The Radical and Revolutionary Return of Chocolate Babies, 27 Years Later
The new restoration of Chocolate Babies, which screened at Outfest Los Angeles last month, stylishly serves lessons on community-led queer liberation during the AIDS crisis of the ‘90s in New York City.
By Kelsey Brown
August, 8, 2023
As seen from behind, a Black person with a bald head raises their arms in the air. The New York City skyline can be seen in front of them. A still from Choclate Babies, courtesy of the filmmakers.
When Stephen Winter debuted Chocolate Babies, a feature film following Black and brown drag queens, trans folk and queer activists who are HIV-positive and seeking empowerment during the AIDS crisis, in 1996, it was met with critics whose limited perspectives marginalized the film.
“It was considered to be so divergent from the norm, that it couldn’t be seen,” Winter says about the film, which is now available on the Criterion Channel. “It wasn’t quite legible to a lot of people. Those who saw it, loved it. But overall, institutionally, Chocolate Babies wasn’t able to be registered or made legible by the power that be.”
27 years later, Winter says Chocolate Babies is finally being taken seriously.
Transporting viewers to New York City in the 1990s, the film allows intimate access into the lives of friends as they ambush homophobic politicians, reflect on their mortality, advocate for their community and find joyful resistance within one another.
The “gay gang” is adamant on holding those who are guilty— politicians, the pharmaceutical industry, the church—accountable, as “every AIDS death is a murder.”
Chocolate Babies returned to the big screen at the Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Film Festival after being restored by the Outfest UCLA Legacy Project and Frameline. Almost three decades later, the restoration allows for a new demographic to rediscover the ideologically radical, yet aesthetically nostalgic, film.
A group of Black people stand together on the street stairing off camera. A still from Choclate Babies, courtesy of the filmmakers.
“Many films get lost [in] history—and many of them should be—but this one has something to say to right now,” Winter says. “This one speaks to the present moment. This one is reaching across the air of time and plunging right into today’s heart. I just love that it’s getting the chance to do that in a bigger and better way.”
Claude E. Sloan, who stars in the film as Max Mo-Freak, spoke to the “timeless nature” of the film, despite it being filmed and focused on the ‘90s. The film is brimming with social commentary on the intersectional issues faced by the QTBIPOC community— like colorism and substance abuse–that remain prevalent almost thirty years later.
Winter, who was 23 when he wrote the film, says he was inspired after entering activist spaces during his teenage years, where he noticed the intersectionality of conflicts: “Racism in the most white gay organization. Homophobia in the Black militant organization. Misogyny across the board. What did Audre say about those tools?”
For younger generations, Sloan sees the film stylishly serving a lesson on queer liberation.
“While you’re being revolutionary, you can look good,” Sloan says. “You can make it something that’s hip and relevant and cool to do. I’ve always believed that art sometimes is the most revolutionary act possible. You can use your art to make the change and to challenge.
Sloan continued, “These fights are not finite. They don’t end; they continue. [The film] can give any inspiration to know that there is joy in the fighting. But we can’t rest on our laurels.”
The film has all the elements of a queer classic. Crafted on a low budget, Winter says it took a community effort of chipping in, casseroles to feed the cast and crew, and open apartments for shooting.
A Black man filing his nails and a Black woman drinking a drink laugh together. A still from Choclate Babies, courtesy of the filmmakers.
A major part of Chocolate Babies’ allure comes from the casting, Winter and Sloan echoed. Winter grew up within the Black theater community of NYC and casted actors whose experience was predominately in theater.
Their mutual background cultivated a dynamic stage for improv, as the movie is adorned with quick quips accredited to the creativity of the actors. During filming, Sloan says the characters were created authentically because Winter used the script as a point of reference for the actors to draw from and freely expand.
The result is characters who are unapologetically themselves, with “no attempts to assimilate [and] no attempts to make people comfortable,” according to Winter.
“We all had similar experiences,” Winter says. “We understood who these people were. We loved them. It was easy to give them full flower in that way.”
Sloan reflected this sentiment saying, “With all of our flaws, you see this dysfunctional bunch [with] good intentions—screwed up in many ways—but at the heart sincere, loving, and desperate to say: ‘We’re going to find our value.’”
The film is tremendous in capturing the cynicism felt by the characters who are HIV-positive and met with no support from the state, and balancing it with hilarious banter that only queens and queers could so effortlessly deliver.
Lady Marmalade, a Black trans woman with long brown hair wearing pearls, looks off camera. A still from Choclate Babies, courtesy of the filmmakers.
One of the most beloved characters is Lady Marmalade, played by Michael Michelle Lynch, who says during her first of many monologues on a mic: “Some folks got AIDS, and some folks got Magic Johnson Disease. Folks with Magic Johnson disease are innocent victims. Well, I ain’t got Magic Johnson Disease.”
Winter says Lynch was recently on a bus and noticed men staring at her. What she thought was a potential fight ended up being a kiki as she was recognized for starring in Chocolate Babies.
“It was always extremely frustrating and painful that the film was unavailable, underseen, and under review,” Winter says. “[Chocolate Babies] has been restored so beautifully and lovingly, not just in my lifetime, but while I’m still in the hale and hardy of mines, and the actors, who also got robbed, are now being celebrated so wonderfully.”
The ability for Chocolate Babies to connect with younger audiences prevails as queer people continue to experience violence and discrimination, which is only amplified for those who are Black and brown, and met with little support from the federal government.
“They’re brave, individualistic, fabulous and tight,” Winter says. “They are fighting for their basic dignity. People across the board, especially young people, are being faced with the question of their dignity all the time.”
For younger generations, Sloan says he hopes it serves as inspiration.
Kelsey Brown (she/her) is a journalist who recently graduated from California State University, Long Beach. As a queer person, uplifting marginalized voices is fundamental to her work.
Brown is also an Outfest Inclusive Press Fellow for the Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Film Festival. Learn more about the program here.
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