Remembering Sakia

By Louis Virtel

Originally published on Advocate.com September 29 2008 11:00 PM ET

Sakia Gunn lived
in Newark, N.J., forging a defiant but ultimately
innocuous teenage existence as an out lesbian. On the night
of May 11, 2003, Gunn and her friends were waiting for
a bus at a Newark street corner when two men
approached and propositioned them from a car. The
girls rebuffed their advances, claiming to be lesbians, but
the two men emerged from the vehicle and initiated a
scuffle. The confrontation evolved violently, and one
of the men, Richard McCullough, pulled a knife on Gunn
before stabbing her in the chest. Valencia Bailey, one of
Gunn’s friends at the scene, flagged down a
motorist to take Gunn to the hospital, where she died
that night.

The
15-year-old’s slaying ignited outrage in Newark, as
LGBT residents lobbied the mayor’s office and
proposed a number of initiatives, including an LGBT
community center. The Advocate and The New
York Times
also ran stories on Gunn's death.
However, reverberations from the crime proved finite,
or at least obscure, as only 21 articles about the murder
were published in newspapers nationwide.
Comparatively, the murder of gay college student
Matthew Shepard in 1998 yielded more than 650
national newspaper stories.

Brooklyn-based
filmmaker Charles Bennett Brack, in his first independent
documentary, Dreams Deferred: The Sakia Gunn Film
Project,
takes viewers inside the courtroom with Richard
McCullough, who came forward and pleaded guilty to
aggravated manslaughter. The film focuses on those
close to Gunn, who give tearful, infuriated, and
startlingly articulate insight into their loss. But another
major collective voice of the film, which Brack takes
to Syracuse, N.Y., and San Francisco next, stems
from outside the courtroom -- the activists and
everyday citizens who ponder racism, classicism, and
homophobia within the media and American society.

Such a daunting
list of topics requires filmmaking experience. After
graduating from Antioch College in Ohio, Brack moved to New
York and eventually worked on AIDS-related safety and
prevention films sometimes played for patrons at gay
bars. Working for both the Gay Men's Health Crisis and
the Commission on Human Rights as well as cofounding the
Lavender Light gospel choir helped Brack acquire an
indispensable sense of both community and disjoint
within the gay populace.

Brack showed his
film in Oak Park, Ill.'s St. Martin’s Episcopal
Church, which devotes itself to progressive social
activism, including issues regarding LGBT people of
color. The Advocate caught up with Brack, a
native of Chicago's south side, after the film
screened and its several dozen viewers filtered out of St.
Martin’s. While Brack intends for the film to
strike a chord with viewers, the documentary’s
subject has already provided him with buoyancy and hope in
facing complications in his own varied, often difficult
life.

You're from Chicago. Did you have expectations
about how the film would play to LGBT people here?
You know, I don't know. I haven't been gay in the city
for over 30 years. I left for New York when I was 18,
and I came back a couple of times, but I have no idea
what the gay culture is like here. I'm from the south
side; I was a little butch queen running around the south
side of Chicago being fabulous. So I really don't know
anything about the culture here now.

Unfortunately, I
remember when I was growing up here that the gay
community was really segregated. I don't know if
that’s still the case. New York is not much
better, but it’s a little bit better. I just hope
that the film brings to light the issues that LGBT people of
color face, especially young people. The main thing is
I hope the film will incite service. Because the thing
I lacked growing up was good role models. It’s
so cliché, but it’s so true. It wasn't until I
was out of college at 23 and moved to New York that I
actually found some mentors. I called them my moms and
my dads -- they raised me. They taught me to be careful, to
excel. I have to credit those people.

Some people reading this will still be hearing of
Sakia Gunn for the first time. What do you want them to
know about her?
She was a 15-year-old kid. The glory of what I
was trying to do is black, white, gay, or straight,
she was a 15-year-old kid.

This film really lends a voice to Sakia Gunn's
loved ones. What does the voice of the film say?
[The point of the film is] really to see us.
There’s the black community and there’s
the gay community; they have this discourse, and like,
LGBT people of color don't exist. We're like in this
crevasse. Our communities are always bickering back
and forth, and that’s a dangerous and
dysfunctional argument. So I want to bring us up out of that
crevasse and be a part of that conversation. Because
it doesn't help anybody if people are competing to be
the most depressed. It just doesn't work. We should be
coalition-building.

Can you describe what it was like filming inside
the courtroom?
First of all, I had never been in a courtroom
dealing with anything other than landlord and tenant
rights or human rights or something like that, because
I come from an activist background. So to be in a courtroom
dealing with a murder -- the contempt, the confusion, the
pain ... it was palpable. It was just thick with
angst. It was unfortunate because
[McCullough’s] family sat on one side and
Sakia’s family sat on one side, and there were
a fair amount of glares coming from one side.
[Sakia’s best friend] Valencia’s
family was actually very forgiving. The other side, I
think they simply don't get it. I think they weren't
remorseful; they were very recalcitrant, actually.

Was the Gunn family ever reluctant to have you film
the hearing’s proceedings? Did they require any convincing?
When I first talked to them, it was interesting. I just
did it as a cold call. I just went to Newark and
basically Googled "Gunn." Her family was very
receptive. After all, I was that kid. I wanted to do a
loving tribute as well as get that message out. Now they
call me their brother, and they, you know, harass me
on the phone. I'm a part of their family, and
it’s great.

This film touches on so many large-scale problems:
problems within the gay community, problems outside the
gay community, racism, classicism, and media
matters. It seems like a lot to understand
comprehensively. How do you gain this kind of knowledge?
I come from an activist background, so
there’s always those discussions about the
"haves" and "have-nots." And also I'm ordained clergy.
So in terms of the choices I made professionally and my
political involvement, it always involves the
disenfranchised. And that covers so many people,
including LGBT women. It runs the gamut, so I'm not
intimidated in talking about anything.

Is the media's coverage of LGBT people of color
improving? Would you call it a crisis?
I wouldn't call it a crisis because it’s
been going on for so long. Someone once said to me
that you can only maintain crisis mentality for like,
eight weeks. This is something that’s been going on
for a long, long time.

But I mean, the
media is about selling a product. Yes, the news is there,
but it’s molded. It’s about, What’s
going to be hot and lusty for people to come after?
That’s electronic media. Our media literacy has
created this animal where we want something
that’s always going to be new, hot, and lusty.
You know, it’s the MTV age.

While this is your first independent feature,
you've worked with film before. How does this filmmaking
experience compare to your earlier work?
It took me a long time to do it. I'm not a fund-raiser.
At the Commission of Human Rights, we had a budget.
And at GMHC, we had a budget. Then I had my own
studio. After my predecessors left, it was just me,
and I did the best I could. I had a budget, though it was
dwindling, but I had a studio and my own equipment,
editorial decks, and that kind of stuff. This project
was like, "Make a little money, spend a little money.
Make a little money, spend a little money, and it just went
on and on." A lot of people donated. It was a
collective effort of people being very generous, and I
got a few grants, but I'm not a grant writer.

How did the film affect you personally?Sakia was like my angel. I was newly in recovery from
drugs and alcohol addiction, and this project gave me
a sense of purpose. This kind of fueled my motivation
to get back to doing what I love to do, which is
storytelling. I always talk about being HIV-positive and
being in recovery just because our communities, the
black and gay communities, have such a high rate of
substance abuse as well as HIV. It’s like, we do
have those things in common that we can use as a point of
departure somewhat. The struggles are different, but
there’s something we can come together on. And
that’s that we’re hated. That’s the
thing that upsets me about racism in the gay white
community and homophobia in the straight black
community. It’s like, both groups should know better.
It’s that simple. They should know better. I
don’t want to be called a nigger or a faggot.
They both hurt.