Cypher Avenue Rating: 4 of 5      

Picture“The D.L. Chronicles: Episode Thomas” is an odd little beast. On one hand it triumphantly swaggers around the room with its’ chest out, boasting its high quality filmmaking, exceptional writing and superb acting. On the other hand it carries a weight of a stale name and dated history that’s akin to an early 90s rapper still trying to stay relevant in these teenage years of the 21st century.Yes, I’ll explain. First a little backstory. I’m a discreet masculine Gay Black Man who’s not in the closet. Some would argue that Discreet and Closeted are the same thing, I disagree. I freely live my sexual and intimate life without letting that wholly define who I am. While I’ve never technically been “on the down low”, I know full well the misdirection that comes with being “discreet.” Although I’ve never been directly asked if I was Gay by friends or family, in the past I’ve still used all of the typical tricks to just not have to deal with the subject at all: Changing pronouns, blaming work for lack of a girlfriend/wife, etc.

Even with all that, I’ve never dated women while simultaneously dating/sleeping with men.  This fact brings me back to “The D.L. Chronicles.”

As a younger man, I saw all of the black gay media content that I could get my hands on. The work of Maurice Jamal and Patrik-Ian Polk were refreshing, but I could never relate to the characters or situations presented…in any way…at all. True they were Gay and Black, but that wasn’t enough. True, the men in “Paris is Burning” were Gay and Black, but their lives were foreign to me in every other way. It was then that I discovered “The D.L. Chronicles” created by Quincy LeNear and Deondray Gossett. The name, at the time, was very intriguing and seemed like a drug dealer at the opening of a dark alleyway waving his hand and whispering, “Hey you, kid…over here. Let me show you something.” Like a sniff of cocaine from a dealer, I was hooked from that first hit (or so I’ve been told folks, drug-free here).
Presented in an anthology format, “The D.L. Chronicles” showed us the layered, complex lives of four different groups of people in four different episodes. The only loose connection was the narrator Chadwick. Suddenly I could see men like myself on screen. Not only that, I saw potential future situations for my life as well. I saw that my fate as a homosexual was not only an eventual assimilation into the Black Gay Ballroom and Drag Show scene with my hypothetical flamboyant J-Setting  boyfriend. I was shown that there was actually more to “the gay lifestyle” than I had previously seen. Those four short episodes were all we got, however.
Fast-Forward five years later, I sit in the front row of a small theater in Atlanta with my Cypher Avenue team as the creators of “The D.L. Chronicles” take the stage. An involuntary smile hits my face as I realize that not only am I hearing these influential, talented, classy guys speak merely 10 feet away from me, I’m also about to finally see a new episode of “The D.L. Chronicles.” A depiction of black gay men that defies the norm, not in a way demeaning effeminate men, but merely expanding on the diversity within a whole community. The lights dim.

We start with the same opening theme from the previous episodes and Chadwick’s familiar voice giving us commentary. Keep this in mind; I’ll get back to this because I think it’s is one of the biggest flaws of the film. Next we dive into the story and immediately you get the sense you’re in the hands of real filmmakers. We’re quickly introduced to all of the main characters, the world and the conflict in a visual way, not with the characters telling us the backstory through forced exposition.  We slowly get pieces to the puzzle and build on the character of Thomas Gavin, played by Gabriel Corbin. The performance given by Corbin is both subtle and commanding as he’s able to carry many scenes with a wide range of emotion without even speaking a single word.The title character Thomas is a firefighter who has recently been paralyzed during an accident while on duty. A physical therapist-slash-caretaker Steven Nevins (Johanny Paulino) comes on board to help Thomas gain both confidence and independence while adjusting to his handicap. Feeling pushed away is Thomas’ best friend and neighbor Columbus (DeLaRosa Rivera) who tries his best to lift the mood of his buddy who’s clearly going through a depression. All of the actors deliver nuanced, engaging, non-stereotypical performances that help us instantly believe the depicted relationships of the characters on screen. This is a testament to the on-screen talent, the casting choices and the film’s directors guiding them correctly.

The film also handles sex in a very sensual and romantic way, unlike many films from black gay filmmakers. Homosexuality is not depicted in a debased, pornographic way that reinforces so many stereotypes of gay sex. Even the way in which the “sex scene” is weaved into the story is done in an atypical creative way that still feels relatable: we’ve all been there before.Lastly, the direction and screenplay manage to entertain without ever feeling limited, given that the entire film takes place in one location. This “bottle” technique, while obviously helps to reduce the budget, adds to the feeling of constraint that the main character feels while trapped in his wheelchair. Foreshadowing and misdirection are woven from beginning to end as seemingly insignificant props and dialogue come back in the form of plot twists and surprises. Again, this is a rarity not only from black gay filmmakers, but many independent artists in general.

With everything I loved about this new episode, there were some significant problems I had with the film and the continuation of the franchise in general. First off, while pretty much the entire film was very easy to follow, I did get slightly taken out of the narrative in a few instances. The main shock came at the tail end of an otherwise engaging dream sequence.  There’s an odd reveal in there that is just plain confusing and distracting. Very surprised the filmmakers not only chose to photograph it that way, but also to leave it in the edit at all.

Secondly, this film would definitely be better served as its own separate identity. Putting this under the antiquated banner of “D.L.” is a misnomer. It feels like calling a new model Nissan Maxima a Datsun, the car manufacturers name from many years ago. True the film is from the same writer/directors and involves gay content, but the meaning of “down low” has changed a lot since 2007 and this new complex film incarnation doesn’t fit the current urban definition. Just like the term “discreet” carries a lot of misdirected negative weight, the term “down low” makes us imagine bisexual men hooking up and whoring around with men and women simultaneously. This film, thankfully, has none of that.

I can understand LeNear and Gossett’s business decision to retain the recognizable name from a series with a pre-existing audience, but it may be time to let it go. Let this eagle soar and stand apart from its older brother. The original series only had 4 episodes over FIVE years ago, as great as they were, that’s not really what I’d call an example of a strong, winning brand worth holding on to for dear life. The opening sequence featuring familiar music and Chadwick’s narration literally add nothing to the film. To be honest, even under threat of Zero Dark Thirty torture, I’d be hard pressed to even remember what was said by Chadwick in the first few minutes.

Lastly, this thought forced me to revisit the concept of the series itself. The filmmakers told us in an interview that they hope to continue the series with more episodes, telling more stories. While we’d love to see and support as much of their work as possible, I think the anthology format is a hindrance.
Today’s audiences have been reprogrammed to blow through entire seasons of shows in one weekend in order to find out what happens next to their favorite characters. We saw it with the recent series “The L.A. Complex” in which fans racked up over a million YouTube views on the 7-minute “Kaldrink King” storyline episode rips just to see what happened next with the character. This is not possible with a past or future episodes of “The D.L. Chronicles.” True we have the Chadwick character to serve as a narrative thread, but so far it’s been a thin thread at best.

As the story in “Episode Thomas” came to a close, I thought to myself how much I’d like to see what happens next with these characters.  Based on the series’ format, this will not happen. One could make the argument that this fact may have contributed to the downfall of the series back in 2007. Imagine what kind of show this would be if we had 4 episodes following the Boo character, his family and those around him? Imagine if it were 4 episodes of Mark or Robert’s life…Given time to live and grow with these characters would have changed the depth and fan attachment to the franchise.

One could argue, “Nick, your gripes have nothing to do with this film itself.” The reason why this was a big distraction for me is that the short was presented as part of a whole. It’s even called “Episode” Thomas.
As a plea to the filmmakers, I’d love to see them work their skills either on a Feature Film or a series where we grow with and learn more about the SAME characters over time. I’m sure either choice would result in something fantastic and beautiful.
Whether they take my advice or not, we welcome the return of Quincy LeNear and Deondray Gossett to the world of narrative film and look forward to seeing what they have in store for us in the future.

– Nick D

See Octavius Williams’ Review of “The D.L. Chronicles: Episode Thomas” HERE.