As we've seen, the gay-marriage issue has divided the African-American community over whether the fight for gay and lesbian rights is identical to the struggle for racial equality. The documentary Flag Wars makes a cogent argument that homophobia and racism aren't the same thing, especially when class isn't factored in.
Several years ago, African-American filmmaker Linda Goode Bryant visited her parents in Columbus, Ohio, and found her old neighborhood swarming with activity: homes being rehabbed on every block. In the past, low-income people of color had inhabited these houses; now yuppie gays and lesbians were everywhere, with rainbow flags fronting their spiffy redone domiciles. Bryant came to Columbus a second time accompanied by Laura Poitras, a white lesbian filmmaker, to chronicle this dizzying transformation of an unfashionable African-American ghetto into Olde Towne East, a ritzy designated historic district with a mainly homosexual populace. A fabulous gay oasis in Ohio? A depressing defeat for poor African-Americans, who find themselves redlined from the neighborhood where they grew up?
From the first images of Flag Wars, we know where the sympathies of the filmmakers lie: old black ladies lounging on a front porch find their restive day destroyed by the harsh noise of a buzz saw. The camera pans right and we see the place next door being wrecked and fixed up pretty: gay white folks are moving in. "As a [Caucasian] lesbian, I am aware . . . that my class and race privilege open doors every day of my life," Poitras says on the Flag Wars Web site. "My sexuality does not erase these privileges. . . . I especially want Flag Wars to be seen by queer audiences and to raise debate around class and race in the queer community."
The entrepreneur behind much of Olde Towne East's bulldozing arrives on camera: Nina Masseria, an Italian-American lesbian who operates the lucrative Carriage Trade Realty. If there's an arch-villain in Flag Wars, it's Masseria, the unapologetic voice for survival of the toniest, who's annoyed that old-timers want to stay in their houses. "Some family's been there forever,' she sneers about a domicile of holdouts. In a patronizing voice, she imitates those who dare say no to her: " 'I'm not selling!' " Then she gets Biblical, intoning, "It too shall pass," as if Providence had endorsed her real-estate maneuvering.
The filmmakers try for balance by focusing on one sympathetic gay man, Jim Yoder, who is building his home with his own labor, and from earnings squeezed from 12-hour-a-day jobs. No spoiled yuppie he! Flag Wars also shows also that not even the well-off queers of Columbus are insulated from homophobia. There's a series of street attacks on gay men, and the KKK and a homo-hating evangelist arrive in Columbus to protest the flying of a rainbow flag at Ohio's state house. Finally, Flag Wars eavesdrops on uncomfortable anti-gay commentary from various African-Americans in the movie.
If there's an implied hero here, it's the self-named Chief Baba Olugbala, who runs an amateur African museum out of his house. He encourages fellow blacks, through participatory dancing and drumming, to discover pride in their African roots. Also, he's a sterling neighbor. He goes way out of his way to assist Linda Mitchell, a mentally unstable black woman who survives, barely, in a cavernous, unkempt home willed to her by her dying father. Olugbala is there to unfreeze her basement pipes in winter, and to visit her when she's hospitalized, rubbing her feet to raise her spirits. Nothing much can help this enfeebled, paranoid, secretly alcoholic lady who is thinner and sicker each time we see her.
Off camera? Masseria and company are circling about, vultures eager to sink their teeth into the Mitchell property.