‘Check It’ is Tainted by the Neo-Colonial White Gaze
However much the directors of “Check It” claim to love the participants, a crime has still been committed in this trauma-porn production.
In late Spring 2016, I posed for a photo shoot with my friend and activist Charlie Craggs. The publicity was for a self-defense class for trans women and our photographer was the incredibly talented late Khadija Saye who died in the Grenfell Tower fire last month. The healing nature of this moment came at the right time as I had escaped an abusive relationship and had the space in therapy to cry about the sexual, verbal and physical assaults that give me flashback shivers on a hot day and make me cry myself awake from nightmares.
The intensity of the violence I faced throughout my teenage years erupted in panic attacks and insomnia and self-destructive behaviors. Manifestations of rage arrived later when I became aware of the political nature of my oppression. I met other queer people of color at university, Black Pride events, a Black gay arts organization and a hilariously tense nightclub called Bootylicious. Shell-shocked and internally wounded we nodded in unison, danced, loved and hurt each other repeatedly not knowing how to make ourselves feel better after so much had been done to make us feel worthless.
Would things had been different if I had the camaraderie of a Black queer and trans gang to belong to and defend me like the Check It gang? “Check It” is a documentary which follows a queer, Black gang of four childhood friends in Washington D.C. who worked their way out of violence through fashion. After being shopped around on the festival circuit it was released on comedian Louis C.K.’s website I contributed to the Indiegogo account in early 2015 and I am glad I did because this film needs to exist. However, I wish I had looked into who was directing the film.
“Check It” feels like yet another anthropological hatchet job where the white directors, Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer, didn’t bother to disrupt the now disappointingly familiar neo-colonial white gaze. From direction to the executive producers, everyone is white.
The camaraderie and loyalty portrayed in “Check It” is indeed quite lovely to see. They love each other deeply and it’s essential. The vulnerability in their youth is palpable and the elders in the film are superbly redemptive. Jarmal, who runs the fashion camp channeling anarchic zeal into a frenetic march to New York fashion week, is magnetic.
In the capital of a nation where senators and lawyers drive up and down K Street paying peanuts for the sexual services of teenagers they legislate against, one is left wanting for political analysis. The impeccably well-kept dreads of Tray dangle over a Hello Kitty notepad and I think more sensitive questioning could have elicited a nuanced explanation of the war-like landscape they write about surviving in.
The alienation of the Check It gang receives no explanation. No meditation on the source of the discrimination. The perpetrators of violence the gang retaliate against are let off the hook. A group of cisgender girls get the chance to talk about their fears of Check It–they detail why they avoid contact with the gang with heavy doses of transphobia and homophobia and transmisogyny that are difficult to swallow: “They act like females but the thing is they still dudes. They might be skinny but they still got that muscle. They still dudes, so…” she shakes her head and the scene ends.
Herein lies the crime of insensitivity. The film is lazy in showing us who is a gay cisgender male; who is transgender; who is gender queer; who is questioning. We only see as far as the white gaze allows us to see–a group of feral cross-dressers who are highly unemployable. In spite of the glitzy culmination of the film, we are left with Alton, Tray and Day Day on the trash heap after we have spent an hour and twenty minutes supping on their trauma.
However much the directors claim to love the participants, a crime has still been committed in this trauma-porn production. If only such war reportage involved deserving payment and long term psychotherapy as a standard.
We have to empower trans and queer people of color to make and tell our own stories in order for our objectification to not be so cheap. Perhaps then we will have authentic portrayals of ourselves the way we wish to be seen, rather than these which leave white middle-class audiences with their backs pat for their coddled adventures into urban jungles to look at queer natives. Yes, Paris is still burning, but could someone please do the responsible thing and call the emergency services?
Featured Image: Check It
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