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Remembering Sakia

Remembering Sakia


Chances are you haven't heard much about Sakia Gunn, a 15-year-old lesbian stabbed to death in 2003 in Newark, N.J. -- and it's filmmaker Charles Bennett Brack's mission to change that.

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 cliche, 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.

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