Tha Life Atlanta, a docu-series that follows a social circle of openly gay Black men, is generating quite the buzz. Exploring topics from open relationships to bisexuality, it displays varied facets of same-gender loving men of color in the city often characterized as "the Black gay Mecca."
Despite the similarities, this isn't exactly the male answer to Bravo's Real Housewives franchise. The cast members aren’t trophy husbands or boyfriends, none are particularly wealthy and they’re not exactly local celebrities or power players. But that hasn’t stopped the thousands of fascinated viewers from checking out what could be the industry’s first gay, Black reality show.
That is, of course, if it had a cable network as its home.
George Smith, series creator and executive producer, says he’s been in talks with LOGO, television’s premier network for LGBT viewers, about getting Tha Life Atlanta a place in its programming line-up. But after two pitches, LOGO hasn’t taken the bait despite the show going viral on the Internet—including being picked up by Media Take Out—garnering hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube.
To be sure, this isn’t your homemade amatuer reality show. Smith, an attorney by trade, says he invested big bucks into the production and editing of the show. He also sought the advice and expertise of Love & Hip-Hop creator Mona-Scott Young and former Real Housewives of Atlanta star Sheree Whitfield.
“I wanted the trailer to look like it was already on TV,” Smith tells EBONY.com. “I didn’t have the knowledge at the time so I hired people who had the knowledge to help.”
After presenting his first reel back in 2009, Smith says LOGO passed on the show because the cast was “too old,” and after recasting and presenting for a second time the network deemed the new cast as “too young” and “too edgy.”
It’s not surprising that Logo would reject a show like Tha Life Atlanta, considering mainstream television’s skewed representation of Black gay men. Take one scroll through your TV guide and you’ll find very few shows with African-American gay men, with the rare exceptions being TV gender-benders like Miss Lawrence and Derek J, stars of Bravo’s Fashion Queens. But not every gay Black man dons pumps and tunics. The fact remains that when it comes to displaying more holistic and diverse images of gay Black men, there’s an obvious elephant in the room— network boardrooms that is. Whether it be a harmless oversight or deliberate impediment, gay men of color currently have no place in TV programming, which is why visionaries like Smith are turning to the Internet to expose their work to the masses, in hopes of getting the attention of the powers that be.
“We need to have a platform that says this is who we are. Just like Black people come in different shades, so do we in the gay community,” Smith says. “We are multi-dimensional.”
To date, there’s only been one predominantly gay Black cast in television history, which was Noah’s Arc, Logo’s first and only original scripted drama that premiered in 2005. The series, which later spawned the film Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom, managed to illustrate Black queer images (same-sex parenthood, entrepreneurship, social mobility) that often never see the light of day on the small screen. It was a homerun among its target audience, becoming to gay Black America what Girlfriends and Living Single was to Black female audiences. But after only one year, Noah’s Arc, Logo’s highest rated show, was canceled by the network. The cancellation ignited audience backlash through the form of petitions, but attempts to bring the show back on air ultimately went unnoticed.
The series creator and director Patrik-Ian Polk tells EBONY.com that LOGO, which was a small, newly launched network at the time, decided to do away with scripted television and move toward more inexpensive programming like licensing shows for reruns.
“You can stretch your dollars more if you do programming like that,” he says.
But the network’s business austerity came at the expense of Black gay America’s only television refuge.
After the show went off the air, Polk continued to independently direct projects like The Skinny, a film about a young group of Black and Latino gay friends who come to Harlem for New York Gay Pride shortly after graduating from Brown University.
Since the demise of Noah’s Arc, however, gay Black males on television have had to fit in where they can get in. While networks like Bravo and LOGO regularly showcase White gay males as powerful real estate tycoons and business owners, their African-American counterparts usually serve in the capacity of personal assistants, hair stylists or makeup artists. LOGO's foremost Black gay male representation since Noah’s Arc has been the wildly successful RuPaul’s Drag Race—entertaining, sure, but not the most multi-faceted representation of Black gay men.
“Most of the networks have high-level executives whose jobs are to oversee some sort of network diversity,” Polk says, “but somehow we still end up with these casts that are all White.”
Rather than waiting for networks to make a move, however, underground filmmakers, writers and producers, who are independently funding their own projects, are taking matters into their own hands and relying more on an online presence to tap into what they believe is a strong, loyal audience longing for mediums that best reflect who they are.
Roger Omeus, Jr., an independent filmmaker in New York City, says Polk’s Noah’s Arc and 2001 film Punks inspired him to create an online series called Finding Me. Originally a film Omeus distributed on dvd, Finding Me explores similar themes found in Noah’s Arc. There are no over-the-top images of effeminate men wearing makeup, but rather everyday men struggling with conventional issues in the gay black community like hyper-masculinity and coming out of the closet. Like Tha Life Atlanta and another Internet series called Freefall, Omeus’ project has acquired thousands of hits online.
Omeus says he, too, tried to pitch his series to LOGO, as well as BET, but his attempts were met with no reply. Instead, he continues to feed his avid fanbase with mini online episodes. But while web series do quite well by the numbers, there’s one fatal flaw: it’s extraordinarily expensive. Though viewers love the finished product and often demand more, Omeus says, they fail to fully comprehend the amount of time and money that goes into keeping such a creative machine alive.
For one, he says, a series like Finding Me can cost as much as $100,000 per season – and that’s on the low end of the spectrum. And when you’re self-funding your own project with a cast of actors, you’re often cramming in 12-hour days on the weekend in order to complete filming. Omeus says he’s even tried online fundraising, but was unsuccessful at securing any significant capital.
“A lot of us are doing it for nothing,” he says.
Omeus says he’s hoping to someday tap into an online business model that would better serve his efforts. Still, he admits his line of work is more than about the monetary reward.
“I’m doing this for the 19-year-old version of myself looking for something out there, “ he says. “I’m doing this for the 30 and 40-somethings who are still saying I don’t see my story being told.”
As for Tha Life Atlanta, Smith says he’s preparing to present another reel to LOGO in the near future. If the third time is not a charm, however, he says he’ll continue to knock on the doors of networks until someone takes notice. But in the meantime, however, he’ll continue to broadcast the show online.
“There are some days you feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. The masses do not necessarily always understand so they reject it,” Smith says.
“If you look at television now, almost every major show, whether reality or scripted, has some type of gay character now…I just don’t want us to miss the revolution.”
Gerren Keith Gaynor is a freelance writer in New York City and a graduate of Morehouse College and Columbia University Journalism School. Read more of his work on his website, MrGerrenalist.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MrGerrenalist.