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Flag Wars

      As we've seen, the gay marriage issue has divided the African-American community over whether the fight to extend gay and lesbian rights is identical to the struggle for racial equality. Flag Wars, a very important documentary feature, makes a cogent argument that homophobia and racism aren't the same thing, especially without class 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 inhabited these houses; now yuppy gays and lesbians were everywhere, with rainbow flags fronting their spiffy redone domiciles. Bryant came to Columbus a second time, accompanied by Linda Portras, a white lesbian filmmaker. Their co-directed Flag Wars would 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 P-Town oasis in midwest Ohio? A depressing defeat for poor African-Americans, redlined from the neighborhood where they grew up? From the first images of Flag Wars, we know where are the hearts of the filmmakers: old black ladies lounge on a front porch when their restive day is destroyed by the harsh noise of a buzzsaw. 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," Portras says, on the Flag Wars website. "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 entrepeneur behind much of Olde Towne East's bulldozing arrives on camera: Nina Masseria, an Italian-American lesbian, who operates the wildly lucrative Carriage Trade Realty. If there's an arch-villain in Flag Wars, she's it, the unapologetic voice for Social Darwinian survival of the toniest, who can't hide her annoyance that old-timers want to stay in their houses. "Some family's been there forever," she snears about a domicile of holdouts. With a patronizing voice, "I'm not selling!" she imitates one of those who dare say "No" to her efforts to uproot them.

     "It too shall pass," Masseria says, getting Biblical, as if Providence endorses her realtor maneuvering.

     The filmmakers try for balance by focussing on one sympathetic gay man, Jim Yoder, who is building his home with his own labor, and from earnings squeezed from twelve-hours-a-day jobs. No spoiled yuppy he! Flag Wars shows also that not even the well-off queers of Columbus are insulated from homophobia. There are 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 unstated hero in Flag Wars, 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 the harsh 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 Co. are circling about, vultures eager to put claws on the Mitchell property.

(Boston Phoenix - April, 2004)

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