On the Downlow
2007, 56 minutes
Directed by Abigail Child
A revealing portrait of four African-American men living in Cleveland, who all confront the struggles of everyday existence and the process of coming out. Experimental filmmaker Abigail Child uncovers their secrets as she explores the sexual, racial, and familial dichotomies of their lives. This film had its world premiere at the sixth annual Tribeca Film Festival, April 25–May 6, 2007.
This film began with my interest in bisexuality and the sense that “downlow” men are the 21st Century version of this phenomenon. I began to visit and shoot in Cleveland as of December 2003, and made a short about the subject entitled The Party. Eventually I received initial funding for the feature documentary, and went back for the spring, summer, and fall of 2005. Award-winning director of photography, Arthur Jafa (Crooklyn and Daughters of the Dust), knew my experimental films and came on board. The characters changed, some backed out: the classic difficulties of a difficult subject—a contradiction in terms, to be underground and to confess to the camera. We persevered, strong in the belief that this is a story that has never before been told: a story about ordinary black men, neither victims nor perpetrators, but people living complex lives and making difficult choices.
We capture the drama and humor of these men’s existences, examining the lies and recognizing at the same time the costs of truth-telling in a culture of denial and glorification of the masculine male. Ohio has grown more stringent in its laws regarding gays over the last decade; all of the men refused to allow us to film at their workplaces, afraid of losing their jobs. There is so much fear over this subject—from the men, their friends, and their families. To witness the “normality” of this phenomenon, the reality of complex desire, the fact of lives outside the heterosexual norm, outside conservative church culture and opposed to much of our government and public edicts is to see On the Downlow. The experience has opened our eyes. We hope it opens yours.
Abigail Child has created a wide variety of experimental, narrative, and documentary films since 1970. Her award-winning art has been extensively exhibited in both solo and group shows, including The American Century, 1950-2000 at the Whitney Museum, the Whitney Biennial (1989, 1997), the New York Film Festival & Video Side Bar (1989, 1993); as well as the London, Rotterdam, Pesaro, and Torino Film Festivals, among others. Her work is in the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art (New York) and the Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris). She is also a poet and author; her most recent book is This Is Called Moving: A Critical Poetics of Film. Child, who graduated with a MFA from Yale University School of the Arts, has taught film/video production and history at various schools and is currently Chair of Film/Animation at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston).
Click here to read an interview with Abigail Child, Director of On the Downlow