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The DL Chronicles
cast: Damien T. Raven, Terrell Tilford

writers and directors: Deondray Gossett and Quincey Le Near

129 minutes (18) 2005
TLA DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 4/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
A series of four short films dealing with the lives and travails of secretly queer African-American men, The DL Chronicles tries to give an insight into a world that will prove alien not only to straight people but also the increasing numbers of GLBT people who have grown up in comparatively tolerant cultural environments. The first couple of episodes suffer for the relative inexperience of writer-director team Deondray Gossett and Quincey Le Near, but the series eventually starts to find its feat showing a good deal of potential despite the relatively narrow frame of reference the series decides to focus on.

The term 'DL' refers to the practice of being 'on the down-low.' When this term first emerged it meant simply to keep something secret or below the radar but eventually the term started to morph as the American media caught hold of the idea of black men who were outwardly straight whilst secretly sleeping with other men (the title of R. Kelly's 1995 song Down Low [Nobody Has to Know] will not be commented upon, nor will that of his 2005 epic Trapped In The Closet). Interestingly, the concept has proved to be quite separate from traditional ideas of hetero-, homo- and bisexuality. Indeed, the 'down-low' has started to acquire a literature of its own, and this series speaks to that literature rather than the more familiar means of talking about sexuality, which is evidently supposed to be this series' particular selling point.

The first episode features Darren Schnase as an ambitious banker whose marriage is increasingly in trouble, as he no longer wishes to have sex with his wife. Things come to a head when they attend a dinner and another couple talk about wanting a child. The banker feels picked on and reacts, blaming his wife for intentionally humiliating him. The two have a massive argument and the banker gets drunk, whereupon he stumbles into bed with his wife's brother, leaving him to struggle to come to terms with what he did and who he is.

The second episode stars Terrell Tilford as a talent agent who has been in the closet for years after marrying, and having a child with, a woman in the hopes that she would 'convert him'. He meets a man he really likes, who puts pressure on him to come out to his daughter but the agent is conflicted and struggles to come to terms with the fact that he isn't protecting his daughter by staying in the closet, he's protecting himself.

My summaries of these two episodes are quite similar because the episodes are remarkably similar and tell very similar stories about people 'struggling to come to terms with who they are'. This type of theme is almost unavoidable in this kind of series but the presentation of the issue and the characterisation of the men is almost indistinguishable. Also worth noting is the fact that the first episode is one of the worst directed half-hours of TV that I have ever watched; the lighting is atrocious, the actors' faces are frequently poorly framed and, for some weird reason, all the shots are in extreme close-up. Clearly this is supposed to give the series a feeling of intimacy but it just looks ugly.

What is also problematic with these two first episodes is that it is not clear who the series is aimed at. On the one hand, the issues are tackled in quite a black-and-white and simplistic manner suggesting that the series is aimed at a mainstream audience but, on the other hand, the episodes feature extended and quite steamy scenes involving half-naked men. I stopped watching after taking in these two episodes as I was fed up with the lack of depth and the weird production values but I am glad I returned to the DVD, as the second half of the series is substantially better.

The third episode is about Boo. Boo has just been kicked out of his girlfriend's flat for cheating on her, and the first thing he does is sleep with a woman and then a man. Even when he gets back together with her, he sneaks out in order to get a blowjob from a mate who is also on the down-low. Boo's justification is that he's a man and men have urges and the fact that he chooses to have these urges satisfied by men in no way makes him gay. The episode ends with the revelation that the friend Boo slept with is in the hospital with AIDS, suggesting that Boo's promiscuity is not only damaging to himself but also to his community.

On the positive side, this is a fun episode. Boo hops in and out of bed with loads of different people and his attempts at self-justification grow increasingly ridiculous and deluded. On the negative side, this episode really seems designed to confirm a stereotype, not only of the predatory gay man in straights' clothing but also the idea that bisexual black men are Typhoid Mary as far as HIV/ AIDS is concerned. The series does not even differentiate between HIV and AIDS, so someone goes from being fine one minute to being in hospital with AIDS the next. The best way to read this episode is probably as a commentary on how men on the down-low are perceived but, even if your critical charity does not extend that far, it's still preferable that a series such as this one take chances and risk treading on some political toes rather than stick to shallow blandness as in the earlier episodes.

The final episode concerns Mark and Dante, whose happy home is thrown into disarray by the arrival of Mark's cousin. Mark is desperate to stay in the closet and as a result he convinces Dante to re-enter it as he tries to throw his cousin off the scent. However, it then emerges that Mark's fears at being discovered were largely groundless as his cousin, along with his cousin's friend is also gay. This is another fun episode and, like the previous episode, plays the absurdity of life in the closet for laughs. It also features a couple of nice performances and shows how far Gossett and Le Near have come as writers and directors.

On the whole, The DL Chronicles is a slight piece of work that never quite lives up to its ambitions. The writing is never funny or intelligent enough and the slightly abashed manner in which the makers approach the question of the down-low lifestyle prevents the series from ever being lifted up into the arena of the genuinely interesting. One suspects this would be of little interest to those who are not on the DL themselves. A missed opportunity...

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