Billy and Aaron is a drama about African-American composer Billy Strayhorn and the personal and professional consequences of his decision to live as an openly gay man within the homophobic jazz milieu of the 1940s.
Director's Statement Collapse
For several years I have been researching and investigating the life and experiences of the openly gay, African-American jazz composer Billy Strayhorn, who performed mostly in the 1940s and '50s and wrote some of the Duke Ellington Orchestra's most well-known songs. My narrative short film, Billy and Aaron, dramatizes and explores one of the central decisions of his life; to live as an openly gay man within the intensely homophobic jazz milieu of the time. As a result he remained largely in the shadow of Duke Ellington for most of his professional life and went uncredited for some of his most important, groundbreaking musical compositions including the classic "Take The 'A' Train." If he had chosen to step more into the limelight at a time when homosexuality was against the law he would have had to conform to the standards of the day and lie about his lifestyle and sexuality in order to be packaged by the commercial entertainment industry. Instead he chose the honest, courageous path of living as an openly gay man at a time when it was dangerous and even life-threatening to do so.
The personal, professional, and artistic consequences of this choice are central to this new short dramatic film, Billy and Aaron. The short is part of the feature-length project called Day Dream but is designed to stand on its own. In my most recent film, Brother to Brother, the period elements were evoked on a very limited budget through the creative use of existing period locations and props, black-and-white cinematography, costume design, stylized lighting, and music. Similar aesthetic strategies are utilized for Billy and Aaron.
My film work for the past 14 years has looked at the intersection of race, class, sexuality, and history in the lives of African-Americans. While the films have universal themes that most people can relate to, there is a core audience of queer people of color that see the films that I am making as a defining moment, finally illuminating their experience for the world to see. By bringing recognition to unique artistic enclaves in different time periods during the last century my recent films give voice to marginalized experiences that have been vastly underrepresented in cinema and television for far too long. As the writer/director/producer of these films I recognize that they stem from my own experience as a black gay man coming of age in a culture that still tends to pathologize queer sexuality.
The evolution of my artistic output over the past 14 years has gone from personal, experimental documentaries to short and feature-length narrative projects that still strive to push aesthetic boundaries but also incorporate a larger historical perspective. These narratives dramatize the rich history of African-American culture and also place unrecognized gay, African-American figures at the center of the story. I see these projects as part of a larger continuing series of films that grapple with the historical legacies of African-American artists in the United States and the ways in which these experiences resonate with contemporary issues and political struggles.