Dennis Dortch's "Good Day" Characters: Young, Gifted and Black, With Sex Appeal

Kathryn J. Taylor (left) struts sass, style and Afrocentric confidence at Sundance.  Ms. Taylor plays Jeanette in "Reciprocity", one of the vignettes in "A Good Day To Be Black And Sexy", directed by Dennis Dortch.  She also wrote and stars in a short film called "Homeless Destiny", in which she plays all five of the film's homeless characters.  Right photo: Mylika Davis plays Tamala in the "Tonight" segment of Mr. Dortch's film.  Ms. Taylor directed and co-produced a short film entitled "Sentimental Spider".  (Photos: Omar P.L. Moore)

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

January 24, 2008


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Almost 40 years ago when Nina Simone sang "To Be Young, Gifted and Black", she exalted a wonderment and pride about being black that radiated from deep within her vocals, as if a rediscovery of an undeniable truth once buried deep within a consciousness, juxtaposed against a harsh societal refrain that implicitly and explicitly demonized black people for merely being.  ("When you feel real low/Yeah, there's a great truth you should know/When you're young, gifted and black/Your soul's intact", goes one verse of the song Ms. Simone wrote with Weldon Irvine, Jr.)

Here at Sundance, director Dennis Dortch has rekindled the strength of Ms. Simone's lyric and more so the "Black Is Beautiful" era of 1970's America with the world premiere of his film "A Good Day To Be Black And Sexy", a collection of vignettes about the political and sexual dynamic between black men and black women, a film that is an ode to bygone movies which showcased sex, soul and most importantly, love between black men and black women in an unexpurgated and refreshing way.  It might be easy to say that the film is reminiscent of "She's Gotta Have It", Spike Lee's seminal feature film, but "Black and Sexy" has a lot of serious things to say both in tone and content, and it puts sex and intimacy between black couples in a context and a depiction that hardly exists in American films today, including those directed by numerous mainstream black filmmakers.

The director and two of his cast members talked about the film and about their roles here at the New Frontier Lounge on Main Street, amidst a hubbub of other filmmakers also being interviewed literally within earshot.   

The intent of "A Good Day To Be Black And Sexy" was "to show black intimacy on screen in a way that was honest and realistic and still be entertaining at the same time," said Mr. Dortch, a quiet, serious and low-key individual.

For the actors involved, the subject matter and tone of the film provided its own set of challenges, and they shared some of their concerns.

"Personally I think that anytime you're dealing with a sexual nature, levels of discomfort arise -- considerations that you might have just as an artist -- 'How much do I want to show?  How much do I not want to show?  How real do I want that orgasm to be?  I mean, literally, you have to think about those things.  You're always wondering how you'll be be perceived," said Kathryn J. Taylor, who plays Jeanette in the first vignette entitled "Reciprocity".  "The good thing is I really trust Dennis, so I was never worried . . .  I didn't really have any considerations in terms of what to do and what not to do.  I just let it all out.  And I'm just comfortable with myself and my own sexuality, so it was easy for that to come across on film," added Ms. Taylor, who spoke very self-assuredly about executing the task at hand.  She is introduced pleasuring herself right into an orgasmic eruption to launch the film's story. 

By subtle contrast Mylika Davis, who stars in the "Tonight" vignette, seemed to bring a little trepidation to the acting process.  In "Tonight", she plays Tamala, a woman who is part of a girls night out, and where the night ends up only Tamala will know.  Or maybe not.

"Just being sexual on camera -- that was probably one of my biggest challenges.  I didn't really have to deal with any nudity or anything, but just having to go through, you know, make faces or just being sexual -- thinking like, 'oh my god, what are my parents going to think, what are my family members going to think?' -- because they still see me as a baby in their eyes," said Ms. Davis, who had a small part in Todd Haynes' 2002 film "Far From Heaven", which starred Julianne Moore, Dennis Haysbert and Dennis Quaid.  Confessing that she did not know the male actors that she became intimate with on camera, she said, "to actually have to be touched or kissed, you know -- those were a few things that I might have felt a little uncomfortable about."

Ms. Davis, a somewhat shy yet upbeat figure during this interview, paused and then said:  "But I'm an actress.  So I mean, I can do anything," said Ms. Davis, whose laugh became contagious.

"It's true!", she continued.

"A Good Day To Be Black And Sexy" stars Kathryn J. Taylor and Mylika Davis flank director Dennis Dortch.  (Photo: Omar P.L. Moore)

While two of his film's stars may have had differing views on portraying sex and sensuality, Mr. Dortch had been no stranger to chronicling sensuality, sex or any level of intimacy in his prior film work, and "A Good Day To Be Black And Sexy" is no exception.  "It's very natural for me to think about approaching [sensuality and sexuality] but I think the challenge was having them be different for each vignette.  There was a different tone.  "Her Man" had a tone that was more realistic, I felt.  "Reciprocity" was kind of over the top . . . the challenge was really just having some variety," Mr. Dortch said, who opined that "Tonight" was the most realistic story in his eyes.  He mentioned that he went over some of the more pivotal scenes in great detail with Ms. Davis and Jerome  Anthony Hawkins and believed that politically speaking the vignette was the most difficult to shoot.  He added that there was a common response of surprise from the Sundance audiences that have seen the film.

"I think it's raw.  It's really -- it's -- honest," added Ms. Taylor.  "And we do honest but we don't do honest honest. . . and so I think that is refreshing that you get a chance to be the fly on the wall of a bedroom of all these different couples and see them really, and see black love and romance and sex and infidelity and eroticism and all of that, and really, really see it -- and it's not a Hollywood depiction of how black people are.  That's refreshing.  And we laugh at it a lot of times, but we laugh at it because it's true and it's real and we don't get a chance to see it, and that's great," Ms. Taylor continued.

Something present in numerous Hollywood films today is the occasionally slavish or minstrel type characters, albeit more subtle, that crop up for some black performers to play, in an era where performers have a choice to seek out less negative or stereotypical roles.  One of the two "Black And Sexy" co-stars indicated that Mr. Dortch's film is not one where black people clowning around takes center stage.  "It's not like buffoonery, it's not like shucking and jiving.  And I think that might also be a surprise to some of our viewers as well," commented Ms. Davis about the film.

At the same time however, the pressures of not acceding to negative stereotypes of blacks "wasn't a real concern because it's not on my plate," said Mr. Dortch, adding that the concern about stereotypical portrayals simply wasn't even in his vocabulary when it came to making his latest feature.  "I think we need coons and we need boogie, and we need everything in between.  That's the problem we have, we don't have the gamut, you know what I mean?  So I think that was my only concern, was just showing a different side of us.  I'm okay with buffoonery if it's done well.   But it's all we have (right now) and that's probably I think, the biggest issue.  This film just needed to be what came from me.  And what naturally came from me is what's actually on screen," Mr. Dortch elaborated.  He cited a film and a forerunning contemporary filmmaker to further illustrate his point.  "'Bamboozled' to me is a great film.  It's a bad film in some parts, but it's a great film.  If you think about it, if you actually see the performances that Spike Lee puts on, you can't deny that they're really good, even though they're offensive as hell," said Mr. Dortch, who proceeded to recall a scene from Mr. Lee's film, a satire which acidly confronts the racist stereotypes of blacks in Hollywood, much of which were perpetuated by white performers and directors and some of which were perpetuated by black performers.

"You can't deny that a lot of that's part of us," said Mr. Dortch, who then added, "(part of us meaning) not necessarily what blackface has given us from white people, but what we have for ourselves in our own culture . . .  from Madea . . . Tyler Perry's character . . .  all those characters are actually, they come from some place in our culture.  So we shouldn't push them away in a closet.  We just need to not have that (be the only thing out there.)  But it is hard to see that, with a bunch of other than black people laughing at it and laughing at the wrong things.  So I can't be a part of it because it isn't a part of me."

One other thing that isn't a part of "A Good Day To Be Black And Sexy" as of this writing, is a film distribution company.  Mr. Dortch is hoping and expecting that that will change as his film makes it around the festival circuit in the U.S. this year.

Mylika Davis, center, as Tamala, in the vignette "Tonight", part of the film "A Good Day To Be Black And Sexy".  (Photo: Jerome Ware)

It is clear that like the saying that Shirley Chisholm once employed when becoming the first black woman to run for the U.S. presidency in 1972, Dennis Dortch is himself unbought and unbossed, an independent filmmaker looking to help erase the disproportionately negative way blacks are depicted on screen in his own small way.  His latest work has taken him over three years to film and edit.  With family and kids to take care of, Mr. Dortch spoke of occasional discouragement and procrastination, along with the continued pressure of putting his own funds into the film to keep it afloat and to keep filming, without receiving much help from elsewhere. 

The "Reciprocity" vignette featuring Ms. Taylor was filmed in 2005, and she said that she learned to have patience as an actor, as she had she had to wait at least a year or two for the other vignettes in "Black And Sexy" to be filmed and for the financing to help make it all happen.  She said that she liked what she saw with her own vignette but was eager to see the finished product.  When she eventually did, she said, "wow!" 

Ms. Taylor has kept herself busy on various other projects, including "Homeless Destiny", a short film that she wrote and stars in.  She plays all five of the film's homeless characters.

Mylika Davis declared that the experiences on Mr. Dortch's film enabled her to realize that "I need to be more than just an actress, that -- I need to create my own work and my own opportunities and not just wait for someone to validate me and my career."  She cited Mr. Dortch as a valuable resource.  "Just being around Dennis and getting to know him, it just inspired me to want to write and want to produce."  Ms. Davis directed and co-produced her first short film entitled "Sentimental Spider."

The experience on the set of "Black And Sexy" also taught Ms. Davis about loving herself. 

"People have been coming up to me at the Festival and they're like, 'wow, you were so beautiful with those braids (in "Tonight".)'  It just made me realize how beautiful I really am," admitted Ms. Davis, who like Mr. Dortch counts music as her first love and revealed that she had some insecurities in her own off-screen life about some aspects of her appearance. 

For Kathryn J. Taylor inspiration, rather than her appearance as a performer, motivated and excited her.  "As an artist I'm always honored when what I do can inspire someone else," said Ms. Taylor, whose energy level was high despite what was a busy press tour for the film.  "What you want is for people to just say, 'she really put her all into that, and so can I as an actor' . . .  and everyone who calls themselves artists and actors should be able to immerse themselves into their character and give 120% and never look back . . . ".  Perhaps hinting at some cast members' concerns about how they looked on camera to those outside the film, Ms. Taylor added: "When you have those considerations you may not know it, but it shows.  Even if it's just a little bit, it'll show.  And so you just have to wipe everybody clean and ignore the world and just give it your all, and that's what I'd like every artist at all times to do."

Ms. Davis wished for a broader examination of sexual mores within the black community.  "There are a lot of taboos in the black community when it comes to sex, and one of the things I would like is for, I guess, for black people to just -- for us to create dialogue, for us to really open our minds and our hearts to just the idea of sex in our communities.  And also other thing is, I would just like young black women to have respect for themselves, to have self-love for themselves, and to know that they don't have to do anything that they don't want to do."

If Mr. Dortch has one wish for his new film it would be "that a black person would watch it," he said. 

Forecasting what would be music to his ears from a black viewer who had just seen "A Good Day To Be Black And Sexy", he said he hoped that they would say, "'you make me feel proud when watching the film, to be black,'" the director commented. 

"That's the one thing I would want to hear."

The open mouth of Kathryn J. Taylor as Jeanette, during the opening moments of "A Good Day To Be Black And Sexy", directed by Dennis Dortch.  The film had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last week. 

"A Good Day To Be Black And Sexy" features five vignettes: "Reciprocity", "Her Man", "Tonight", "Reprise" and "American Boyfriend".

Original love: Nana Hill as Candi in the vignette "Reprise", in Dennis Dortch's "A Good Day To Be Black And Sexy".  (Photo: Jerome Ware)

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