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Northwestern School of Communication

Dean E. Patrick Johnson Screens Documentary; Discusses Film in Live, Virtual Conversation


“Your story has been heard around the world,” he says. “You are a gift; your life is a gift.” School of Communication Dean E. Patrick Johnson delivered those words in a poignant moment of his award-winning 2019 documentary, Making Sweet Tea; they additionally encapsulate his artistic and scholarly mission as an ethnographer and archivist for the experiences of an overlooked community–Black gay men of the American South.

Johnson’s film and the work that inspired it was the topic of his first public event as dean, a film screening and live virtual discussion with Miriam Petty, film historian and associate professor in the Department of Radio/Television/Film. The October 1 event was open to alumni and members of the School of Communication community.

“It is a film that is so intensely spiritual, so intensely personal, and at the same time so intensely professional, because this is clearly work that you do because you love it,” Petty said, “and it’s work that you do with a high level of rigor and commitment, so that shines through all the way.”

“The tea just kept pouring,” Johnson replied, “and in the directions it wanted to go.” The film is the latest in a series of creative and scholarly works Johnson has produced about a selection of Southern men, varying in age and station, who shared their stories of love, loss, despair, triumph, and the unique challenges of being both Black and gay in a region oftentimes hostile to their existence. Johnson first collected their stories for his landmark 2008 book, Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South—An Oral History. He adapted this into a staged reading, “Pouring Tea: Black Gay Men of the South Tell Their Tales,” which evolved into a full-length play, Sweet Tea—The Play. 

The documentary, Making Sweet Tea, follows Johnson as he reconnects with some of the men and performs for them their own stories. Johnson called the process a labor of love, but also a necessary step in understanding an important element of the American experience—and Johnson’s own experience, as well. “My impulse was always to run in the other direction from that, because as a scholar I wanted the focus to be on my interlocutors, not me,” he said. “But everyone said to me, ‘What’s interesting about these stories, is the men’s stories in relationship to you. You are a Southern Black gay man and your relationship with these men is important, and also your story.’ And again, I went kicking and screaming.”

Johnson reveals his story through visits to his hometown of Hickory, N.C., with his beloved now-late mother, Sarah; a return to the community center where he was honored in 1996 for his successes; a peek in the windows of his one-bedroom childhood home where he was raised with six siblings; and glimpses into his 22-year relationship with now-husband, Stephen, who coproduced the film. Hickory is also where Johnson first met Charles, a hair stylist whom Johnson said he looked up to before himself coming out of the closet.

Charles, the first subject viewers meet in the film, recounts feeling trapped in his male body, yet his faith and family were at times barriers to exploring his womanhood. The film then introduces Duncan, an activist from Decatur, Georgia; Freddie, an avid gardener mourning the death of his partner, also in Decatur; Harold and Harold, a Washington, D.C.-based couple together for 50 years; Countess Vivian, a New Orleans nonagenarian and military veteran; and Shean, a young Durham man who had the familial support and understanding of his homosexuality that others in the film did not.

“There’s a way that that oscillation between your story and the other stories in the film is just so compelling, and there are so many poignant and powerful through-lines that we get, whether it’s about the church, whether it’s about activism, whether it’s about what it means to come out in the South specifically,” Petty said. “There’s a really lovely reflection, and refraction, of those stories that is not exactly the same, but they have points of empathy and sympathy between them.”

Petty noted a moment in the film where Johnson recounts how he was able to get these stories—that he simply asked. But of course, as Johnson noted in the discussion, there’s always more to this pursuit, and establishing rapport with his subjects can result in unusual ways of earning trust, be it through grocery shopping with them, meeting family, or conducting an interview at 11 p.m. at a rowdy Bourbon Street bar.

“You have to go the way the South moves, and that is very slowly and on people’s own time,” Johnson said. “But I also know that I’m not the kind of oral historian who’s afraid of silence…so much is happening in that silence and people are thinking, people are processing, and also there’s a certain energy that you’re generating between yourself and the person you’re dialoguing with…also I’m an empathetic listener, which helps.”

Petty and Johnson’s 90-minute discussion also touched on the ritual of making sweet tea, their own experiences as youngest children, the preeminence of the church in the lives of many Black gay men, the complications around grieving those lost to AIDS, and how the project’s trajectory reflects the School of Communication’s own pedagogical mission. It’s a mission manifest in Johnson, too, who in this project shows his sides as scholar, star, filmmaker, and fearless friend.

Toward the end, Johnson performs Charles’ story for him. Charles’ own exploration of his identity was colorful but often fraught, and Johnson, in character in a feather boa and lip syncing to Patti LaBelle, reflected a strength and clarity of purpose that visibly moved the man. Charles, Johnson tells him, is a gift. As is the film, which, as Johnson noted, is a gift that keeps on giving.

Dean Johnson’s next virtual event is his inaugural Dialogue with the Dean conversation featuring John L. Jackson, the Walter H. Annenberg Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication, Richard Perry University Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and director of Making Sweet Tea. The conversation took place on October 14 from 6:30 to 8 p.m.