Jussie Smollett is on a mission—and it has nothing to do with his infamous legal case. Throughout his career, he has brought prominence and complexity to Black gay men in roles ranging from Magnus in the LGBTQ+ classic The Skinny, which many consider a breakout role, and, of course, Jamal Lyon on the trailblazing series Empire. Now he’s doing it behind the camera, making his directorial debut B-Boy Blues, the first screen adaptation of James Earl Hardy’s groundbreaking 1990s novel, on BET+.
“If you look at everything that I've really been a part of, every role I've been blessed enough to play from Magnus to Jamal to Langston Hughes [in Marshall] to now kind of ushering in these brilliant new young actors—to be able to stand and show what they can do—it's always been for the people; it's always been for love and to show that we are not one thing—we're so many things,” Smollett, who also launched his own production company SuperMassive Movies with the film, candidly shared.
When B-Boy Blues came out in 1994, it became an instant classic. Although it’s credited as the first same-sex love story to prominently feature hip hop, Hardy explained that the book’s enduring legacy, which now includes a successful ongoing book series and a play, is still rooted in what made it stand out when he initially published it. “For many people who come to it, it's usually the first time where they're reading a love story between two Black men,” he said. And now that that love has taken visual form it will only touch more people.
“Usually, when we see Black men, it's through a prism of pathology, regardless of their sexual orientation,” Hardy shared. With Smollett’s B-Boy Blues, co-written with Hardy, that is far from the case. Although there is an instant attraction when Mitchell (Timothy Richardson) and Rahiem (Thomas Mackie) meet, love is what neither one is expecting. For one, Mitchell is older and Rahiem younger. Plus Mitchell leads a magazine and is established in his career while Rahiem is a bike messenger who is still finding himself. Yet, together they find a common ground that Smollett revels in on screen.
“It wasn’t about showing sex; it was about showing intimacy,” he explained. “I think what we miss sometimes for ourselves is the idea of actual intimacy. Sex is bomb but what about intimacy, the feeling that you have when it's a true connection? And that's what we were trying to parlay. It came out so beautiful.”
The cinematography gives Harlem a romantic feel rarely captured on screen. In the few instances where Harlem is depicted as magical, it is almost never in present-day. On top of that, the Harlem of B-Boy Blues is filled with love, romance, intimacy and belonging. Smollett revealed that stylistically he was inspired by French film as well as the work of Spike Lee and John Singleton. “I told my editor we were making a little Black French film. We don’t want to get too big. If we can keep it contained and keep it small, the people will feel it," he shared "They will feel the love and they will be able to look into our characters’ eyes. We have beautiful cast members but my whole thing was ‘I don’t care about eye candy; I wanted heart candy.’ When we can tug at their hearts, then we got them.”
B-Boy Blues also has the cultural edge and commentary for which Lee and Singleton are known, but with Smollett’s own personal spin. “We were able somehow to have political and cultural commentary while showing just real life,” Smollett, who lives in Harlem, disclosed, “That was my apartment [referring to Mitchell’s home in the film where he and Rahiem spend most of their time together] so that's my art of Angela Davis in the back, and Huey Newton and the Black Panthers. It was so important to show those images. I want people to go ‘oh who is that? What artist did that?’”
Mona Scott-Young, whose Monami Entertainment, which has expanded into scripted projects, was instrumental in bringing the film to BET+, told EBONY, “I am well-known for kicking in doors, going to parts unknown, and shedding light where there is none. I knew that it would take some weight to get this on air, to get platforms to embrace it, to get this incredible project to the masses, and I just wanted to play a small part [because] it’s a beautiful love story.”
Smollett promises that more projects are on the way, including a holiday film, and that B-Boy Blues is just the beginning to a life behind the camera driving the kind of work he wants to see in the world. Going forward, he shared how he wanted to bring “just more representation of us, more love from us, more showing us in love and showing us, and I mean everybody.” He added, “I want to show Black love in its full realm in its most beautiful form and I feel like that’s what we started with this film.”
B-Boy Blues is currently streaming on BET+.