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Watch: Documentary "Shape Up" Examines Being Gay In The Black Barbershop

Two years ago we previewed a documentary "Shape Up: Black In The Gay Barbershop to rave reviews and we're happy to announce the full film is now here and streaming!  

I remember many a Saturday morning getting up early (because you have to get in the shop early otherwise there are six heads ahead of you and you'll be in there all day) when i was younger and one of my parents would run me to the barbershop.  It was, in my mind, the ultimate black guy experience. 

It was unfiltered blackness, raw and uncensored.  I loved the uncensored part because my family was holy so there wasn't a lot of cursing going on our house so I used to love hearing people use profanity. 

The barbershop provided us with a safe space to be ourselves.  Unless you were gay. 

We recently sat down with the films creator Derrick L Middleton to find out what inspired him to create this work.

What inspired you to create this film?

I was born in Harlem, NYC and went to high school at Fiorello LaGuardia HS for the Performing Arts best known for being the inspiration for the tv series Fame. I majored there in Drama. While in high school I came out as gay and was lucky enough to be in an artistic school environment where being queer was actually quite normal. But everyday when I went uptown back home to Harlem I had to code-switch to avoid being a target in my community. The most hyper-masculine space in the black community is the barbershop and it was hands-down the most intimidating space for me at that time in my life. So I began writing a feature film that I intended to act in that was centered around my experience of growing up gay in the black barbershop. It was years before I shared this idea with anyone, but when I finally did every black gay male I told felt compelled to share with me stories of their own experiences in the barbershop. So that's when it clicked and I decided to make "Shape Up" a documentary so that I could include the voices and stories of others.

What did your barber think when he watched the film?

Denny Moe my barber who is featured in "Shape Up" is a real cool guy with an almost stoic presence. You hardly ever see him sweat. But I think the film opened up his eyes to the experience that some of his gay clientelle (both out and closeted) may be having in his shop. A lot of straight men working in such a hetero-dominant space like the black barbershop assume that most of the men around them are straight, unless we present ourselves in a flamboyant or stereotypical way that people can easily identify as gay. So I think the film may have opened up his eyes to the reality that a lot of his clientele may be gay and uncomfortable at times in that space.

What was your father's reaction to the film? Was he aware of your discomfort growing up?

My biological father and I don't see eye to eye on homosexuality and he uses religion to defend his stance. He and my mom divorced when I was young so I didn't live with him growing up, but he was fairly present in my life until he found out I was gay in high school. That's when our relationship truly ended. However my step-dad that really raised me growing up never seemed to bat an eye when I came out. I often wondered If his subdued reaction was due to the fact that I wasn't his biological son and If maybe he took it less personally as a result. Regardless he still remains a very supportive figure in my life.

What is the main theme you want people to walk away from the film with?

The main theme I want people to walk away from "Shape Up" with is the importance of barbershops in the black community and the role it has historically played in preparing black men for the outside world. The black barbershop is a very sacred space. Unfortunately It's also a space that's rife with homophobia and misogyny. So I hope people leave the film connecting the dots a bit more between homophobia and misogyny because I believe the two are more closely related than we usually acknowledge them to be.

What's the greatest compliment you've received about the film?

The greatest comment I've read about the film was from a courageous veteran of the US Army who said that he had been brave enough to come out in the Army during the time of "Don't Ask Don't Tell", but after all these years he still hadn't come out to his barber. I think of this often because it reminds me of the importance of my work and this film.

What's the harshest criticism you've received?

It use to really sting when I would read comments from some gay black men who would say things like, "Only a punk would feel the need to make a film about this. Just go get your haircut and get out." Comments like that use to bother me until I realized that those men are also entitled to be wherever they are on their personal journeys in life.

What's next for the film?

"Shape Up" premiered at President Obama's White House in 2016 where it was honored with an award from The March on Washington Film Festival. I spent the following 2 years screening it around the country for some amazing audiences at film festivals I'd always dreamed of being included in. But I realized that film festivals still have some limitations in terms of audience, because not everyone has access to attend these festivals maybe due to location or money.
If homophobia in the black barbershop is still a huge issue here in the United States can you imagine what the barbershops must be like for the LGBTQ community in places like Jamaica and Africa? It's important to me that our community in those parts of the world have access to "Shape Up" as well. So I've released it for free on my own vimeo channel. Now anyone who goes to vimeo and types in "Shape Up: Gay in the Black Barbershop" will be able to watch the entire film for free and that means the world to me.

What's next for you?

My upcoming web-series that I'm writing, directing and starring in is titled "Guy's A Doll". I play the title character named Guy who becomes a drag performer in NYC and goes on a journey of self-discovery. I created this series because as a black and openly gay man I still find it scary to fully embrace my own femininity. So I wanted to conquer my own fear and take on this character myself as an actor. Conquering fears will continue to be a reoccurring theme in all of my future work. "Guy's A Doll" will premiere this Fall!

barbershop: Camera Ready Kutz, Inc

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