Black Queer Cinema: Freedom in Fashion
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Cruel Santino’s “Sparky” is a paragon of the Nigerian alté scene which is dominated by young queer Nigerians. This narrative music video follows a sequence of events that communicates layers of stories showing how the queer characters interact through carefully portrayed Nigerian queer alté aesthetics. These aesthetics include the alté fashion of the black queer people in the video. In the following annotations, I go on to argue about how this video shows how fashion is used to boldly assert black queerness in direct resistance to generally accepted normativity that threatens to invalidate their existence; these fashion elements are cinematic devices that show the queer black character's control over their narrative, their values, and their freedom.
In the first scene of this video, there are three people walking boldly in the frame and the first thing the audience sees is how they look. Their dark skin is showing very clearly which is the intent of the crop tops and shorts they are wearing. As the fashion choices draw attention to clothes covering the skin, they simultaneously encourage the audience to cast their gazes to the parts left uncovered. This not only suggests a disregard for widely-accepted "modesty" (a way fashion is used as a regulatory force) but makes a bold assertion of their pride and value in their blackness.
Now, once the audience has acknowledged they are black, there is a layer of "otherness" left to discover. They do not look like the everyday corporate employee or even the average college student in the cis-normative world both the audience and the characters reside in. Instead, in their purple chrome crop top and leopard-print cropped tank top walking casually and comfortably walk in broad daylight, they are branded as "other" by the normative world. This world might have seen their look as "party-ready" or clubbing attire if it were nighttime but in daylight, they are confronted by the context of normalcy in which their "other" look is portrayed. It is therefore indicative of how regular these fashion choices are and not for one-time specific events. Hence, these characters use their fashion to tell their own story since the normative world wants to brand their identities as "other" in the general story or erase them from the general narrative altogether.
Black Queer Hair
In this scene, the characters might not be identified as queer by an outsider looking into the Nigerian alté scene but they are. One of the more obvious ways anyone can identify them is through their hairstyle choices which are often how they express their non-normative gender and sexuality. One of the characters has a bald head and a female body which is a decidedly queer expression because social norms stipulate that a bald head is masculine. Another character with a female body has slim dreadlocks which are often linked to masculinity in Nigerian socio-culture. These are examples of various gender binary expressions that these characters seek to resist to show their black queerness and in doing so, they take control of their values. Even dyed colored (not black or brown) hair, like the bright yellow bob on one character and dark green weave on another character, is common in the Nigerian alté scene: predominantly comprised of queer individuals.
Black Queer Nails
The hair and clothing of the two characters in this scene are in line with the fashion choices of the previous scenes: brightly colored hair and clothes to place their dark skin on display so they fit the black queer narrative. However, another form of black queer expression through fashion is nail choices. In Nigerian urban society, nails are often used to regulate people: men can not fix acrylic nails and women can only do specific lengths, colors, and styles (they completely exclude non-binary and trans identities). Usually, they would prefer women to apply non-flashy colors—like nude, blue, or burgundy—that are dull and fix nails that are not too long: just a few millimeters above the nail bed. Anything aside from these types is taken by many as an invitation to believe the wearer is a "prostitute" or just a woman with a "trashy" upbringing. However, like is common with alté fashion, the character has long orange acrylic nails to match her lime-green hair. This is a clear example of how queer people often use fashion as a method of disrupting normative social norms that threaten to limit and choke their self-identity.
This is a critical point that Eric Darnell Pritchard put forward in his piece, "Black Girls Queer (Re)Dress: Fashion as Literacy Performance in Pariah." He writes about "Alike [the queer character in the movie, "Pariah"] and how she "negotiates the meaning and expression of her identities with others, amid heteronormative and cisnormative spaces that threaten to regulate and constrain her desire to live on her own terms" (130). Pritchard argues that queer individuals, specifically black queer girls like Alike, express their identities in direct opposition to the limiting cisnormative and heteronormative narratives that seek to exclude them by forcing them to conform to the general social norms. Similarly, I argue that queer fashion like that seen in this music video is a cinematic device showing how queer individuals disrupt these threatening norms.
Queerness in Everyday Fashion
In this scene, the same three characters from the first scene are here and their hair and clothes encase their black queerness just like it did in the first scene, proving that this is indeed an everyday choice for them to—in some ways—declare their freedom. Also, their environment, a shaded secluded spot by a lake, gives them the opportunity to express their freedom by acting however they please– whether it is playing with a gun or showing love or affection. Their fashion choices are merely cinematic devices to set the scene of this expression of freedom.
Masculine or Feminine
The characters in this scene exude black masculinity with their fashion choices to bare their upper bodies completely or partially. Now, merely looking at them, one might wonder how queerness is displayed. If the audience looks very closely, there is a female body among the mass of male bodies. This female body has on a Calvin Klein sports bra, matching boxer shorts with colored glasses, and has purple hair. The entire presentation of this body in a scene supposedly "masculine" is a testament to the open-ended non-conformity of these characters to any gender or sexuality. Another fashion choice that supports this is the cornrows many of the male-presenting characters are sporting. In urban Nigerian socio-culture, braids and cornrows are seen as either feminine or signs of bad "home training" so men who have it are often characterized as feminine or thuggish. In this narrative music video, they could be either, neither or both but it does not matter since it is a way to freely look the way they prefer to look regardless of how it is perceived and there is nothing freer than that. Finally, they are uniform but unique in the way they present their masculinity and femininity which resists the threatening social codes.
The Big 3
Again, the audience sees the three characters they've come to know. They are in the club now and it is ironic that their style is decidedly less "flashy" but still clearly queer. With two of the characters with female bodies wearing shirts that normative society has come to know are for male bodies, their queerness is not in question at this point.
In this funeral scene, there is still a clear observation of fashion choices outside the norm. Although they are all wearing black, the three characters' clothes are made of mesh material and leather. These are uncommon material choices for a funeral because, by the general public, they are perceived as "immodest," "revealing" and maybe even "sexy" which are all adjectives clothes should not be saying at a funeral. Usually, clothing materials like cotton, polyester, and even wool are common at funerals because they are conservative. Along with the choice of clothing material, the clothes still bare a lot of skin with the characters wearing a tube dress, a crop top, and a sleeveless dress. This keeps the fashion in tandem with the previous choices of black queer expressions suggesting that something as sober as a funeral doesn't stop them from dismissing social expectations.
Like mentioned earlier, dreadlocks are often linked to masculinity in Nigeria. So the audience sees yet another female body with dreadlocks to buttress the point that the gender-conforming values of the general public are starkly different from the gender-non-conforming ones belonging to the black queer population in the alté scene.
Masculine vs Feminine
This scene seems to place masculine and feminine in a battle with the female body in supposedly "masculine" clothes directly pit against the male body in "masculine" clothes. It shows that the audience would most likely fail to successfully use normative fashion ideas to place individuals into specific gender boxes.
Dreadlocks: Masculine vs Feminine
Dreadlocks appear yet again but this time both a male and female body have it. Therefore, the scene seems to place masculine versus feminine again but there is no victor because the characters do not conform to their limiting labels of gender conformity.
Movement in Clothing
These characters are wearing shirts that on their own might be considered masculine. In these scenes, the character's movements might be perceived as more feminine and another's more masculine (aggressive), their movement in these shirts tells a rather confusing story of what their gender is. However, this is the point– for the audience to be left pondering with some trying to slot the characters in all these unfitting gender binary narratives even though they have created their own. This further proved the characters' control over their narratives.
Once these shirts are placed on these feminine bodies, they are devoid of gender attachment. Along with the feminine nature of the long orange nails on one of these characters, there is a sense that these characters are straddling the gender binary.
Neon colors and other bright colors are common in the alté scene. This character with neon orange acrylic nails and neon orange hair further prove the use of this black queer aesthetic to present a counter to "acceptable" looks and behavior.
This entire video works to present a gorgeous portrayal of the range in fashion in black queer cinema and how this fashion, working with queer bodies, dissolves the gender binary in a world where the binary tries to control fashion choices. This fashion and establishes gender and sexual fluidity as the norm where black queer individuals can express their control over their own stories, values, and be free.