Sometimes the stories we tell best are the ones we insert pieces of ourselves into. For filmmaker Kenrick Prince, tutelage from the great Sidney Poitier and his own life experiences helped him craft his emotional short film, Gema. Ahead of its premiere on HBO tonight, Prince spoke with Out.com about his own personal experiences coupled with lessons from Poitier's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner that fed into the project.
Out.com: What was it about Gema that made this story worth telling to you?
Kenrick Prince: I've always been drawn to characters who are obscure and this is due in part to my own experiences growing up queer in the Caribbean, where there are virtually no LGBTQ rights. I felt so alone and misunderstood, even within my own family. Eventually I moved to America, came out and really started to rediscover who I was, not just in terms of sexuality but also gender identity. I wore skirts, beat my face, painted my nails (still do) and did all the things society wouldn't expect from a man. For the first time I truly felt alive. However, exploring my gender in this way came with resistance. I was scowled at, mocked and was back to feeling how I felt growing up in The Bahamas -- unsafe. With this new state of awareness, I really began to empathize with the trans community, a community that I feel very much a part of. I realized that if people could do this to me, then I couldn't even imagine what my trans sisters and brothers were going through.
With that, I decided to go back to the script inspired by Guess Who's Coming To Dinner and work through my feelings. I changed the main character to a trans woman and gave much thought to how I could get people to see who she was before realizing her gender journey. At the end of the story, I wanted to get across that we all just want to be seen, heard and loved for who really are. This was worth telling to me because I firmly believe that my freedom is connected to my brothers and sisters' freedom, and hopefully stories like this can help us all feel a little more free.
What about the sources of tension in the film? We see conflict coming from many different directions, but we're not precisely sure what that conflict is.
I didn't feel that I needed to give everything away in the film. The fact that the audience doesn't know all of the details, but Gema and Sam know, increases the intimacy between them. It's really not about the outside forces at play so much as it is about how they decide to deal with it and love each other in spite of. For Gema, her dilemma is trying to find acceptance. Her father is extremely disapproving and hurtful and called to unload on her the same day she's supposed to meet Sam's parents. So the idea that she has to meet her fiance's family and possibly not find acceptance with them as well, is overwhelming to say the least.
As for Sam, he's actually trying to protect Gema, all while battling his own fears that he will be misunderstood by his parents. Sam sees Gema as she is, a woman. But he knows that his parents will not understand and possibly reject him as well.
Did you ever go through a panic similar to Gema's at a time in your life?
Hell yes! Coming out for me was BRUTAL! My closest friends were from the Caribbean and when I came out, most of them abandoned me. There's this idea in the Caribbean that if you're queer, you must have a demon or something. Sadly, for most of my life, I believed that too, so coming out was a very traumatic experience for me. I came to learn however, that people who truly love you will love you for whoever you are, and so eventually I found peace.
A few years back, I was in a relationship with someone and we were practically living together. My grandmother, Deloris, and some of her friends were visiting New York and I figured that I would cook and have them over for dinner to meet him. This would be the first man she would have seen me in a relationship with. I thought I was going to die from anxiety! My grandmother is my best friend and we're pretty inseparable, so I was nervous that she would be uncomfortable or disapproving. Through the course of dinner she was unusually quiet which gave me even more anxiety, but by the end of the night she warmed up a little. Just a little! Fast forward to 2016, when we were making GEMA, not only was she super supportive of me and this new life, but she even cooked and did all the catering for the crew on set. I learned that sometimes we make things more scary than they have to be.
Gema premieres on HBO tonight at 8:20 pm ET and has been available on HBOGo since February 1 as a part of Black History Month. Watch the trailer, below.
GEMA - Trailer 2017 from Kenrick Prince on Vimeo.
This interview has been condensed and edited.