The specter of homophobia

How does it feel to be gay in an environment where homophobia is mundane and rampant, and where gays are silenced, ridiculed, and assaulted in everyday life?

Still from All the Colors of the World Are Between Black and White (2023)

It is no longer news that much of contemporary Africa is homophobic. As of 2023, more than 30 African states criminalize same-sex relations with punishment ranging from life imprisonment to death. Arguments against the legitimation of homosexuality in the continent are various and frequent in popular culture. African homophobes invariably posit that homosexuality is culturally―traditionally―unAfrican; that it is biologically or scientifically antithetical to the survival of Africans; and that in its religious manifestation, it invites the wrath of supernatural beings. The contentions of African homophobes to interdict same-sex relations in the continent—as in Ghana’s recent draconian anti-gay bill and Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2023―are not merely simplistic, they are profoundly misguided. Amid these disputations, what is generally left out of discussions of same-sex relations, however, is the everyday lived experiences of homophobia in parts of Africa where homosexual identity is anathema. This is precisely what is captured in the outstanding romantic film directed by Babatunde Apalowo, All the Colours of the World Are Between Black and White.

Set in Lagos, the life of the protagonist Bambino―a delivery driver who ekes out an existence in a low-income neighborhood―takes us through the everyday experiences of gays in a homophobic milieu in the postcolony. Through Bambino’s experiences, we get a glimpse of how homophobia is not so much an abstract phenomenon but a traumatic daily occurrence: gays are assaulted and gayness is ridiculed in everyday life. Precisely because of this atmosphere of generalized hostility toward homosexuality, Bambino’s sexual identity oscillates between self-abnegation and self-restraint throughout the film. He neither accepts nor denies his sexuality; his life is a constant struggle to navigate his diverse relationships without arousing public resentment or suspicion that could jeopardize his physical security. Bambino’s life is that of an ordinary gay person in an anti-gay environment in the postcolony.

Bambino’s self-abnegation is evident in his daily interactions with Ifeyinwa—a neighbor of the opposite sex—who falls in love with him without any comprehension whatsoever as to why Bambino cannot reciprocate her love. Despite being aware of his sexual identity, Bambino does not disclose it to Ifeyinwa. Instead, he remains in denial and goes so far as to get intimate with her in an attempt to please her—an activity that turns out to be disappointing for both of them. Bambino’s intimacy with Ifeyinwa means nothing to him. He wrestles to rid himself of his sexuality—or, to be more precise, to convince himself that he could become other than what he is.

When Bambino encounters Bawa―a gay photographer―with whom he falls in love and shares joys and sorrows, we notice that there is excessive self-restraint. Evidently, they both enjoy each other’s company and can spontaneously talk about their lives and sexual identity but Bambino consistently rejects Bawa’s romantic gestures. Indeed, as a consequence of Bawa’s frustrations with Bambino’s self-restraint and refusal of sexual intimacy, we witness the repercussions of being gay in an anti-gay locality. When Bambino is abruptly assaulted by a homophobic mob, we come to comprehend that his excessive self-restraint, much like his self-abnegation is a measured reaction to the social world that circumscribes people like him. He is a victim of the tyranny of anti-gay irrationality pervasive in much of the postcolony.

The film effectively disrupts the narrative that gay people are “abnormal” people who harm society precisely because of their sexual orientation. Like most people, Bambino is conspicuously normal and embedded in myriad networks of healthy relationships: he has aspirations to become the manager of the logistics company he works for; he is profoundly generous to his neighbor, Mama, who survives on a meager income; he revels in the pleasures of the mind; his sexual identity does not preclude him from nurturing relationships with men and women alike; and, of course, he has his disappointments and trauma. The film effectively humanizes gays by underscoring that, in a homophobic setting, it is not homosexuals who should be considered a problem to be addressed but the social mores against homosexuality that condemn gay people to emotional pain. Homophobia produces psychic torture―and the film successfully penetrates the interiority of Bambino to give us a fuller picture of what it means to have one’s sexuality socially sanctioned.

Despite the achievements of the film, however, it risks projecting a single―and simplistic―narrative of the lives of gay people. Gays in Africa are multifarious―they have different temperaments and are of different social classes; there is no single way to be gay in an anti-gay environment. Whereas some gays may choose self-abnegation or self-restraint as a strategy to navigate anti-gay settings depending upon the specifics of their circumstances, others may decide to confront the social structure through establishing and participating in, social movements or clubs to alter the order of things. Indeed, the film circumvents the repertoires of resistance that gay people utilize to counteract homophobia in everyday life. A balanced narrative would thus feature not merely mental pain but also the plethora of spaces gays carve out for themselves to embrace their sexual identities, resist structural violence, and transcend the boundaries of their social worlds.

Overall, All the Colours of the World Are Between Black and White is lucid in its presentation of the real challenges that gay people face in much of the African continent. It is innovative in large part because it lays bare the lived experience of the social injustice of homophobia, compels us to connect and empathize with marginalized people and surreptitiously points us to resist social mores that do not serve the interests of those who identify differently. It is a film that reminds us why anti-gay legislation should be relegated to the dustbin of history, why unjust social norms should be discarded, and a masterpiece that should be seen by anyone concerned about the impact of homophobia on the emotional life of gay people in Africa.

Further Reading