Derrick L. Middleton
Derrick L. Middleton

Filmmaker Derrick L. Middleton’s documentary film “Shape Up: Gay in the Black Barbershop” which had its premiere, interestingly, at the White House, in July, explores the hyper-masculine attitudes he believes “keep so many young gay black men from living their authentic lives in this critical space of black culture.”

He says his first experience in a barbershop was one that completely altered his life.

“My father took me to his barbershop in Harlem, and he puts me in the chair—in the booster seat—and he looks me in the eyes and says, ‘You’re a man now. Don’t be afraid because you’re a man now.’ From that first haircut, my father’s words made me afraid of the barbershop, because that became a place where I had to perform masculinity…Even after I came out, I found myself retreating back into the closet every time I went to my barbershop.”

Though he suffered from this crisis for years, it wasn’t until two years ago that he finally committed to making a film on the subject, after another incident seriously effected him.

“The barber waved for me to come in. I started to ask for my haircut—the fade I wanted, the blend on the sides—and while I was speaking, he said, ‘This ain’t no beauty salon. We don’t do none of that sissy shit in here.’”

Middleton says that the barber literally snatched the cape off him, and his walk home after the incident was a “walk of shame” following what he’d gone through. He also blamed himself for not speaking out.

After that, Middleton quickly discovered that other gay men had faced similar discrimination and resentment in barbershops. “They hid; they stayed silent. They policed the way they talked, how they walked, what they wore—to make sure they wouldn’t read as a ‘sissy.’ After speaking with these men did the idea of a documentary to tell their stories begin to take form.”

For Middleton, the communal black male space of a barbershop was the perfect setting for the film. “No matter what black neighborhood you go to, any black neighborhood, you’re going to find two things—a church and a barbershop. And the barbershop for black males is about as sacred as the church. It’s one of the only safe spaces for black men today, where they can talk about politics or sports and speak completely openly. But these same black men just don’t realize they have gay men in those spaces—that we’ve always been in those spaces. We’ve been there in silence, and we want to be a part of this space as well.”

However, Middleton feels that it’s not just simple homophobia, but also a genuine ignorance that there aren’t any gay men there to hear what is said about them. “Straight men will ask from a genuine place, if this is a real problem, because they assume there just aren’t any gay men in their barbershop… That’s because most of us are hiding.”

While Middleton hopes that his film will challenge homophobia against black queer men overall, he also specifically would like for barbers and patrons to reconsider how they treat gay customers who are increasingly no longer hiding, and are instead living their true selves. He also wants to emphasize the historical and cultural importance of barbershops in the black community.

Check out the trailer below: