I don’t know much about real estate, but I keep hearing about how hot the market is right now. People are buying up property like they are jelly beans, but what about the people getting pushed out of their neighborhoods? When large institutions buy up property for their use, do they owe anything to the people they’ve displaced? To the long standing communities they’ve disrupted? Those are some of the questions posed by this week’s Portrait Lamont Gibson, a budding filmmaker who makes thought-provoking documentaries and narrative films that explore the dynamic tension between race, class, and gender in underprivileged, urban, African-American communities.
His short film, “OMAD”, is about two young African-American Baptist men, whose romantic love threatens their place in their families, and screened at Temple University’s Diamond Screen Film and Media Arts Festival. His documentary “Years To Become Me”, which was about an African-American college freshman struggling with financial aid debt and his burgeoning bisexuality, screened at Diamond Screen Film Series: Diamond Docs.
Tell me a little about growing up in Philly.
I was born and raised in North Philadelphia, the Logan section in January of 1985, so I’m 37.
A January baby, what sign is that and do you have any of the traits?
Capricorn, we’re supposed to be hardworking, all about having goals, [laughing] and a little anal! We love people but we’re all about work. My dad’s a Capricorn so I see the traits in him too.
I don’t know you well but judging by some of the work you’ve done it seems to fit.
Yes, when I see a problem I try to shed light on it. My documentary is basically about the situation around Temple. The school wasn’t really investing in the community around it; we were getting a middle class institution inside a lower income neighborhood. I wanted to get the views of the people on the inside, what it felt like to have mostly white kids from the suburbs moving into traditionally black neighborhoods. To teach about respecting the people who live there. It was my undergrad thesis project. I’m in grad school and doing both docs and narratives, mostly around LGBTQ themes.
While I was waiting to talk to you a story popped up on my news feed about a big protest in University City. About 70 families are being pushed out of affordable housing to make way for redevelopment, some of them have been there for almost 30 years. People are camping out in solidarity with the families who are being displaced.
Oh wow, yes, it’s never ending.
For sure, but before we get into that, a little more about you. What do the folks do?
My dad was a nurse assistant, he worked in the same place for 16 years. My mom was in retail most of her life, she’s on disability now. I have an older brother and sister, so I’m the baby of the family!
What’s something they do that makes you still feel like a kid?
Mostly not listening to me. We have conflicting opinions on things, like when football players were kneeling during the national anthem, they were against that. Their opinion was that black people served this country in the military and we should stand to respect that, but I tried to explain that even in the military there was racism and that protest can be a good thing to spur change. But they didn’t agree, we can be like two negative ions with different force fields. But I’m still in favor of the protests, things are still not equitable when it comes to race in this country.
And serving the country is great and all, but as we know, a lot of times, especially after WWII, you’d have black folks overseas fighting for freedom for other countries and people. And then they’d come back to the states and not be allowed to sit in a restaurant, or vote or buy property.
Exactly. I had an uncle who fought in the war and when he came back, it was terrible. He ended up addicted to drugs and then died. His name was Nathaniel which is my middle name in honor of him. It makes me feel like I need to carry on and tell these stories.
What was a favorite toy as a kid?
I had a fire truck that I really liked and I had a set of race cars that my mom gave me. I liked things that moved.
Ever play any sports?
No, no, I was really bad at any kind of sports. I was the kid in gym class trying to run away from the ball! I’d watch baseball with my grandfather, though. That was nice.
Looking back, what were some signs that you were gay?
I used to be heavier, I was a chunky kid and I’d get bullied at school. So I felt isolated because of my weight, but I’d also feel like something else was wrong with me. I got bullied in high school too and I realized that something was different about me that had nothing to do with my size. I didn’t know how to deal with it and I didn’t know any other gay people so I just kept to myself and kind of dis-attached from everyone. I tried to fade into the background as much as possible.
What was the toughest moment?
When I was in high school, there was a guy who thought that I was hitting on his girlfriend. She was just one of my friends, but he wanted to fight me and called me out. He was the same size as me but he was a boxer and really strong. I was so scared I had a classmate walk with me when I left school and then stayed away for a couple of days. I don’t know if he was transferring his anger on me because of this girl or maybe he was going through something, either way, I didn’t want anything to do with it.
What kinds of things were you into?
Mostly reading and writing in my recreational time.
Best family memories?
My parents divorced when I was 11, but before that we had great Christmases; lots of food, lots of family and lots of presents. I think I got the most because I was the youngest! It was never the same after they broke up.
My mom gave me a radio and it introduced me to all different kinds of music. It helped me grow as a person. And it played cassettes too!
When did you get interested in doing films?
I’ve always had an interest in films. When I was young I had a Canon camera with an in-camera zoom. I enjoyed filming things, but never thought of it as something I could do as a profession. When I turned 28, I realized that I was unhappy with my life. I’d been working as a package worker and in food service but those were just paychecks to stay alive. There was no fulfillment in it so I went back to school. I did a GED program first, because at 17 I’d never finished high school, so at 28 I got my GED and then enrolled in Community College of Philadelphia to study acting and communications. After that I went to Temple to study film. I realized that this is my calling, I want to leave something behind.
So you were an actor?
[Big sigh] Well, yes and no. I did one play and it was the best because I had fun and conquered my fear of being in front of people, but also the worst because it’s when I discovered… when I was told that I shouldn’t be singing in public! It was the play Lysistrata and I was one of the chorus men and all our dialog was sung. It was fun because I’m such an introvert that it was such an accomplishment just to be on the stage. But you had to sing and project to the back of the room when you ain’t never opened your mouth before! Every night the director would tell me, “You’re a little dry. You need to move more” and it was like, “Oh my God, I am moving!” She didn’t understand how nerve-wracking it was for me. When it was over she told me I should never act again.
Yup, but that was okay, I wanted to be behind the camera doing film anyway. I appreciated her honesty. I was just happy that I’d been able to break out of my comfort zone, and I did that. And now when I work with actors, I can be sympathetic to what they’re going through.
What was your first film?
It was called “OMAD.” It was about two gay men who were best friends and a couple but one of them was still dealing with women because of his religious beliefs and the different directions that they take. It was a good film, but the lighting was terrible. I didn’t know what I was doing until I started studying in grad school. But it showed me that I could put a story together. It’s what I’d been waiting for my whole life.
What was your experience coming out?
I’m just getting comfortable with my sexuality as I’m getting older. The immediate family knows and I’ve been open to telling more people all the time. Especially because it seems like women always think I like them and I have to try to make it clear that I’m gay. I’d get, “but you don’t seem like you’re gay,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. I just wanted to be left alone so I could get back to my work! It’s all about mental stability and peace, so I’ve been willing to be more open to achieve that. And maybe it’ll help me find somebody!
Nice! Though I have to laugh, most of your films are about gay male love stories. Isn’t that a giveaway?
You would think so! But no one seems to notice. [Laughing] I’ve made 3 LGBT films, and no one’s questioned me. I guess they see them as social justice films.
As a person coming out a little older, how hard is it to find ways to meet people?
My God, it’s SO hard. When I was younger, I used to try to go down to 13th Street but it’s just not the scene for me now. Just last month I went downtown and what a bad idea. I was a little pensive because I’m not used to that environment. I was in one club and I was not comfortable with the situation at all. It was too hot, too many people, and a lot of groping! I’m old fashioned, so it felt really inappropriate. I mean, I want to at least know your name before you grope me. I just don’t understand the appeal of that environment. I was like, “ucch, get me out of here.” [Laughing] I wanted to say, “Hey, you know Covid is still going on right? We’re going to all end up in the hospital!” I had to get out. I’m trying to figure out different places to go for people like me.
I’ll text you a few recommendations. Our Night Out, the IBA, to start with.
That would be great, the clubs are not for me. I went to one place and no one had their shirts on and the bathroom urinal was a trough! I was like, what’s going on! I’m not using that! It was ridiculous. I mean, it’s great how open people are, I’m just not comfortable like that. So something a little more low key would be appreciated.
So let’s do some random questions. Craziest outfit?
In third grade I had a sweat suit with a hoodie. It had like paint splatters all over it. I thought it was cool, but my teacher used to tease me about it. They’d really bust my chops, but I still think it was cool!
What was the first R rated movie you saw?
Oh lord! I think it was Friday the 13th, I saw it when I was about 13. That was a bad idea! That movie haunted me for years. Sleeping? I love sleeping, but after watching that I was too scared. Not good.
Last time you cried?
I’m so emotional these days! I never cried when I was younger, [laughing] but now I cry a LOT. Especially watching a heart-wrenching drama, or something that connects me with my childhood, I lose it. I’m a big crybaby. The last time was just a few days ago watching the gay film “Cobalt Blue”.
Where do you see yourself going from here?
I do some teaching now, so I hope to continue that. I want to work on another documentary about the police incident on 52nd Street after the George Floyd murder and my graduate thesis will be a narrative film based on a true story about a black gay man navigating his sexuality. And then I’ll probably just be trying to figure out how to pay my student loans!
Who do you hope reads this column?
The dreamers. The ones following their passions. That’s something I didn’t have when I was younger. I didn’t know how to access my passion, I just put my head down and was a workhorse. I thought that’s what you did to survive. But you can evolve as you get older. Find your passion and pursue it. I hope that this is read by like-minded people who want to make the world a better place.