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The opening scene of Adomako Aman’s 2016 documentary, Dancing in the Dark conjures fairytale themes: romantic love and, specifically, the liberating experience of moving in the dark space of the nightclub, unjudged and remarkably oneself. “Can you find love in the club?” he asks several people who are either leaving or entering the queer New York City nightclub in question. He isn’t quoting the song; he’s actually curious: Is this a space to find a partner? “Absolutely not,” one replies. The street is noisy; cars honk and tipsy friends chime in, adding, “She’s kind of right, though.” “I, personally, don’t take any person that approaches me seriously,” they go on. “I feel like they would just be about sex.”
Aman then narrates a much quieter scene: images of a club’s interior, dark and neon-lit, bodies swaying in languor. “In the dark, no one is ever looking,” he says. “No one is checking to see where you come from … Growing up as a young Blatino gay man, we’re not really given fantasies. We’re not given fairytales. We don’t have Cinderella or The Little Mermaid. We have the night. We have nightlife.”
When 25-year-old Aman decided to make Dancing in the Dark, which is produced by TAG Productions, he was reeling from the sting of a dissolved relationship and seeking solidarity with, as he describes, “other gay men, especially gay men of color,” who could share in his experience. It was love, then, that drove him to create the film, though love of a very different sort emerged as the narrative unfolded: a bond between people who face similar prejudices or feel collectively voiceless. Through a series of interviews, Aman has created a film about what it means to be a queer man of color and the complexities of finding one’s community in nightlife — all told by the men themselves.
With the exception of 53-year-old Anthony Kaufman — who offers a staid wisdom in the form of skepticism about “club culture”— the young men in the film range in age from 21 to 35. They discuss, at length, the nightclub as a space to be themselves, as well as the risks of nightlife culture — namely STIs and drug addiction — and the trouble of men on the “downlow” (the men who, in shame, hook up with other men, then quietly return to an unsuspecting female partner).
For young men and old, who grow up being told that both their own bodies and the ways in which they choose to share them with lovers are somehow problematic, the club can feel like home. “I believe as a young gay man, the search for shelter and family is what’s key,” Aman told Hyperallergic. For interviewee Julius Ferreira, working as a promoter ultimately taught him about his own community. “I didn’t know there was a full-blown culture behind [being gay] … It really humbled me and it really made me understand how strong-minded us gay people are,” he explains.
In the canon of documentaries about this subject — Paris Is Burning included — the strength of Dancing in the Dark might be its vulnerability. Aman admits that, prior to making this movie, he was “unfamiliar without the nightlife space, because I always felt there was some secret code or language that I was never invited to.” As we learn about its intricacies and complexities, so too does Aman; we are, unknowingly, bearing witnesses to the director’s growing sense of self.
Most poignantly, the movie focuses on the unique struggle of being both gay or queer and black or brown. “It’s laughable that ‘white men’ are the faces of gay culture, when there’s clearly a whole entire narrative that exists along with the queer experience,” said Aman.
Dancing in the Dark was released a month following the PULSE nightclub shooting, which felt not only like an attack on the LBTQ community, but on queer Latinx and people of color — the shooting took place on the club’s Latin night. A few days after the attack, Alan Pelaez Lopez wrote for Fusion:
We are not all Orlando … As a Black body in Mexico, my worth and value as a human being has always been questioned. I cannot detach my Blackness, my femininity, my queerness, or my mental health from an analysis on what happened in Orlando.
Prejudice, though more often an institutionalized societal problem, can come from within one’s own community, too. Adds interview subject Rey Peña, “Especially living in the hood, you have to be tough … When you’re gay, people think you’re weak, and you become a target.” Aman told Hyperallergic over e-mail: “It’s interesting that people who are not in the LGBTQ+ community think that race color lines are immediately expunged and the whole community sings ‘Kumbaya’ because everyone has had a shared common struggle with sexual identity, when it’s really even worse, because no one is paying attention.”
At a time when the protection of human rights feels imminently fragile, Dancing in the Dark is a reminder that, for many communities, the struggle has been ongoing. For Aman, it is not that this new struggle against the current President and his administration is unimportant, but rather it’s part of something he — and others like him — have dealt with since childhood. As he explained:
I believe when you come from the ghetto, you’re not really concerned about government politics, but rather on how to survive in a space when resources are constantly being stripped from you. It’s unfortunate that the most insidious person had to be present in order to scare us to want to make a change, but I truly want to be optimistic that people can really come together and find a way to fight this evil power.
Dancing in the Dark ends the way it begins: with impromptu questions outside of a nightclub, this time on Pride weekend, June 26, 2015, the day gay marriage became federally legal in all 50 states. Aman asks, again, if you can find love in the club (this time, there are more yeses than any kind of hesitation) and reflects on the mood of this ultimately historic moment. “I think you can find love in the club,” says one nameless man. “But you can find love anywhere. You can find love in the shelter. You can find love in your dreams.”
Adomako Aman’s Dancing in the Dark is available to watch on YouTube.