ESSAYS | VOL 3 | AUGUST 1, 2017
SUNSHINE OR NAH?
STORY by KHARY SEPTH
PHOTOGRAPHY by TY CHENN
Los Angeles. Summer ’16
Digging through gold-filled canyons of iconic writing about Los Angeles, it seemed to me, its cultural significance to the Black gay man scarce, if not simply impossible to unearth. Millions of them have gone West to chase dreams that weren’t destined for them, Hollywood being the bluntest possible articulation of the ambitions of our culture—its siren song the breathy whisper of Marilyn, or Janet—calling out to the impractical desires of all dreamers who should dare to turn on the TV. The natives, whose folk were lured from places like rural Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi by the California Dream of yesteryear, statistically more likely to be kissing the dirt on Central Ave. than ass cheeks of pale white actresses on the red carpet at the Oscars, still, somehow dedicated to the bitchy, lacquered preoccupations of their beloved L.A.
I wanted to see it for myself—this empty vessel known as Hollywood—to see what truth, if any, lies beneath it. Maybe I’d dig up the truth about how many dicks Will downed to get ahead in the game; maybe I’d find out from Lee how big the devil’s itself was. It should be noted, there is no morality in the case of dicks, so as I touched down at LAX and the golden sun kicked up dust and warmed my face, I said a little prayer, and indeed, was rex for my closeup. The Southern California sun promised me that life in L.A. would be wonderful.
In an Airbnb in the Hollywood foothills the next morning, as I woke in that twilight state between awareness and dreams, I had an electrical charge contained in things like getting flowers or fighter jets or new followers. After years in Brooklyn living under grey skies, it was the unexpected pleasure of feeling the SoCal sun pull down my undies, and with a shot of testosterone, my eyes focused in the most gorgeous of light, to provoke in me for the first time again, pleasure, which I’d mainly come to associate with a barely remembered past.
Los Angeles, a city of supreme fiction where mental geographies go beyond race and class prejudices. Los Angeles, a city where curious, unnatural landscapes dissolve into the distance amidst passive and apathetic contact among its residents. It’s understandable how 20th century reporter Morrow Mayo—the father of an entire school of caustic writing about L.A.—after arriving there in 1925 wrote of it: “Los Angeles is not a mere city… on the contrary, it is, and has been since 1888, a commodity; something to be advertised and sold to the people of the United States like automobiles, cigarettes and mouthwash.” By the time I’d finished mixing my morning smoothie, I got it, and wondered to myself: Is there any word held so high in the American esteem as “Hollywood?” Like any New Yorker I had my doubts, but it was nothing Google couldn’t help me sort out—I was sure of it.
I discovered in two clicks that after a trip to California in 1913, W. E. B. Du Bois praised Los Angeles in his paper The Crisis: “Los Angeles is wonderful. Nowhere in the United States is the Negro so well and beautifully housed, nor the average efficiency and intelligence in the colored population so high. Out here in this matchless Southern California there would seem to be no limit to your opportunities, your possibilities.” But click, click, click, and one flash—it was becoming clear. A vision of happiness and wonder Los Angeles was not. The L.A. of the oil-and-film crazy ’20s didn’t create boom times at all for the negro; Du Bois’ fantasy was more a Hollywood horror story. He’d squirm at the bottom of a barrel of crabs in a backyard in Compton, waiting to be boiled for his cultural nutrition—and to their delight—for decades to come.
By World War One, what were known as “deed restrictions” in The City of Angels pushed Blacks who’d migrated there since 1915 into the dark shadows of South Central, while the bright lights of Beverly Hills and San Marino flashed “keep out,” making 95 percent of the city’s housing stock in the 1920s effectively off limits to Blacks and Asians. Acting as Jim Crow legislation, deed restrictions were also building a “white wall” around the Black community on Central Avenue—the one that dissected L.A.’s most notorious ghettos, the very ones Hollywood would glorify decades later through celluloid scraps of thug idolatry and exaggerated parodies of ghetto life via films like Straight Outta Compton and Friday.
In her 1929 study of the “University Addition” neighborhood near the University of Southern California, sociologist Bessie McClenahan described how the arrival of one single Black family east of Budlong Avenue in the summer of 1922 sowed panic that home values would collapse in the wake of an imminent “Negro Invasion.” Whites quickly formed the “Anti-African Housing Association” to campaign for a restrictive agreement to exclude non-whites from the neighborhood.
Until the US Supreme Court finally ruled against restrictive covenants in 1948, white homeowner groups in Los Angeles had ample sanction in the law and filed more than 100 suits against non-white potential home buyers (including Hollywood celebrities like Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers), while a compliant Superior Court regularly found Blacks in contempt for occupying homes within restricted subdivisions or blocks. Lest one cling to any illusion about the benevolence of the New Deal, Roosevelt’s Federal Housing Authority not only sanctioned restrictions, but developed a recommended formula for inclusion in subdivision contracts.
While L.A.’s cultural bohemia of the late ’40s and ’50s was morphing into the “L.A. Look” of the ’60s—think Ed Ruscha, Robert Irwin, Richard Neutra, and Rudolph Rchindler building Hollywood Hills pleasure domes and making modernist art to fill them—Blacks were told to keep their nigger Jello molds; no one wants them, or Poitier, at such a swell party… Hhhhmmmm… Before I went hunting for that prototypically modern house in the Hollywood Hills my first day, I wondered, would I too be forced to drive 22 miles over to Baldwin Hills in bumper-to-bumper traffic to find it? Or nah?
When visiting Los Angeles in the Olympic year of 1932, at first sight to a young Langston Hughes whose poems had already been purchased by Vanity Fair in New York by then, “Los Angeles seemed more a miracle than a city, a place where oranges sold for one cent a dozen, ordinary Black folks lived in huge houses with ‘miles of yards,’ and prosperity seemed to reign in spite of the Depression.” Later, in 1939, when Hughes attempted to write within the Hollywood studio system, he discovered that the only role available to the Black writer was furnishing demeaning dialogue for cotton-field parodies of Black life. After a humiliating experience with the film Way Down South, he declared that “so far as Negroes are concerned, [Hollywood] might just as well be controlled by Hitler.”
In the 80 years since, Hughes’ disillusionment with Hollywood has been recapitulated over and over again, each iteration messier than the last, via the careers of Black filmmakers like Gordon Parks and Melvin Van Peebles, and of course, Spike Lee. For it to devour outsiders like New York’s Lee or Chicago’s Peebles is one thing (geographic tribalism really is a thing), but to dine on a native son—namely a promising young Black filmmaker named John Singleton—seems a particularly heinous crime, even by Hollywood’s gruesome standards.
With his epic 1991 tale of the tough, inner city Black experience in Southcentral, Boyz N The Hood, Singleton, at 20, was the youngest director to ever be nominated for an Academy Award (one for Best Original Screenplay and one for Best Director) and showed promise of becoming a cinematic channel for a socially conscious form of commercial filmmaking. He was a ray of light for Black filmmakers and audiences alike, and what was impossible he made possible—from getting Hollywood’s whispery pop princess Janet Jackson and preeminent street thug Tupac to fuck onscreen in 1993’s Poetic Justice, to killing Hollywood’s first and last Black supermodel, a then baby-faced Tyra Banks in cold blood at the end of 1995’s Higher Learning. Maybe that scene was foretelling his own demise. Did John know deep down that there’d be no half-a-century of Scorsese’s garish gangster movies for him to make? No Tarantino cult-like following to keep him in demand at the box office long past his expiration date? In fact, by “industry standards” Singleton’s work post-Boyz was all fail, and it seemed as if John had been expelled from the industry and left to spend his later years grazing on a meager diet of lame big-budget action flicks like 2003’s 2 Fast 2 Furious. Only as of last year, did he have a television cameo directing Lee Daniels’ Empire. Singleton shared in an op-ed for The Hollywood Reporter in 2014: “They ain’t letting the Black people tell the stories… [Studio executives say] ‘We’re going to take your stories but, you know what? You’re going to starve over here and we’re not going to let you get a job’… They want black people [to be] what they want them to be. And nobody is man enough to say that.”
OK, cute. John said his piece, but never forget: Hollywood always has the last word. When Singleton was suddenly reported off the highly-anticipated Tupac biopic last year (a film no maker would have been better suited to deliver), Singleton claimed that “they [Hollywood] have no true love for ‘Pac… If Tupac knew what was going on, he’d ride on all these fools and take it to the streets.” Cringe-worthy language from the man who made the living ‘Pac an actual movie star, indeed, but Hollywood always sets the release date. Dreamers beware.
There’s a dark, pathological side to The Golden State: the violence of the ’65 Watts Riots, the crack epidemic of the ’80s, the gang paranoia of the ’90s and the raucous rap that followed, Rodney King, OJ, etcetera. As I inched down Sunset on the way to lunch at Chateau and looked over at the Hollywood sign announcing Los Angeles as a “city of dreams,” I noticed the unexpected—a sign at once grimy and glittery, coated in a layer of droppings, a literal symbol of America’s contradictions. Mysteries are only mysteries if you want them to be.
Perhaps nowhere is this contradiction more evident than in literary-wonderboy-turned-grumpy-old-queen Bret Easton Ellis. His first novel Less Than Zero—considered by many to be the most significant account of Los Angeles’s contemporary soul, was first published in 1985. 200 highly-celebrated pages of all these white, spoiled, over privileged, morally vacuous sons and daughters of neglectful Hollywood royalty scoring grams, popping pills, and fucking all over the scenery of a dimly lit but brightly shellacked Los Angeles. Meanwhile up the block in Crenshaw, America’s senseless Drug War was in full force and terrorizing every “suspected gang member” (aka Black males between the ages of 8 and 80) in Los Angeles county. Spreadeagle against police cruisers, beaten senseless, constitutionally violated, illegally jailed, shot dead by the trigger-happy “redneck army of occupation” known as the LAPD—that’s where you’d find us; and from 1974 – 1990, the LAPD had arrested two-thirds of all younger Black males in California and a flood of captives—four-fifths of whom were substance addicted and less than half of whom had committed violent crimes. This overwhelmed the state prisons—84,000 inmates in a system with room for 48,000—while programs with weird acronyms like HAMMER and STEP gave police an open season to kill and brutalize via state-sanctioned violence based on the “probable cause” of red shoelaces or blue bandanas.
Less Than Zero highlights that white boys, in Cali, can be reckless, and high, and selling dope all the time and still win(ning). But Black boys, play it straight, because let us not forget where we are—this is Hollywood—and they can always, they will always, unfairly sentence your dreams to “life with no chance.”
In an article that appeared in the Times around the time of Ellis’ book release, reporter Ron Harris wrote:
“Under new federal statutes, defendants convicted of selling 5 grams or more of crack cocaine, worth perhaps $125, receive a mandatory minimum of five years in prison. However, it takes 500 grams of the powdered drug, nearly $50,000 worth of ‘yuppie cocaine,’ to receive an equivalent sentence.”
BIt’d take over 30 years and a Black President for anyone to give enough fucks to address these sentencing atrocities via his “Drugs Minus Two” policy revamp in 2014 (in which 6,000 nonviolent drug offenders were released early from prison) and the much-publicized commutations of 2015 (by which he’d commuted the sentences of nearly 200 Brothers locked up for nonviolent drug offenses), but make note: today, there are more than 5 times the number of whites getting high as Blacks, and yet we are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate. More than 500,000 of us behind bars for pushing bags of blow to the same kids that made Ellis famous. If you scratch just beneath its surface, Ellis’ Zero amounts to nothing more than an exposé written in minimalistic prose on the class and racial bias of the Anti-Drug years, which have had lasting effects up until this very day.
Ellis went on to become one of the most unduly canonized writers of his generation, a member of some so-called “literary Brat Pack,” but Ellis, like Singleton, didn’t really live up to his hype with endless rather uninspired versions of the same novel like Rules of Attraction (1987) and American Psycho (1991). Critics hated them, Hollywood loved them, Ellis went on to be a reluctant star—sick of his success, with works optioned by major Hollywood studios and a career that, once he’s six-feet-under, will set off a wave of posthumous worship by douche-y white kids for generations to come. Where’s Singleton again? He doesn’t even show up on any trade rag’s list of Hollywood’s most important directors, ever. No shade, someone needs to go to jail for this crime, but no worries, the sun and the sounds reminded me that life in L.A. was wonderful.
So wonderful that even with its appetite for crime stories (who doesn’t live for the Black Dahlia?), I was assured that THE GAYS were not on the menu. Whew! I felt a great weight lifted from my gym bag. The L.A. Times reported last September that even with a slight uptick in numbers for 2016, “the good news for Los Angeles County is that the number of hate crimes reported in 2015 was the second-lowest total in 25 years. The lowest number came in 2013, with 384 hate crimes reported.”
So while America owns dead white kids hanging like scarecrows on its prairies and will ultimately have to pay for its silence on the murders of over 25 trans women of color in its urban bowels last year, Los Angeles has kept its sales pitch of good fortune in tact, it’s outlook of getting ahead in front, because remember, out here, should you get caught cruising Griffith Park, there’s always a studio publicist around to clean up the mess. Dick-sucking-Rebel-Without-a-Cause James Dean got ahead, the 6-foot-5 power-bottom bachelor Rock Hudson too, proving that in Hollywood, you can be a difficult, ornery psychopath or a perfectly respectable leading man—as long as you’re camera-ready and white, you’ll never have to suffer professionally for your homosexuality.
Harry Hay got ahead too, when founding the pre-Stonewall Mattachine Society in 1950 (believed to be the first modern gay rights group) among the cultural bohemia of Los Angeles at a time when homosexuality was still defined by The American Psychiatric Association as a mental illness. The New York Times wrote at the time of his death in 2002: “Although little known in the broader national culture over the years, Harry Hay’s contribution was to do what no one else had done before: plant the idea among American homosexuals that they formed an oppressed cultural minority of their own, like blacks, and to create a lasting organization in which homosexuals could come together to socialize and to pursue what was, at the beginning, the very radical concept of homosexual rights.”
A whole cattle call of white boys got ahead when they incorporated a city in 1984 West of Hollywood (originally called Sherman), and every white boy in a dress got ahead on the heels of Muva Ru as that city became the unofficial planet of origin for any boy up in ’em back in 2009. As I put on my heels for a night out at The Abbey, I realized I wouldn’t even have the time to list all the white boys who’ve gotten ahead—Patrick-Harris, Bass, Quinto, Bomber… and well, it seemed that at least the queens out in Hollywood had retained their manners. That was until I shimmied onto the dance floor—a fucking unbothered Black sissy—and they all turn their backs on me in unison, one even accidentally spilling his drink on me in protest.
After that debacle, trust, I did pose more racially conscious questions to boys who looked and acted just like me. What’s up with all these white boys? Why are they so hateful? What’s your take on the pedagogy of the oppressed? But, if I had struck a chord, I wouldn’t have known it because they’d strike right back with loose racial terms and post-racial ideologies, sort of saying in effect, “This doesn’t really concern me.” For a moment, it was profoundly alienating for me. Was I being shaded in the same town as them, or nah? Maybe nah, because upon orders to take off my sunglasses—“the sun was already rose-hued out here”— I was reminded, that life in L.A. would be wonderful.
Los Angeles had its dark side, fine, but my battery was drained from the impromptu history lesson, and I was Natalie Portman nauseous from overdosing on truth and traffic on the I-10 all day. Finally, my Uber pulled up to a place called Los Globos on Sunset where Karim revealed as Gracie and Matty as the ruling “It” Boy snatched she out of the car past an assortment of other boy wonders to dance the night away on some secret floor of a Silver Lake nightclub that a mutha-fucking-ova-ass-kunt-bitch named Rhonda had taken over for the night. I hadn’t danced like that in years. I didn’t know Special K was still a thing, but for what it’s worth I felt heavenly atmospherics out there on the floor, and before the clock struck 2, obviously, the Angels for which the city is named and their dusts of white powder in capsules, in lines, and in spirits had erased all residue of L.A.’s most sordid affairs.
Before this very moment, a fear of the unknown in this surreal city made engagement with its inhabitants elusive—just beyond the reach of any concrete sentiment. I’d reach out to touch them in a crowd at The Grove, and they’d turn around to become someone else. But Extra, Extra: this was L.A., so there was no rush at all, and somehow, as the pace slowed from a fist-pump to a slow grind, I found myself falling in love with a guy who wore tight blue jeans and dirty Chucks and partied in the hills with Miley, only ever using the word chill to describe any-and-everything. His name was LA and I was head over heels into the pool—only 4-feet-deep—but drowning nonetheless.
The next morning as I lay in bed, once sleep and dreams had fallen away, I realized I’d been imprinted by a crush, and rather than run for the hills, wait, run in the hills, I decided to just let my heart go.
…But not my body, so LA took me to the Equinox on Sunset to lift what felt like tons of pretension before heading downstairs for Bitty Berry smoothies where eight dollars never felt so light. He helped me reorganize my mind to float above the provenance of Blackness by taking me high into the hills, and then getting me high, before pulling a metal detector out of his trunk—he was silly like that—and assuring me that we would find gold, even under a rough crust of broken dreams, racial violence, trash, and vaudeville. Seemed like the dumbest thing ever at first, but when he told me about the “nugget factor,” I was intrigued.
❝ You can find nothing all day out here, then end up with a couple ounces in one nugget. So the biggest advice I have is never quit, never give up, never slow down. If you are easily discouraged, you’ll have a tough time here. Persistence is the name of the game. And a little bit of luck might help.❞
LA then twisted the loose nugget of gold onto a piece of twine and put it around my neck. I felt like it brought me the strength of a zillion wanna-be starlets kicking their legs around the set of some spectacular musical of Hollywood’s Golden Age like 42nd Street or The Great Ziegfeld. LA suggested we make more and sell them to Fred Segal. I thought that a golden idea.
We celebrated Black gay pride on the 4th of July, and downing his hot dog was way better than eating one to commemorate our ancestors’ misery. We laughed about how many white people were in line outside Roscoe’s on Gower as we drove past bumping a “golden” oldies soundtrack of Dre and Snoop, ki ki’ing about how Nate Dogg did so little, but brought so much to The Next Episode. In memoriam, we smoked some good green with a weird rap name, and I felt as high as the Mexican fan palms that lined the boulevards on the way up to Beachwood Canyon and I loved it—more than high-rise rooftops, more than Bushwick brunches, more than my city’s chaotic and shapeless concrete posing as progress. The sun and the sounds reminded me that life in L.A. is wonderful.
LA worked occasionally as a movie extra, or a stunt double, or a stand-in, not sure, but when he wasn’t “on set,” which was most of the time, he’d text me in weird emojis and ask what I was up to, knowing I’d rather be doing whatever it was with him, so he’d pick me up in a blush-pink Impala and take me on some cool Hollywood adventure. One day, we held hands and walked down The Boulevard with all of the other celebrity stalkers, hoping for a glimpse of Halle Berry or Jaden Smith. One night, we sped down the dark and twisting Pacific Coast Highway towards Santa Monica and he nearly lost control and careened into the oncoming traffic like we were in some scene from Gone In 60 Seconds. He had a sense for danger and was on the wrong side of the road, perhaps confusing his side hustle with his real life, but who was counting carcasses? LA made me feel alive, just as I stopped breathing.
Daytime temperatures were hitting 90, but it was into the 40s at night, so LA took me to a shop named by numbers that his friend Thed, a much more grounded L.A. scenester who knew Kanye owned Downtown. I bought a leather motorcycle jacket just like the one I wore back in Brooklyn, only this time it was shade repellent. We threw a few back with friends at Laurel Hardware, which must be a thing of the past by now; we danced with Jody Watley in the subterrain of The Standard; we waited—an overly dramatic languishing L.A. minute—for a room upgrade to “poolside” so that all of the queens could have front-row seats to us fucking each other’s brains out to the sound of Lana Del Rey’s latest record. The most memorable moment can be traced to that first night when we watched the sun set in a haze of glittery lights over the valley, inches from each other’s souls, trading spit like a scene Straight Outta 1930s Tinseltown.
This idea of Los Angeles as a shallow spectacle is dated; this notion of a “counterfeit urbanity,” a thought-terminating cliché used too often by people living in bubbles of their own. Los Angeles seemed to me, now, a Hollywood actress after she’s stepped away from the camera and onto the Broadway stage—big city problems, big city critics, a real mastery of the dramatic arts.
One morning over breakfast with LA at the Griddle Café on Sunset, sitting on the edge of bad taste and celebrity, we picked on a plate of pancakes 22” in diameter and stacked high and wobbly like a Gehry monstrosity, which was then filled with Oreos and topped with a flavored whipped cream, all the while, Joseline Hernandez and Stevie J sat stage left, and it was sort of poetic—how Los Angeles could even merge overconsumption, unsustainability, and celebrity into a single stack of flapjacks. There were a lot of exchanges that emphasized this crisis of overconsumption called Los Angeles—from the extravagance of lawns, all the way down to my 9-month abortion of a breakfast packed up in Styrofoam to go, while a line of ravenous happy-faced guests stepped over the homeless to get in and get theirs. I began to feel uncomfortable; the patrons became grotesque. LA grabbed my hand and suggested I give my box to one of the vagrants outside, but L.A. was making me paranoid and I was feeling decidedly un-chill, so I threw it out on the low to save him any guilt. The summer was coming to an end, and I needed to get to my senses.
❝ Real and false were fused here so perfectly that they became a new substance, just as copper and zinc become brass that look like gold. It meant nothing that Hollywood was filled with great musicians, poets and philosophers. It was also filled with spiritualists, religious nuts and swindlers. It devoured everyone, and whoever was unable to save himself in time, would lose his identity, whether he thought so or not.❞
The first stage of the game was great, but being a New Yorker, I am incapable of happiness, and as such, am also therefore incapable of illusion. How long would LA’s ability to deceive me keep pace with my ability to see through him? At what point would we both come clean? Could I ever reveal to him that each time I passed the sand of the Pacific through my hands, I’d lose a few grains of hope with each pass? Could he ever reveal to me that he could never love me and me alone—tell me he’s just in it for the fifteen minutes? I think we both knew that he would become too known, and I would become too knowing, and the jig would be up. The sun and the sounds of L.A. called my name, but I’m sure I was already gone.
Ultimately, falling in love with LA helped me get some kind of leverage on this internal rift—this deep condition of contradiction that had been working its way under my New Yorker’s logic for years. But of course, there’s no contradiction whatsoever; when we find ourselves unexpectedly attached to a thing for which there was no previous desire, that’s not contradiction, that’s Love.
Los Angeles, my desire for you matches that of my consumption, my self-indulgence; you exceed the white-hotness even of my dreams. But the gratification of every desire is not an obligation as Los Angeles would have one believe, and so back to the real big city I went, spiraling towards the missed opportunities and gritty defeat of a place I call home, where I could actually enjoy my morning walk, and dream of the day that I get to fall in love with Los Angeles, again.
is the editor-in-cheif of The Tenth Magazine.
is a photographer based in Los Angeles.