite video on MTV — for the song “Sun City.” I can vividly recall the chorus of the song: “I, I, I ain't gonna play Sun City / I, I, I ain't gonna play Sun City.”

I am now a teacher at Nyack High School an hour north of New York City. Shortly after being hired I found out Jonathan lived in Nyack. We reconnected and spent many nights talking about everything that mattered. 

At the premiere of Brothers of the Black List, his behavior and words were not those of a famous director who was a stalwart supporter of social justice, but of a friend who cared deeply for me. His voice and eye contact said “you matter.” We shook hands and hugged, but I was getting much more. I finally was able to sit with the man who helped the world to know my story. The same man who made me cringe in fear of Hannibal Lecter. The same man who informed me about the protest of a resort in apartheid-era South Africa. The same man who brought AIDS onto the silver screen and made it real for the people not touched by the plague that ravaged my black and queer brothers and sisters.

I will always think fondly of Jonathan not because of what he did, but who he was as a person: a friend and mentor — and I look forward to continuing our stimulating intellectual conversations in whatever's next after this life. The world may have lost a director, but I lost a friend and someone I will always call a brother. 

Rest in peace, brother Demme. #InStruggle

KIRK ALLEN is a teacher and the author of All About the Money — Being Old And Broke Stinks

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