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The Delta: 20th Anniversary of Classic Gay Film

The Delta

A Black Man, an Asian and a White Southerner Walk into a Porn Shop. That’s the unfunny premise of Ira Sachs’ pioneering gay film The Delta released 20 years ago. But will Hollywood ever dare reboot of this near-masterpiece?

It’s about time that this little-know but important 1997 gay indie classic was brought back to public consciousness. The only way to do it might be for Kevin Hart, Aziz Ansari and Chris Pratt to update the roles of an African-American drifter, a Vietnamese-American and Confederacy-bred Southerner—all closeted gays—who interact at the squalid crossroads of a nearly defunct porn emporium.

Sachs, himself a Memphis native, follows Lincoln Bloom’s (Shayne Gray) sexual experimentation—a secret he keeps from those who expect him to follow in his white southern family tradition. The plot exposes the missteps in the recent Beach Rats. Lincoln’s social knowledge expands, along with his own self-realization, when he meets, bi-racial John (Thang Chan), a gay youth also stressed by his social identity bequeathed by a Vietnamese mother and black father. The Delta’s rac-agitated subtext, expressed through Lincoln’s reticence and John’s encounter with a black man Ricky Little (Colonious David), predates the Obama-era confusion about social place yet seems to prefigure its fate.

The Delta is an objet d'art of the era before independent films meant catering to political partisanship. Sachs ventured into the more meaningful experience of gay men who did not expect to find fellow-travellers among sex partners. That’s what the title noun “delta” implies; a confluence of differences as in e pluribus unum [out of many, one] , not just those who agree with us politically while consigning all others to ignominy and exile.

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Photo Courtesy Strand

Sachs boldly explored the gay culture of licentious hook-ups and even more radically connected its denizens to the public life that hides sexual misconduct behind the propriety of each man’s ethnic and social enclave.

Now, gay socializing has been re-defined in the era of safe spaces (protected by the anonymity of Tinder and Grinder)—in fact, misdefined as something that perverts diversity.The Delta calls bullcrap on that “progressive” self-appreciation.

Sachs, who made movies featuring a sadly troubled gay relationship (Keep the Lights On), a sentimental and conformist view of the middle-aged gay and upper middle-class (Little Men, Love is Strange) and an odd misreading of hetero self-hatred (Married Life), has proved himself to be the only gay filmmaker to boldly explore the truth of sexual ambivalence shared by gay and straight life.

Sachs resists the idea of gay victimization. Had The Delta been so obscene as to emphasize the bloody murderousness of its human tragedy, it might have won the same acclaim that greed Patty Jenkins’ Monster—a lesbian-exploiting slasher flick that even Roger Ebert extolled and sold to the American public (and the Motion Picture Academy) as if honoring freakish homicide was somehow the same thing as giving social acceptance to homosexuality and feminism. So Sachs missed the boat that floated queer exploitation. His approach to the commonplace aspects of gay sexuality are too frank for the market. Who knows? Sachs might have gone on to make the Aquaman movie of our dreams—a hunk floating through the amphibious/ambisexual fluidity of sexual identity like the Justice League previews promised before the franchise was taken away from that erotic master Zack Snyder.

Sachs’ sexual emphasis is a large part of what makes The Delta important. His unembarrassed recognition of gay sexual/social habit distinguishes his debut film from many other queer independent movies, especially those recent releases that play into heteronormative clichés about sexual desire.

It’s not sleaze sex as when Lee Daniels portrayed the lesbian incest assault in Precious or the s&m gay orgy in The Paperboy. Even in the squalid confines of a porn corridor, Sachs finds the desperation and compulsion that humanizes his characters’ longing and their loneliness—a triangle of emotional isolation and recognizable pathos. Against the tide of political correctness, The Delta was first to chart the unsafe streams of gay experience.

The Delta is available on DVD from Strand Releasing. 

Tags: Armond White

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