When a movie is described as “an erotic LGBTQ thriller,” you are likely to go into it prepared for something dark and racy.
In the case of “The Breeding,” you won’t be prepared enough.
In this brooding drama, which won a 2018 Best Feature Award at the Harlem Film Festival, writer Dane Joseph and director Daniel Armando have delivered something designed to make you uncomfortable, to feed your sexual fantasies even as it challenges you to think about things you probably would rather not.
To put it more plainly, “The Breeding” is a movie that uses sex to explore the difficult and extremely timely subject of race in America – specifically within the context of the LGBTQ community, and even more specifically as it manifests in the gay bondage subculture.
According to Joseph – a gay black man who is also co-founder of Novo Novus, the film’s production company, which is dedicated to producing content that explores the experience of queer people of color – his screenplay was inspired by an art piece about Harmen van den Bogaert, a slave master in the pre-Civil War era who was accused of sodomy with his slave – a crime punishable by death. Master and slave fled together and eventually perished when they fell through the ice of a frozen lake and drowned.
Joseph says, “The artist envisioned their plight as a forbidden love story. I felt it to be a problematic interpretation and so I began research on master/slave relationships. It led to my discovering BDSM, where racially charged situations and language are used during cross cultural sexual encounters. My mind began to wonder how people of color could reconcile that sort of behavior, considering the horrific past from which the practice stems.”
His contemplation provided a springboard into a story that also explores the question of “whether fetishes based on race serve to dehumanize LGBTQ people of color and perpetuate harmful myths, such as the ‘Black Mandingo.’”
The film which Joseph eventually shaped around these issues is intense, almost transgressive. Yes it’s full of sex – and not the pretty, sanitized variety usually seen in the movies, but the kind that feels so authentic you can almost smell it. It’s also a deep-dive into the sensitive topic of racism – not as a social phenomenon, as it is presented through the daily dialogue conducted in our news and social media, but as a lingering demon that dwells in the darkest corners of the soul.
A macabre footnote casts an even more unsettling tone over “The Breeding.” In 2016, a few months after shooting the film, its star, Marcus Bellamy, was arrested for murdering his boyfriend. Bellamy, a Broadway dancer who appeared in “Tarzan” and “Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark,” allegedly strangled 27-year-old Bernardo Almonte in their Bronx apartment before confessing to the crime via a cryptic Facebook post. It was a tragedy that will forever be linked to the movie’s legacy, and which makes the young actor’s powerful performance all the more devastating.
In the film, he plays a young black artist named Thomas, who lives with his boyfriend Amadi (Marcus J. Cork) but is secretly exploring his sexual fantasies with hook-ups on the side. One night at a gallery opening, he meets a white man named Lee (Joe MacDougal), and he soon becomes enmeshed in a racially-charged relationship that threatens to push his boundaries further than ever before. Meanwhile, Thomas’ white friend and fellow artist, Jackson (Patrick Kuzara), uses his work to explore his own interracial fetishes, with equally disturbing results.
Without giving away any further details of the plot, it’s enough to say that what begins as consensual erotic play turns into something unexpected and dangerous. Such scenarios have been rehearsed on film many times before; here, though, the subject is used as a filter through which we are given a shocking examination of racism in its most primal, insidious form – the kind that has been programmed into our cultural consciousness by centuries of white domination and privilege.
This ugly subject is made more unpleasant by being interwoven with issues of sexuality and culture. There is a deep undercurrent of internalized homophobia at work on both sides of the racial divide here; insecurities about masculinity, shame around sexual desire, fear of communicating authentic feeling – all these play their part in the complex interrelationship between characters, and leave the audience questioning their own place in the challenging landscape of queer identity.
Director Armando – himself a gay person of color, in this case Latino – makes sure we cannot distance ourselves from these difficult topics. He gives us a film full of close-ups; intimate, sweaty, claustrophobic, and oppressive, his technique seems geared toward conveying the sense of a trapped existence – evoking the legacy of slavery still influencing our culture today. A stream of background details laced throughout – a news story about a police shooting, a #BLM protester in the street – ensures the subtext of racism never sinks far below the surface.
“The Breeding” is a difficult film to judge critically. The acting is good, sometimes excellent, and the director’s skill is never in question; but there is so much emotional baggage tied up in the issues raised by this film that finding a purely aesthetic viewpoint is nearly impossible. It’s fair to say it can hardly be called entertaining. Some viewers are likely to be offended, particularly white viewers who have not quite come to grips with their own privilege and entitlement issues; likewise, there will be some who may object that the film casts a negative light on the B&D fetish community. Lastly, those who believe that art should offer positive messaging and behavioral modeling will be left unsatisfied. There is no solution presented in Joseph and Armando’s disturbing film, only observation.
By this measure, then, their work must be deemed a success; their intention was to present the experience of people of color, without softening it for mainstream consumption or shying away from controversy. It’s true that some of the content may go awry – at times the narrative veers toward the implausible in the service of making its point, and the structural conceit of dividing the story into numbered “chapters” feels like a disruption of flow – and that there are unavoidable suggestions of “slut-shaming” inherent in its cautionary tale about the risks of anonymous sexual encounters; but these flaws, however problematic, are ultimately immaterial. “The Breeding” is a cinematic moment of awareness-raising protest; challenging, sometimes hard to take, but profound and honest, nonetheless.
“The Breeding” opens September 7 in select theatres in Los Angeles.