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ESSAYS I VOL 3 I AUGUST 1, 2017

SUNSHINE OR NAH?

KHARY SEPTH

Los Angeles. July, 2015.
Even with the treasure troves of iconiclastic writing about Los Angeles, its cultural signi cance to the Black gay man has never quite been unmasked—perhaps in the way that the complexities of celebrity have never quite been understood, or in the way that the economic foundation of America known as the displaced African has never quite been acknowledged. Millions of Black gay boys have gone West to chase dreams that perhaps weren’t destined for them—Hollywood being the bluntest possible articulation of the ambitions of our culture, its siren song the breathy whisper of Marilyn, or Janet, calling out to the impractical desires of all dreamers who should dare to turn on the television. The natives—whose folk were lured from places like rural Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi by the California Dream of yesteryear—statistically more likely to be kissing the dirt on Central Ave. than the ass cheeks of pale white actresses on the red carpet at the Oscars, still, somehow dedicated to the bitchy, lacquered preoccupations of their beloved L.A.

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I wanted to see it for myself—this empty vessel known as Hollywood—to see what truth, if any, lies beneath the surface. Maybe I could nd out how many dicks Will Smith really sucked to get ahead in the game; maybe I could nd out how Lee Daniels’ soul was holding up on the devil’s watch; maybe I could make it big myself. As my plane touched down at LAX, I could hear a voice in my head say, “Welcome to L.A, bey-otch,” and I was rex for my closeup. The Southern California sun promised me that life in L.A. would be wonderful.

In an Airbnb in the Hollywood footHills, the next morning when I woke, in that twilight state between awareness and dreams, I had an electrical charge that I wasn’t expecting—the kind of ener that is sometimes contained in things like owers or ghter jets or new followers. A er years in Brooklyn living under grey skies, it was the unexpected pleasure of feeling the SoCal sun’s hand pull down my undies, stoke my dick, and with a shot of testosterone as my eyes focused in the most beautiful of light, provoke in me for the rst time again, pleasure, which I’d only associated with a barely remembered past. Memories, I was soon to learn, that were all connected to my search. Los Angeles—a city of supreme ction where mental geographies go beyond race and class prejudices; Los Angeles—a city where curious, unnatural landscapes dissolve into the distance along with passive contact among its residents. It’s understandable how the 20th century reporter Morrow Mayo—the father of an entire school of caustic writing about L.A.—a er arriving there in 1925, wrote of it, “Los Angeles is not a mere city ... on the contrary, it is, and has been since 1888, a commodity; something to be advertised and sold to the people of the Unites States like automobiles, cigarettes and mouth wash.” By the time I had nished mixing my morning smoothie, I got it, and wondered to myself: Is there any word held so high in the American esteem as “Hollywood?” Like any New Yorker I had my doubts, but nothing that a quick Google couldn’t clarify.

After a trip to California in 1913, W. E. B. Du Bois praised Los Angeles in his paper The Crisis: “Los Angeles is wonderful. Nowhere in the United States is the Negro so well and beautifully housed, nor the average e ciency and intelligence in the colored population so high. Out here in this matchless Southern California there would seem to be no limit to your opportunities, your possibilities.”

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Not to ridicule Du Bois’ intellectual fantasies, but a er a few taps on the screen it became clear—a vision of happiness and wonder Los Angeles was not. The L.A. of the oil-and- lm crazy ‘20s didn’t create boom times for the negro; it rather found him at the bottom of a barrel of crabs, sitting in a backyard in Compton, waiting to be boiled for his cultural nutrition and to their delight for decades to come. Why did this movie mean so much to a young Black gay boy? However irresistable the role, there’s an understory that’s toxic, perhaps fatal, to the Black bodies vying for the part. I wanted to know more.

By World War One, what were known as “deed restrictions” in The City of Angels pushed Blacks who’d migrated there since 1915 into the dark shadows of Southcentral, while the bright lights of Beverly Hills and San Merino ashed “keep out” in their faces making 95 per cent of the city’s housing stock in the 1920s e ectively o limits to Blacks and Asians. Acting as Jim Crow legislation, deed restrictions were also building a “white wall” around the Black community on Central Avenue—the avenue that dissected L.A.’s most notorious ghettos which decades later Hollywood would glorify through celluloid scraps of thug idolatry and exa erated parodies of ghetto life via lms like Straight Outta Compton and Friday.

In her 1929 study of the “University Addition” neighborhood near the University of Southern California, sociologist Bessie McClenahan described how the arrival of a single Black family east of Budlong Avenue in the summer of 1922 sowed panic that home values would collapse in the wake of an imminent “Negro Invasion.” Whites quickly formed the “Anti-African Housing Association” to campaign for a restrictive agreement to exclude non-whites from the neighborhood. Until the US Supreme Court nally ruled against restrictive covenants in 1948, white homeowner groups in Los Angeles had ample sanction in the law and led more than 100 suits against non-white potential homebuyers (including Hollywood celebrities like Hattie McDaniel and Louis Beavers), while a compliant Superior Court regularly found Blacks in contempt for occupying homes within restricted subdivisions or blocks. Lest Blacks cling to any illusion about the benevolence of the New Deal, Roosevelt’s Federal Housing Authority not only sanctioned restrictions, but developed a recommended formula for inclusion in subdivision contracts.

While L.A.’s cultural bohemia of the late ‘40s and ‘50s was morphing into the “L.A. Look” of the ‘60s—think Ed Rushka, Robert Irwin, Richard Neutra, and Rudolph Schindler building Hollywood Hills pleasure domes and making modernist art to ll them—Blacks were told to keep their ni er Jello molds; they were not invited to the party.

Hhhhmmmm, before I went shopping for that prototypically modern house in the Hollywood Hills on my rst day, I wondered, would I too be forced to drive 22 miles over to Baldwin Hills in bumper-to-bumper tra c to nd it? Or nah?
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When visiting Los Angeles in the Olympic year of 1932, at rst sight to a young Langston Hughes whose poems had already been purchased by Vanity Fair in New York by then, “Los Angeles seemed more a miracle than a city, a place where oranges sold for one cent a dozen, ordinary Black folks lived in huge houses with “miles of yards,” and prosperity seemed to reign in spite of the Depression.” Later, in 1939, when Hughes attempted to write within the studio system, he discovered that the only role available to the Black writer was furninshing demeaning dialoge for cotton- eld parodies of Black life. A er a humiliating experience with the lm Way Down South, he decleared that “so far as Negroes are concerned, [Hollywood] might just as well be controllled by Hitler.”

In the 80 years since, Hughes’ dissillusionment with Hollywood has been recapitulated over and over again, each iteration messier than the last via the careers of Black lmmakers like Gordon Parks and Melvin Van Pebbles and Spike Lee. For it to devour outsiders like New York’s Lee or Chicago’s Pebbles is one thing (geographic tribalism really is a thing), but for Hollywood to devour a native son—namely a promising young Black lmmaker named John Singleton— seemed a particuluary hanus crime even by Hollywood’s gruesome standards.

With his epic 1991 tale of the tough, inner city Black experience in Southcentral— Boyz N The Hood--Singleton, at 20, was the youngest director to ever be nominated for an Academy Award (one for best Original Screenplay and one for best Director), and showed promise of becoming a cinematic channel for a socially concious form of commerical lmmaking. He was a ray of light for Black lmmakers and audiences alike, and what was impossible he made possible— from getting Hollywood’s whispery pop princess Janet Jackson and preeminent street thug Tupac to fuck onscreen in 1994’s Poetic Justic, to killing Hollywood’s rst and last Black supermodel, a then baby-faced Tyra Banks in cold blood at the end of 1995’s Higher Learning. Maybe that scene was fortelling his own demise. Did John know deep down inside that there’d be no half-a-century of garish gangster movies ala Scorsese for him to make; no Tarantino cult-like following keeping him in demand at the box o ce long past his expiration date.

In fact, by “industry standards” these lms were misbegotten failures, and it seemed as if John had been expelled from the industry, le to spend his later years grazing on a meager diet of sporadic lame big-budget action icks like 2003’s 2 Fast 2 Furious and as of last year, a televison cameo directing Lee Daniel’s Empire.

Singleton shared in an op-ed piece for The Hollywood Reporter in 2014: “They ain’t letting the Black people tell the stories ... [Studio executives say] ‘We’re going to take your stories but, you know what? You’re going to go starve over here and we’re not going to let you get a job’ ... They want black people [to be] what they want them to be. And nobody is man enough to go and say that.”

Ok cute, John said his piece. But Hollywood always has the last word, and IT and WE have two very di erent ideological conceptions of the popular. When Singleton was suddenly reported o the highly-anticipated Tupac biopic last year (a lm no maker would have been better suited to deliver), Singleton claimed that “they [Hollywood] have no true love for ‘Pac so this movie will not be made with love ... If Tupac knew what was going on, he’d ride on all these fools and take it to the streets.” Cringe worthy language from the man who made the living ‘Pac an actual movie star, indeed, but it should never be forgotten that Hollywood always sets the agenda—dreamers beware.

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There’s a dark, pathological side of The Golden State—the violence of the ’65 Watts Riots, the crack epidemic of the ‘80s, the gang paranoia of the ‘90s, the raucous rap that followed, Rodney King, OJ, etcetera. As I inched down Sunset on the way to lunch at Chateau and looked over at the Hollywood Sign announcing Los Angeles as a “city of dreams,” I noticed the unexpected—a sign at once grimy and glittery, coated in a layer of droppings, a literal symbol of America’s contradictions. Mysteries are only mysteries if you want them to be.

 

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Perhaps nowhere is this contradiction more evident than in literary wonder gay boy turned grumpy old queen Bret Easton Ellis’ rst-time novel, Less Than Zero— considered by many literati to be the most signi cant account of Los Angeles’ contemporary soul. Published in 1985: 200 highly-celebrated pages of all these white, spoiled, over privileged, morally vacuous sons and daughters of neglectful Hollywood royalty scoring grams, popping pills, and fucking all over the scenery of a dimly lit but brightly shellacked Los Angeles, while up the block in Crenshaw, America’s senseless “Drug War” was in full force and terrorizing every “suspected gang member” (a.k.a Black male between the ages of 8 and 80) in Los Angeles county. Spread eagle against police cruisers, beaten senseless, constitutionally violated, illegally jailed, shot dead—in one word terrorized—by the tri er happy “redneck army of occupation” known as the LAPD, is where you’d nd us, and from 1974 – 1990, the LAPD had arrested two-thirds of all younger Black males in California and a ood of captives—four- hs of whom were substance addicted and less than half of whom had committed violet crimes, overwhelming the state prisons—84,000 inmates in a system with room for 48,000—while programs with weird acronyms like HAMMER and STEP gave police an open season to kill and brutalize via a state-sanctioned violence based on the “probably cause” of red shoelaces or blue bandanas.

Less Than Zero highlights that white boys, in Cali, can be reckless, and high, and selling dope all the time—basically really, really, really horrible people—and still win(ning). But Black boys, play it straight, because let us not forget where we are—this is Hollywood—and they can always, they will always, unfairly sentence your dreams to “life with no chance.”

In an article that appeared in the Times around the time of Ellis’ book release, a reporter wrote:

“Under new federal statutes, defendants convicted of selling 5 grams or more of crack cocaine, worth perhaps $125, receive a mandatory minimum of ve years in prison. However, it takes 500 grams of the powdered drug, nearly $50,000 worth of ‘yuppie cocaine,’ to receive an equivalent sentence.”

It’d be over 30 years and take a Black President to give enough fucks to address these sentencing atrocities disparities via his “Drugs Minus Two” policy revamp in 2014 (in which 6,000 nonviolent drug o enders were released early from prison) and much-publicized commutations of 2015 (by which he’s commuted the sentences of nearly 200 Brothers locked up for nonviolent drug o enses). But note: today, 5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug o enses at 10 times the rate of Whites—more than 500,000 Black men behind bars for pushing bags of blow to the same kids that made Ellis famous. If you scratch just beneath its surface, Ellis’ Zero amounts to nothing more than an expose written in minimalistic prose on the class and racial bias of the Anti-Drug years which have had lasting e ects up until this very day.

Ellis went on to become one of the most canonized writers of his generation, a member of some so-called ‘80s “literary Brat Pack,” but Ellis, like Singleton, didn’t really live up to his hype with endless rather uninspired versions of the same novel like Rules of Attraction (1987) and American Psycho (1991). Lit critics hated them, Hollywood loved them, Ellis went on to be a reluctant star, sick of his success, with works optioned by major Hollywood studios and a career that once he’s six- feet-under will set o a wave of posthumous worship by douche-y white kids for generations to come. Where’s Singleton again? He doesn’t even show up on any trade rag’s list of Hollywood’s most important directors, ever. No shade, someone needs to go to jail for this crime, but no worries, the sun and the sounds reminded me that life in L.A. was wonderful.

So wonderful that even with its appetite for crime stories—fuck, who doesn’t live for the Black Dahlia?—I was assured that THE GAYS were not on the menu out here. Whew! I felt a great weight had been li ed from my m bag. The L.A. Times reported last September that even with a slight uptick in numbers for 2015, “the good news for Los Angeles County is that the number of hate crimes reported in 2014 was the second-lowest total in 25 years. The lowest number came in 2013, with 384 hate crimes reported.”

So while America owns dead white kids hanging like scarecrows on its prairie’s and will ultimately have to pay for its silence on the murders of 20-25 trans women of color in its urban bowels last year, Los Angeles has kept its sales pitch of good fortune in tact ... it’s outlook of getting ahead in front ... because remember, out here, should you get caught cruising Gri th Park, there’s always a studio publicist around to clean up the mess if you’ve actually made it.

Dick sucking Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean got ahead; The 6-foot-5 power bottom bachelor Rock Hudson too, proving that in Hollywood, you can be a di cult, ornery psychopath or a perfectly respectable leading man—as long as you’re camera ready, and white, you’ll never have to su er professionally for your homosexuality. Harry Hay got ahead too when founding the pre-Stonewall Mattachine Society—believed to be the rst modern gay rights group—in 1950 among the cultural bohemia of Los Angeles at a time when homosexuality was still de ned by The American Psychiatric Association as a mental illness. The New York Times wrote at the time of his death in 2002: “Although little known in the broader national culture over the years, Harry Hay’s contribution was to do what no one else had done before: plant the idea among American homosexuals that they formed an oppressed cultural minority of their own, like blacks, and to create a lasting organization in which homosexuals could come together to socialize and to pursue what was, at the beginning, the very radical concept of homosexual rights.

A whole grip of white boys got ahead when they incorporated a city in 1984 (West Hollywood, originally called Sherman), and every white boy in a dress got ahead inon the heels of Muther Ru as that city became the uno cial planet of origin for any boy in a dress back in 2009. As I put on my heels for an evening out with the girls at The Abbey, I realized I wouldn’t even have time to list all the white boys in Hollywood that have gotten ahead—Patrick-Harris, Bass, Quinto, Bomber, Gro —and well, it seemed to me that the queens out in Hollywood had retained their manners. Until I shimmied onto the dance oor—a fucking unbothered Black sissy—and they all turn their backs on me in unison, one even accidentally spilling his drink on me in protest.

A er that experience, trust, I did pose more racially conscious questions to boys who looked and acted just like me like: “What’s up with all these white boys? Why are they so hateful? What’s your take on the pedago of the oppressed?” But if I had struck a chord, I wouldn’t have known it because they’d strike right back with a vibrant chorus of loose racial terms and post-racial ideologies, sort of saying in e ect, “This doesn’t really concern me.” For a moment, it was profoundly alienating for me. Was I being shaded in the same town as them, or nah? Maybe nah, because upon following their orders to take o my sunglasses (the sun was already rose-hued out here) I was reminded, that life in L.A. was wonderful.

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Los Angeles had its dark side, ne, but my battery was drained from the impromptu history lesson and I was sorta nausias from overdosing on truth and tra c on the I-10. Finally, my Uber pulled up to a place called Los Globos on Sunset where Karim playing Gracie and Matty playing the “It Boy” snatched me out of the car and past an assortment of other boy wonders to dance the night away on some secret oor of a Silver Lake nightclub that a mutha-fucking-ova-ass- kunt-bitch named Rhonda had taken over for the evening. I hadn’t danced like that in years, I didn’t know Special K was still a thing, but for what it’s worth, I felt heavenly atmosphereics out there on the oor, and before the clock had struck 2 a.m, obviously, the Angels for which the city is named and their dusts of white powder in capsules, in lines and in spirits had erased all residue of L.A.’s most sordid a airs.

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Before this very moment, a fear of the unknown in this surrealistic city made engagement with its inhabitants elusive; just beyond the reach of any concrete sentiment; I’d reach out to touch them in a crowd at The Grove and they’d turn around to become someone else. But remember, this was L.A., so there was really no rush at all, and somehow, as the pace slowed and we went from st-pumping to a slow grind, I found myself falling in love with a guy who wore tight blue jeans and dirty chucks and partied in the hills with Miley, only ever using the word chill to describe any-and-everything. His name was LA and I was head over heels into the pool, only 4-feet-deep, but drowning nonetheless.

The next morning, as I lay in bed, once sleep and dreams had fallen away, I realized I’d been imprinted by a crush—and rather than run for the hills, wait, run in the hills, I decided to just let my heart go.

But not my body, so LA took me to the Equinox on Sunset to li what felt like tons of pretension before heading downstairs for Bitty Berry smoothies where eight dollars never felt so light. He helped me reorganize my mind to oat above the provenance of Blackness by taking me high into the hills, and then getting me high, before pulling a metal detector out of his trunk—he was silly like that—and assuring me that we would nd gold, even under a rough crust of broken dreams, racial violence, trash and vaudeville. Seemed like the dumbest thing ever at rst, but when he told me about the “nu et factor,” I was intrigued.

Said LA: “You can nd nothing all day out here, then end up with a couple ounces in one nu et. So the bi est advice I have is never quit, never give up, never slow down. If you are easily discouraged, you’ll have a tough time here. Persistence is the name of the game. And a little bit of luck might help.”

LA then twisted the loose nu et of gold we found buried under a shipwreck of dreams onto a piece of twine and put it around my neck. I felt like it brought me the strength of a zillion wanna-be starlets kicking their legs around the set of some spectacular musical number of Hollywood’s Golden Age like 42nd Street or The Great Ziegfeld. LA su ested we make more and sell them to Fred Segal. I thought that a golden idea.

We celebrated Black gay pride on the 4th of July, and sucking his hot dog was way better than eating one to commemorate our ancestors misery, and we laughed about how many white people were online outside Roscoe’s on Gower as we drove past bumping a “golden oldies” soundtrack of Dre and Snoop, ki ki’ing about how Nate Do did so little, but brought so much to The Next Episode. In memory of, we smoked some green named Purple Haze Smoke Kunt Punk or something like that, and I felt high as the Mexican fan palms that lined the boulevards on the way up to Beachwood Canyon. The sun and the sounds reminded me that life in L.A. was wonderful.

LA worked occasionally as a movie extra, or a stunt double, or a stand in, not sure, but when he wasn’t “on set,” which was most of the time, he’d text me in weird emojis and ask what I was up to, knowing I’d rather be doing whatever it was with him, so he’d pick me up and take me on some cool Hollywood adventure. One day, we held hands and walked down Hollywood Boulevard with all of the other celebrity stalkers, hoping for a glimpse of Halle Berry or Jaden Smith. One night, we sped down the dark and twisting Paci c Coast Highway towards Santa Monica, and he nearly lost control and careened into the oncoming tra c like we were in some scene from Gone In 60 Seconds. He had a sense for danger and was driving on the wrong side of the road, perhaps confusing his side hustle with his real life, but who was counting carcasses? LA made me feel alive just as I stopped breathing.

Daytime temperatures were hitting the 90s, but it was into the 40s at night so LA took me to a shop named by numbers—1,2,3,4,5—that his friend Thed, a much more grounded L.A. scenester who knew Kanye owned Downtown. I bought a leather motorcycle jacket just like the one I wore back in Brooklyn, only this time it was shade repellent. We threw a few back with friends at Laurel Hardware, which must be a thing of the past by now, and we danced with Jody Watley in the subterrain of The Standard West Hollywood while I waited for a room upgrade to “poolside” so that all of the queens could see us fucking each other’s brains out to the sound of Lana Del Ray’s latest record. You know, the most memorable moment can be traced to that rst night when we watched the sun set in a haze of glittery lights over the valley, inches from each other’s souls, making out like a scene straight outta ... 1930s Tinseltown.

This idea of Los Angeles as a shallow spectacle is dated; this notion of a “counterfeit urbanity” a thought-terminating cliché used too o en by people living in bubbles of their own. Los Angeles seemed to me, now, a Hollywood actress a er she’s stepped from in front of the camera and onto the Broadway stage—big city problems, big city critics; a real mastery of the dramatic arts.

One morning over breakfast with LA at the Griddle Café on Sunset, sitting on the edge of bad taste and celebrity, we picked on a plate of 22” pancakes stacked high and wobbly like a Gehry monstrosity which was then lled with Oreos and topped with a avored whipped cream, all while Jocelyn Hernandez and Stevie J sat stage le , and it was sort of poetic—how Los Angeles could even merge overconsumption, unsustainability, and celebrity into a single stack of apjacks. There were a lot of exchanges that emphasized this crisis of overconsumption named Los Angeles—from the extravagance of lawns all the way down to my 9-month abortion of a breakfast packed up in Styrofoam to go while a line of ravenous happy-faced guests stepped over the homeless to get in and get theirs. I began to feel uncomfortable; the patrons became grotesque. LA grabbed my hand and su ested I give my box to one of the vagrants outside, but L.A. was making me paranoid and I was feeling decidedly un-chill, so I threw it out on the low to save him any guilt. The summer was coming to and end, and I needed to get to my senses.


From Shadow’s in Paradise, Eric Maria Remaque:


“Real and false were fused here so perfectly that they became a new substance, just as copper and zinc become brass that look like gold. It meant nothing that Hollywood was lled with great musicians, poets and philosophers. It was also lled with spiritualists, religious nuts and swindlers. It devoured everyone, and whoever was unable to save himself in time, would lose his identity, whether he thought so or not.”

The rst stage of the game was great. But being a New Yorker I am incapable of happiness, and as such, am also therefore incapable of illusion. How long would LA’s ability to deceive me keep pace with my ability to see through him? At what point would we both come clean? Could I ever reveal to him that each time I passed the sand of the Paci c through my hands, I’d lose a few grains of hope with


KHARY SEPTH
is the editor-in-cheif of The Tenth Magazine, and a former creative director for some of the coolest names in fashion and beauty turned community kid for life.

TY CHENN
is a photographer based in Los Angeles. He is currently a doctoral researcher in teh Arts at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent. In 2015 he becase a nominee of Magnum Photos.