by Elaine Hegwood Bowen
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Homosexuality in the black community had traditionally been a subject that was discussed in hushed tones, especially in the church. When more and more black names were added to the roster of AIDS deaths, then many churches began HIV ministries to create an atmosphere of awareness around this devastating disease.
About four years ago, there was much uproar when author J. L. King appeared on Oprah, hawking his book, On the Down Low: A Journey Into the Lives of “Straight” Black Men Who Sleep with Men, which detailed his “down low” lifestyle, or more simply put, his having sex with men while he supposedly was in a committed relationship with his wife.
Well, actor/director Bill Duke (American Gigolo, Deep Cover, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ and Menace II Society) covers this topic in his latest film, Cover.
Cover can be summed up as a murder mystery wrapped around a movie about the consequences of infidelity, betrayal, selfishness and living on the down low, as well as a movie about faith and redemption. Its all-star cast includes Vivica A. Fox, Paula Jai Parker, Patti LaBelle, veteran actors Louis Gossett, Jr., and Clifton Davis, Aunjanue Ellis, (Freedomland, Ray and Lovely and Amazing), Raz Adoti, Leon (The Five Heartbeats, Waiting to Exhale and HBO’s Oz), as well as the engaging Roger Guenveur Smith (A Huey P. Newton Story, King of New York, Eve’s Bayou and Summer of Sam).
The story centers around Dutch (Adoti) and his wife, Valerie, played by Ellis. The movie opens with someone’s murder, and since Valerie is the spurned wife, suspicions are cast upon her. The story unfolds via flashbacks with Valerie detailing her life—the couple’s relocation from Atlanta to Philly, and Dutch, who’s a psychiatrist taking on a new position. His new flirtatious boss turns out to be an old college friend Monica (Parker), who’s married to Kevin (Smith).
It’s evident in the beginning that Kevin and Monica’s relationship is a phony one, just to hold up appearances, as Kevin is openly gay. I use the world “openly” here, because there are a few other gay men in this movie, some of whom are reluctant to openly embrace their sexuality, and therein lies the problem, or the beginning of many problems.
Valerie speaks of her happy dream life with her young daughter and successful husband. Her best friend, Zahara, (Fox) warns her, though, that men can’t be trusted and she shouldn’t allow herself to become too happy.
But all is not what it seems, with secrets abound. As it happens, Valerie puts much faith in her church, until she learns that Dutch is cheating on her. She seems to be more equipped to accept it if Dutch had cheated on her with another woman. This sentiment touches upon another subject of “man sharing,” where men may have a wife and a lover as well, and it’s tolerated by both women.
The story takes many twists and turns, with the actors’ appearances and behaviors not always what they seem. And then there’s the ultra mysterious Charlotte, who’s a member of the women’s circle, which has heated, stereotypical discussions about homosexuality.
Just who was killed and whether Valerie committed the murder is something that Gossett, playing the bad cop, and Davis vying for a district attorney election with a speedy conviction in this case, tries to uncover.
In the end, after much intrigue and suspense, the murderer and victim are both revealed.
Duke has a good presence in Hollywood, but Cover won’t benefit from a full-fledged marketing campaign and distribution deal like mainstream films.
From online blogs, I see that it’s playing in Philly, Washington, D.C., the Atlanta area, and at the only black-owned cinema in Chicago located in the Chatham area, although I’m sure it’s screening at more theaters nationwide.
And I also see that while some audiences have been waiting to see it, others in the community are knocking Cover, because they say it deals with the subject as if it were only a black problem. But I would imagine that men who are seemingly straight and keep secrets about engaging in sex with other men isn’t just confined to the black community.
One online columnist quoted Duke in the Philadelphia Gay News: “With black people and the growing number of AIDS [cases] in our community, [we have] to take responsibility for our behavior,” he said. “[We have to] become aware of the fact that no one is going to come and save us. When you go to the black community, it’s amazing. People still think it’s a white homosexual disease. It’s insane. It’s killing us. I don’t get it. Something has to be done and that’s what we’re attempting to do.”
An original trailer for the movie, when its working title was Invisible, is not nearly what’s shown in the final production, which can be viewed as a feature-length public service announcement, promoting responsible sex and HIV testing, no matter what your sexual orientation.
Since Cover focuses on a universal health concern, Duke is to be commended, regardless of any controversial backlash. It’s just a shame that more theaters aren’t able to screen it. It’ll most likely go to DVD or appear at upcoming black film festivals.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen is a freelance writer and film critic living in Chicago.
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