Of the many good-to-excellent movies that were shown at Los Angeles' GLBT film festival Outfest this past July, Rivers Wash Over Me remains a standout in my mind. Both lyrical and harrowing, it focuses on the travails of a contemporary black teenager named Sequan as he adjusts to life in a new town and school in rural Alabama following the death of his mother.
Unlike most of his classmates, the intelligent Sequan is deeply interested in literature, poetry … and other boys. The 15-year old soon finds himself harassed by other students and is even abused sexually by a family member. But he is also befriended by a white girl, Lori (played by the Kirsten Dunst-esque Elizabeth Dennis), and her brother, Jake (Aidan Schultz-Meyer), the latter of whom Sequan ends up having much in common.
Sequan is played by the courageous Derrick L. Middleton, who won Outfest’s Grand Jury Award for Outstanding Actor in this, his feature film debut. Rivers Wash Over Me is co-written (with Darien Sills-Evans, who plays the sheriff in the film) and directed by John G. Young. Young is well-regarded in GLBT circles for his previous, award-winning movies Parallel Sons and The Reception.
I had the opportunity to chat with Young about his latest production. We also discussed the film’s messages for GLBT students and the writer-director’s own experience growing up as a gay teen.
CC: With Rivers Wash Over Me, what were you trying to say from a gay/GLBT perspective?
JGY: It’s an interesting question, because I don’t specifically try to say something or have an agenda. I’m drawn to characters. The one thing I was interested in is that gay young people, because they have to address who they are in the world in a different way, can gain a kind of maturity their peers don’t necessarily have. It’s an act of standing up for oneself and saying, “This is what I am,” which is very powerful.
CC: What inspired this particular story?
JGY: A little over ten years ago, I spent some time in a small southern town. What struck me then was how modern the town was — it had a black mayor and sheriff — and yet how segregated it still remained. As with my other films, I often begin my story with a place and asking “What would happen here if …?” In this case, it was what would happen if a smart, gay, black kid from New York had to go live with his dysfunctional relatives in this town? Then I thought, what if the one person who reaches out to him is the privileged, messed up, drug addicted, white girlfriend of the town’s drug dealer? My hope was that in their tentative connection they would start to heal one another — a theme in all my work.
CC: How inspired by your own life or upbringing was Sequan?
JGY: He’s more inspired by other people’s lives. I would love to say I was as brave as he is when I was his age, but there were braver people I drew from.
CC: What would your advice be to a real-life gay teen like Sequan, trying to fit into a new town and/or school?
JGY: I like to think that the world’s changing, and when I look back at the high school I went to (in the late 1970’s), there’s now a gay-straight alliance and openly gay teachers. My advice would be to find an ally, someone in the school or in the community you can talk to. The internet is a great resource that didn’t exist when I was in high school.
CC: The young lead actors in Rivers Wash Over Me are all excellent. Where did you find them?
JGY: One of my “day jobs” is to create educational programs, and I had worked with Derrick on a couple of them. I had originally cast another actor as Sequan but his agent put the kibosh on it, which surprised me in this day and age when Sean Penn wins an Oscar for playing Milk. I had worked with Elizabeth on a prior film and just love her. Aidan responded to an ad I had placed on Craigslist and was exactly how I saw the character.
CC: What is the meaning/origin of the film’s title?
JGY: It’s from a lyric in a Tracy Chapman song. The song is about being at a point where one is ready to let go of the things that are holding you back.
CC: What are future plans for the film? How will people be able to see it?
JGY: It will probably be on the film festival circuit for a while. I’m hoping it will get a small theatrical release, and will then go to DVD.
CC: Any other thoughts or comments?
JGY: I think there’s an interesting conversation going on about what constitutes “gay film.” There may always be a place for GLBT film festivals, but I hope gay themes and characters become more integrated into mainstream films. I’m compelled to tell stories that are interesting, not necessarily gay.
Click here to watch the trailer for Rivers Wash Over Me.
on DVD from Amazon.com.
Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.