“Humbled and honored” to have his films Chocolate Babies and Jason and Shirley added this month to The Criterion Channel, writer-director Stephen Winter still feels it’s about time both movies were shown their due love and recognition as landmarks of queer Black cinema.
“I really appreciate how Criterion took the uprising of 2020 and held themselves accountable to a more human standard that would be inclusive of all voices as part of their responsibility to the canon,” says the filmmaker.
Premiering in 1996, Chocolate Babies — the funny, fearless tale of a crew of Black, queer, poz renegades fighting for their lives and community against a hostile system — struck a jolt of righteous fury at a moment when HIV/AIDS was the plague dividing the country.
Yet, for all the film’s bracing nerve and honesty, it struggled to find an audience outside the festival circuit. “It was not allowed to find its voice in the ’90s,” Winter says.
“When Chocolate Babies came out, it would receive unanimous praise from audiences who got to see it, it would get standing ovations in San Francisco, and opened at the Berlin Film Festival. It was clearly good and clearly important and clearly hit all the things that good film is supposed to have: amazing performances, a well-crafted story that took appropriate twists and turns to keep audience satisfaction, and also took a piece of what was going on in the struggle with HIV and AIDS, and what’s going on with Black queers in the ’90s in New York.”
But distributors weren’t ready. “The film industry was pretty locked up in terms of access,” says Winter. “Unless some company gave it some kind of credence and distribution and allowed it to be seen by people, beyond here and there, it wasn’t going to be seen.
And so all these years later, Criterion has now emerged as the standard bearer, next to probably A24, of what good film is, and the fact that Chocolate Babies and Jason and Shirley can now be considered along those lines, and be seen by anybody who can just go to it, makes me feel very happy.”
Winter recently had an opportunity to share the achievement with some of the cast members of Chocolate Babies. “We were able to raise a toast to being in the canon,” he says. “It is too bad it took 25 years, because that’s a long time. But it is great that it did come.”
Fortunately, Winter didn’t have to wait as long to see his fascinating second feature Jason and Shirley achieve the same recognition. Originally released in 2015, the film stars artist-performer Jack Waters and acclaimed writer Sarah Schulman in a sly reimagining of what might have gone on off-camera during the filming of Shirley Clarke’s 1967 queer classic Portrait of Jason.
(Clarke’s documentary portrait of gay raconteur Jason Holliday is also available for streaming on The Criterion Channel, offering audiences a rare chance to program their own Holliday-themed double feature.)
“I designed Jason and Shirley to stand on its own as a fictionalized version of a historical event,” says Winter, who finds the juxtaposition of both films exciting. “And also artistically, to be its own vision, to have its own language and magic to it. So it was very gratifying to hear from people who have watched them both, either mine first, or the other one first, and find that it works both ways, it works all the different ways. Everybody gets something new out of it.”
Audiences can see Jason Holliday for the pioneer he was. “When we talk about 1960s-era Black gay voice, we have the documentations of James Baldwin’s public speaking, and we have Jason Holliday,” says Winter.
“What he did in that documentary was an amalgamation of all the fabulist stories that he’d been telling in gay bars and bedrooms for years, honed within an inch of itself. It was always locked into the documentary’s vision of what that life is and what that person is.
“What we did — me and my team for Jason and Shirley — is go into Jason Holliday, the person, and bring him further out into the world, and imagine what else he might have said, which is not only loads of fun, but also excavated the pain, the anger, the sadness, the desires of that character.
“Which I think gives him more humanity. And that’s what we need — more humanity, more story, more color, more discussion, more candor.”
Chocolate Babies and Jason and Shirley are available for streaming on The Criterion Channel. Visit www.criterionchannel.com.
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