Black LGBTQ Filmmaker Explores Faith and Queer Desire In ‘The Spirit God Gave Us’
Los Angeles-based gay filmmaker Michael Donte hasn’t been called to preach, but he has been called through his art and his latest short film “The Spirit God Gave Us,” to create a world that reimagines what is possible for Black queer people outside of the confines of the Black church.
A multi-hyphenate talent, in addition to directing, Donte also pens the screenplay and is a producer of Spirit. Full disclosure: Counter Narrative Project, which powers The Reckoning, is also an executive producer. The 20-minute short film, which stars Nic Ashe (“Queen Sugar,” “Choir Boy") and Elijah Boothe (“Luke Cage,” “Coin Heist”), had its world premiere in May at the Inside Out LGBTQ Film Festival in Toronto.
“The Spirit God Gave Us” is an intersectional story of faith and queer love through the lens of Malcolm (Ashe), and Shamont (Boothe), two young Black men who volunteer as ushers for their Baptist church and are faced with reconciling societal and religious expectations with an intense longing for connection and intimacy.
While the history of homophobia in the Black church is well documented, Donte tells The Reckoning that he decided to take a different approach in his screenplay for Spirit.
“Writing the script was a kind of therapy for me,” Donte said. “Challenging the narratives that we often see in media—that was the hardest part about writing the script. I wanted to acknowledge the conflict without making it the centerpiece. And I think we did that,” he said.
For Boothe, who embodies Shamont, a New York transplant to the unidentified town and church where he meets Malcolm, much of what happens on screen for him is art imitating life.
“I grew up in a very strict Pentecostal church. I was in church Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays,” Boothe said. “You hear so much over the pulpit, and I definitely think those sermons, those messages, can hinder you from even thinking certain things are even possible.”
Donte says his choice to not give the town in his film a name was intentional.
“I wanted it to feel like this could take place anywhere for anyone because it does take place everywhere,” he said. “I grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, and so the river [a recurring and private meeting place for Malcolm and Shamont in the film] and the Southern Baptist feel are pulled a lot from there.”
In Spirit, Donte seizes on the opportunity to present the type of representation he’s always wanted to see on-screen.
“I hadn’t seen a lot of Black queer love in film and television that I saw myself in until Moonlight,” he said, referencing the 2017 Academy-Award-winning film from queer writer Tarell Alvin McCraney and director Barry Jenkins. “Moonlight was a representation of what could be,” Donte said.
Now his film has the opportunity to inspire and create visibility in the tradition of the limited canon of Black queer films that precede Spirit. It’s a responsibility that everyone involved in the film is aware of, especially Ashe.
“This felt like legacy work. This felt purposeful. This felt bigger than me starring in this thing,” Ashe said. “It felt like a love letter to people who look and love like me.”
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