CHICAGO — In the thick of the pandemic, Charlene Carruthers discovered she no longer had the motivation to write the long-form stories that helped define her career.
An activist, educator, organizer, and author of “Unapologetic: A Black, Queer and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements,” Carruthers had long found her calling to be the fight for Black liberation. The page was her platform and the pen her microphone.
For National Poetry Month, Carruthers decided to give up her essays and try her hand at poetry for the first time.
Those poems soon inspired the work read by Trina, a young Black poet and the main character in Carruthers’ debut short film, “The Funnel.”
Set on the South Side, “The Funnel” follows Trina as she faces the burden of an escalating housing crisis with her mother. Upon falling asleep, Trina awakes in 20th-century Chicago, reliving an ancestor’s intimate and complex history as a queer woman living in a ’40s kitchenette building with bustling personalities, old and young.
“The Funnel” will begin playing virtually Friday at Reeling: The 40th Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival. The short film is part of the Dyke Delicious Reunion: Generational Connections screening series. Tickets are $10. You can buy them online.
Poetry was a new medium for Carruthers, but it was the perfect source for storytelling in her film, Carruthers said.
Poetry connects people across time, Carruthers said. And a young, aspirational Black woman in love in the 20th century, like Trina, would dream of being a poet, she said.
“I had a deep desire and fire to bring Black women to the screen that extended the way that people understand Black life and what Black people go through,” Carruthers said. “I hope people want to see more stories and period pieces about Black people and Black queer trans-centric stories.”
“The Funnel” grew out of Carruthers’ love of history, literature and period pieces, she said.
A class on queer theory and cinema inspired the film, and Saidiya Hartman’s novel, “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments,” helped Carruthers envision the women who make up the movie. Films “Lackawanna Blues” and “Idlewild” helped her concoct the “aesthetic” of “The Funnel,” Carruthers said.
By diving into the past, “The Funnel” tells a “complete story” about Black people’s lives viewers often don’t get to see, Carruthers said.
By interweaving Black queer and trans storylines in the narrative, “The Funnel” helps viewers understand “young Black people have been navigating their sexuality and playing around with gender boundaries for a very long time” — especially on the South Side, Carruthers said.
“Telling stories through film about Black people in the past helps to situate a broader story about our lives,” Carruthers said. “I know that Black queer, trans folks have existed in this world for a very long time, particularly in Chicago. We have such a robust history, and I wanted to bring that to the film.
“We need a lot more stories. There can never be enough.”
Interwoven between the jokes, poetry and discreet shoutouts to Chicago — there is a framed photo of Harold Washington — are close-up shots of characters that capture the closeness of a lover coming home, neighbors going head-to-head or a mother rubbing her daughter’s hair.
Carruthers captured those intimate moments to “show Black people in different settings,” she said.
When people think of intimacy, their mind falls to romantic relationships, Carruthers said. “The Funnel” shows intimacy goes beyond a partner to family, your neighbors and the “folks struggling around you to figure it out,” Carruthers said.
“I learned that Black love wins,” Carruthers said. “People want to see Black love win, even in tough situations, and I want to do more of that work.”
“The Funnel” could soon become a feature film or short series if viewers want to see more of the characters, Carruthers said. For now, it remains a glimpse into the lives of South Side Chicagoans not too unlike us today, she said.
“I wanted to bring the interiority of Black people’s lives to the screen, and this film is my first opportunity to do that,” Carruthers said. “I hope people want to see more stories and period pieces about Black people and Black queer trans-centric stories. I hope that they want to see more of this project after seeing the film.”
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