Reeling Part 2: A conversation with Robert Phillipson
Educator and gay writer Robert Phillipson is disproving the old saying ‘there are no second acts in American literature,” he’s now on his third. Phillipson taught African American literature and spent a decade as a computer literacy consultant before his transformation at age 50 into filmmaking. The Oakland resident is owner of Shoga Films, his production company. He has produced four films on the subject of gays in the Harlem Renaissance. He’s the author of “Very Good Looking Seek Same,” a group of humorous poems which explores gays seeking love and “The Identity Question: Blacks and Jews in America and Europe.”
His latest venture is T’AINT NOBODY’S BIZNESS: QUEER BLUES DIVAS OF THE 1920’S, which explores lives and sexual histories of several well-known Blues icons, will be shown on Sat. Nov 5, at Chicago Filmmakers located 5243 N. Clark Street, Chicago at 4:00PM. It has played in festivals all over the world, most recently at the QBC International Film Festival in Harlem. PrideIndex caught up with Phillipson, while he was in the airport headed to Arkansas for the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, he briefly talked about, Blues music, gays in the Harlem Renaissance and his filmmaking experience.
PRIDEINDEX: How did he become interested in this subject matter, women in blues and lesbianism in particular?
ROBERT PHILLIPSON: You go straight to the point, don’t you! I taught African American literature; I have a degree in Comparative literature and taught on the Harlem Renaissance at the college level in the course of my research I kept running into bits and pieces of biographical information on how Alain Locke was gay or Countee Cullen may have been gay, or Ethel Waters may have been a lesbian and being gay myself I thought there should be something that brought all of this information together. And when I began my career in documentary filmmaking I thought the Harlem Renaissance was the obvious candidate for a film because it was so much more than just literature, it encompassed music, and the conceptual arts. It was a really exciting time so as I started working on my topics and during the course of getting information Blues music came up because that was an area where there was an open discussion of alternative sexualities, although not always positive, at least they were talking about it. Again during the course of my research I found out about Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Ethel Waters and that’s how my film came about.
PI: As a filmmaker and educator how did you navigate your way through your findings in terms of separating facts versus conjecture or hearsay?
RP: Much work had already been done by scholars who did work on the lives of these women. Bruce Albertson, one of the interviewees in the documentary, had already done pioneering work in this area. He’s done very good research about Bessie Smith. I got me firsthand material on Bessie Smith by her niece Ruby Walker who went out on some of these escapades with her. There were certainly rumors about these women anyway when they could be corroborated by people who had seen with their own eyes it ceased to be conjecture, like journalism you have to have two sources or more. I’m hoping to do a film on the Harlem Renaissance and when I do I will not make the claim that Langston Hughes was gay even though there are lots and lots and lots of tales that he was gay but there is no real hard and fast proof that he ever had sex with anybody; so I am not going to make that claim.
PI: Do you have a favorite Blues diva among the women mentioned in “T’AINT NOBODY’S BIZNESS” or a favorite contemporary Blues artist?
RP: Bessie Smith has been a real revelation for me. Of course I’ve heard of her but her slides don’t get much play anymore which is too bad because they are well recorded, they’re not scratchy and she had an amazing calming voice. She really deserves to be in in the contemporary world and not just regarded in historical terms as a singer. Ethel Waters is something of a rebel lady as well. She had a wide range and was a wonderful singer. She would be a Hollywood star, a Broadway star and star in Harlem because sh had tons of expression in her voice which came with her interpretive material in her songs.
PI: Tell us any notable challenges you had to bring this documentary to the marketplace and how you overcome those challenges.
RP: The greatest challenge would easily be the irrational process of getting the permission and clearances to use the works of copyrighted materials. Historical filmmakers like me must get permission to use every image, clip, or song; you have to contact that person, or the one with the rights to use the music. It’s a crazy system that effectively discourages independent filmmakers from making historical films that’s why you see very few historical films at independent film festivals.
PI: Why did you become a filmmaker?
RP: (Laughs) It was kind of accidental; I started taking movie courses at a community college because I wanted to learn how to operate a video camera to record as an amateur for family recordings but the courses I took were on video production. As part of the course we were asked to write a script, think about art direction and got into all aspect of filmmaking and we made little films. I’d gotten bitten by the bug! (Laughs) The courses were broken down in such a way that I understood what the process was and very quickly I got to the point where I felt like I could make a film on a shoe string budget. I learned that if you chose your subject matter very carefully you could make a film without a lot of money. And coming from an academic background I know that making a film about a particular topic is so much more rewarding than writing an article that gets published in an academic journal and then disappears in a bottomless realm of articles. With making a film you can get immediate feedback, that’s wonderful and more rewarding.
PI: Where did you study film making?
RP: I took multimedia classes at Berkley Community College, not film school per say. I came into filmmaking quite late while in my 50s!
PI: This project is an outstanding film, so I would say better late than never.
RP: (LAUGHS) Well someone once said there are no second acts in American literature. I’m on my third act!
PI: Tell us about some of the other projects that you are working on, or projects that are on the way?
RP: This is fourth film that talks about gay and lesbian participation in the Harlem Renaissance. There’s my first music video of a Ma Rainey song that includes lesbian lyrics, and there a Ma Rainey song called “The Sissy Blues” that I put to archival footage. And then there’s my third film called “Take the Gay Train,” which talks about about gay sensibly during the Harlem Renaissaince in three acts. All of my projects can be found on my website http://shogafilm.com.
PI: Have you considered writing another book or a play on your findings?
RP: I have written a couple of books and I would say “no” to writing another. I would rather spend my time making films than writing a book. Trying to get anything into fruition in the arts rather it be trying to get a play produced or a film made takes a tremendous amount of time, energy and organization if it works.
PI: Were you concerned about any backlash that you might receive from historians or the subjects’ relatives?
RP: I have not gotten any backlash. The scholarship is pretty bullet-proof because there has been so much said and proven. For more information on Reeling visit www.reelingfilmfestival.com
For more information on Robert Phillipson visit: https://www.shogafilms.com