Could you be loved
By Nicholas Laughlin
Children of God, directed by Kareem Mortimer (104 minutes)
Johnny Ferro and Stephen Tyrone Williams in Children of God. Photograph courtesy the trinidad+tobago film festival
No love story is ever really simple. The psychology of human desire is too complicated, too surprising. But the love story at the core of Children of God — Bahamian director Kareem Mortimer’s first feature film — is further complicated by its rumbling backdrop of hatred and fear: homophobic violence and religious intolerance.
In the humid vignettes of the opening sequence, we glimpse the lead characters with their spouses or lovers in moments of intimacy and frustration. Johnny (Johnny Ferro), a scrawny, scruffy white Bahamian artist from a hardscrabble background, is a knot of fierce neuroses. He shrinks from physical contact, which does nothing for his love life, and is in danger of losing his scholarship at art school in Nassau. “Technique without emotion is absolutely nothing,” his instructor says, dispatching him in search of inspiration to Eleuthera, one of the Bahamas’ laid-back Family Islands. On the ferry out, he notices Romeo (Stephen Tyrone Williams), a sweet-smiling, sweet-talking musician rebelling against his black middle-class family, who wish he would settle down in Nassau, “comb his nappy hair,” and marry his moon-faced sometime girlfriend.
Johnny’s hungry gaze at the dozing Romeo is interrupted by a third ferry passenger, Lena (Margaret Laurena Kemp), the wife of an oily fundamentalist preacher. Reverend Mackey (Mark Richard Ford) — who leads a homophobic religious crusade by day, and at night cruises for rough trade — gives Lena a cushy life, social respectability, and an STD. Her trip to Eleuthera, ostensibly to collect signatures for an anti-gay-rights petition, is also an escape from her hypocritical marriage. Her host is the soft-spoken gentle giant Reverend Ritchie (Van Brown), whose wife has just left him and whose eyes are permanently set to smoulder.
Confined to Eleuthera, the four characters’ respective trajectories of need and hurt inevitably collide, sometimes unpredictably. The gorgeous cinematography (overseen by Ian Bloom) doesn’t idealise the already idyllic location. The atmosphere is overwhelmingly sticky, in all senses. If they aren’t dripping with sweat or salt water, the characters are dewy with longing. A random encounter reveals that Johnny and Romeo have crossed paths before. Romeo flirts shamelessly — with a name like that, can he help it? — while Johnny fidgets in delicious excruciation. He can’t wait to get rid of him, or to see him again.
Romeo is drawn to what he calls Johnny’s “weirdness” — his quirky sensitivity, but also the genuine steel beneath his nerves. (He may be afraid of sea urchins and germs on drinking glasses, but Johnny is no milquetoast; early on we see him defy a group of homophobic bullies and get a beating for it.) And Johnny, despite his instinct to withdraw, falls for Romeo’s soothing confidence and his offer of trust.
Mortimer could have made a delicate, bittersweet romance about this odd couple, their negotiations of temperament and sensual explorations. But the odds of the narrative — and, sadly, of the real-life Bahamas — are stacked against them. Romeo’s suspicious mother arrives from Nassau (with his girlfriend Lonnette in tow), interrupting the lovers’ embraces. And the fires of Lena’s “Save the Bahamas” campaign are fuelled by her unresolved attraction to Reverend Ritchie, the inopportune arrival of her husband, and her general terror at the collapse of her carefully constructed life as Christian wife and mother. Afraid of her own weaknesses, she lashes out at the manufactured target of a gay “agenda,” giving effect to her husband’s modus operandi: “You have to give people something to hate. It brings them together.” Kemp’s portrayal of this contradictory, attractive, and deeply unhappy woman is the standout among the film’s vigorous performances; she shows us how essentially good people can do vile and hateful things, and wins our sympathy only to stab us with it, remorseless.
Eventually, every relationship breaks down, and the protagonists leave the hothouse of Eleuthera bruised and confused. The exception is Johnny. Unlike the others, trapped in their various self-deceptions, he is painfully true to his flaws and his hurt. He recognises his weirdness — “I’m not normal. It’s been established”; in Eleuthera he learns to start accepting it. On his last day there he makes an expedition to the island’s southernmost point, takes out his paints and brushes, and rediscovers his creative emotion as well. Ferro earns the epiphany with the ferocious simmer of his performance.
Life, like art, sometimes gives us second chances. Back at his house in Nassau, Johnny discovers the bracelet he left in Eleuthera. His loutish but loving father tells him Romeo delivered it. “He seemed like a nice fella,” Johnny’s father says, his voice expressing a tenderness he can’t find the words for. (William Craig Pinder, a senior Bahamian stage actor, gives this minor role extraordinary emotional and moral weight.) But the Mackeys’ homophobic poison spreads. It’s not giving too much away to say that Children of God’s thematic formula doesn’t tend towards a happy ending.
Which is not to say that Mortimer has made a formulaic film. Both his script and the lead actors’ performances clear enough space for Johnny, Romeo, and Lena to establish their idiosyncrasies, and give the characters emotional punch and imaginative resonance. There are moments of literal preaching, but Children of God more persuasively conveys truths about love’s imperatives through the physical grapplings of Johnny and Romeo — their hesitation, tenderness, and gradual pleasure. And although the film is overtly concerned with homophobia, it also offers a nuanced commentary on race.
That Johnny is white and Romeo is black matters to the way they meet and speak to each other, and the way their relationship is perceived by the other characters. One thematic undercurrent is the association — common in parts of the Caribbean — of homosexual “perversity” with whiteness, and Romeo hints that Johnny can get away with being open about his sexuality because of the colour of his skin. But in their actual physical encounters, race doesn’t matter, except aesthetically — the contrast in the camera’s eye of dark skin and pale, as torsos and limbs intertwine. In their first conversation, when Romeo says “I don’t know too many skinny white boys,” Johnny angrily retorts, “I’m not white.”
Perhaps he’s disassociating himself from a certain socio-cultural milieu — he’s decidedly not a scion of the Bay Street Boys, the white oligarchs who once controlled the Bahamas — or from the white tourists who overrun parts of the islands. But Johnny’s claim also points to the way Children of God subtly uses race as a metaphor for difference and its accommodation. No Caribbean society is “post-racial,” and ethnic tensions are as real as ever, but our understanding and sense of justice continue to evolve. Forms of open racial discrimination commonly accepted a few generations ago are unthinkable now. Children of God quietly argues that our attitudes to differences of sexuality can and must also evolve towards a similar tolerance.
The tragic conclusion of this heartbreaking film is relieved, then, by a suggestion of hope. It ends with Johnny’s vision of a tropical paradise where he and Romeo can walk hand in hand, and the credits roll to the track of Monty G’s “Bahama Land”, a reggae anthem of patriotic reconciliation. But the real tragedy of Children of God is that a Caribbean film about male lovers can’t be just a simple love story — not yet.
This review is part of a special section on recent Caribbean film, supported by the trinidad+tobago film festival 2010
Nicholas Laughlin is the editor of The Caribbean Review of Books.