Chocolate Babies: Stephen Winter’s Feature Debut about HIV-Poz Asian and Black Drag Queens

Stephen Winter’s feature debut Chocolate Babies is a colorful but messy satire about a bunch of HIV-Positive Asian and black drag queens who decide to take matters in their hands and fight the government’s lethargic AIDS policies.

Ambitious in intent, but flawed in execution, pic might not be ready in its current shape for theatrical release, but it should travel the road of gay and regional film festival.

Winter, an energetically young African-American director, has constructed a potentially outrageous tale, set in a harsh underworld, populated by ethnic minority members infected with the lethal virus. Aware of–but unwilling to accept passively–their status as “queer outcasts,” the protagonists form a terrorist gang dedicated to the agenda of attacking conservative and homophobic politicians.

The band’s multi-racial alliance is threatened, when Asian-American Sam (Jon Lee), its youngest–and most sympathetic–member, is discreetly seduced, while working underground, by Melvin Freeman (Bryan Webster), a closeted homosexual councilman. As a result, excessive emotions and conflicts are brought to the surface, for Sam is infatuated with Max (claude e sloan, Jr.), a cynically bitter man who’s dying of AIDS.

As most AIDS stories have been serious dramas by and about white gay males, it’s refreshing to see a political satire that not only revolves around men of color, but also refuses to label them as victims. Indeed, in its good moments, Chocolate Babies displays a zesty, often exuberant style that aptly matches the chaotic story and its flashy drag queens.

However, aiming to be at once a riotous comedy and a sensitive, compassionate melodrama, pic vacillates between wild humor and sentimental pathos, with jarringly awkward changes in tone from one scene to another. Result is a disjointed movie that seldom finds the right rhythm to deliver its message–and jokes.

Well-intentioned, the picture contains some sharply amusing lines, conveyed with great panache by a talented ensemble, particularly the late Dudley Findlay as the flamboyantly outspoken “The Larva.” Jon Lee, the tale’s moral center, is also likable as a conflicted youngster who, in the midst of it all, comes out to his horrified mom.

Martha Gretsch’s fanciful costumes and Ana Iza Otis’ bold production design give the no-budgeter a wild visual style, though lensing and especially editing are just average.

Credits

An Open City Films production. Produced by Jason Kliot and Joana Vicente. Co-producers, Samuel-Moses Jones and Jordan Flaherty. Directed, written by Stephen Winter. Camera (color), Chris Shaw; editors, Francisco Macias, Winter; production design, Ana Iza Otis; costume design, Martha Gretsch; sound, Dan Aronin; associate producer, Donna Winter. Reviewed at the Directors Guild (In Outfest ’96), L.A., July 21, 1996. Running time: 80 mins.

Cast

Jamela……….Gregg Ferguson
The Larva…Dudley Findlay, Jr.
Sam………………..Jon Lee
Lady Marmalade…Michael Lynch
Max………….claude e sloan
Melvin Freeman…Bryan Webster