‘Gemmel & Tim’ is a moving documentary about the victims of Ed Buck

By NINA METZ

CHICAGO TRIBUNE

NOV 04, 2021 AT 6:02 AM


In July of this year, California-based political fundraiser Ed Buck was convicted on charges that he supplied methamphetamine that killed two men, Gemmel Moore and Timothy Dean, during separate encounters at his home. Reporting on the verdict, the Los Angeles Times described it as a “gruesome case of an older white man using his power and money to exploit the poverty and drug addiction of younger Black men (in which) the jury found Buck guilty of every charge in a nine-count indictment.”


The deeply moving documentary “Gemmel & Tim,” from director Michiel Thomas, takes the focus off Buck and centers it squarely on the humanity of Moore and Dean and the lives they lived. It screens this weekend as part of the 8th Annual Black Alphabet Film Festival. According to executive director Adam McMath, the Chicago-based event is one of the longest running Black LGBTQ/SGL (same gender loving) film festivals anywhere.


In “Gemmel & Tim,” Moore’s friends describe him as both shy and mischievous. He was a homebody. A jokester. He loved to cook. He was part of the ballroom community, where he found his chosen family and they are anguished to read from one of his final journal entries: “I pray that I just get my life together and make sense,” he wrote. “I help so many people but can’t seem to help myself. I honestly don’t know what to do. I’ve become addicted to drugs, and the worst one at that. Ed Buck is the one to thank. He gave me my first injection of crystal meth and it was very painful, but after all the troubles, I became addicted to the pain and the fetish fantasy … If it didn’t hurt so bad, I’d kill myself. But I’ll let Ed Buck do it for now.” He died in 2017 at age 26.

A sketch of Gemmel Moore (left) and Timothy Dean (right) by the artist Caleb Eyram, commission for the documentary "Gemmel & Tim." (The Film Collaborative)


Dean and Moore weren’t part of the same social circle but they both engaged in sex work, which is how they came in contact with Buck. “I believe that it is true, when you are vulnerable — and especially a lot of us men, we don’t like being vulnerable — people sniff you out,” says one of Dean’s friends, referring to the way Buck would target certain people. Growing up, Dean was a star athlete in school, raised by a family who lived across the street because his own family couldn’t afford another child in the home. He was always thinking, where can I go and recreate myself? He died in 2019 at the age of 55.


Buck’s tactics were notorious and a frequent topic of concern on social media after each death. But for years, no charges were filed. If it weren’t for the constant efforts of Dean and Moore’s loved ones, pressing for accountability and an investigation, it’s possible Buck would have continued his gruesome behavior indefinitely.


Stories are how we learn about other people’s lives and festival executive director McMath said he selected “Gemmel & Tim” for a few reasons. “One, Ed Buck was just convicted over the summer. And two, the dehumanization of Gemmel and Tim was around the fact that they were sex workers and a lot of folks devalued their lives because of that.”


As a companion to “Gemmel & Tim,” Black Alphabet is also As a companion to “Gemmel & Tim”, Black Alphabet is also screening “Buck,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020. It is a film “that sees the world through the eyes of Lynn, a young gay Black man who’s in a depression and who turns to his older white lover for release, only to discover that for this man, Lynn is the drug of choice,” co-director Elegance Bratton said in an interview with GLAAD last year. “We wanted to make a film that explores the dynamics that bring young men like Gemmel Moore to predators like Ed Buck.”


In “Gemmel & Tim,” one of Moore’s friends points out that “after Gemmel was gone, I didn’t at all think it would be swept under the rug like that. It was a surreal realization of how invaluable my life as a Black gay man was.” This same point was echoed recently in critiques of Dave Chappelle’s Netflix stand-up specials: The Black community includes LGBTQ people and vice versa, despite Chappelle’s insistence on framing things otherwise.


“The reason we started Black Alphabet in the first place is because if you don’t see yourself in a positive light, or if there aren’t conversations about your value in media or other spaces, then you’re not being fully affirmed as a person,” said McMath. “And we also started the festival for understanding from people who are not in the community, so we welcome allies or people who are trying to understand our journey.”


Also on tap: “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” which is an adaptation of the 2020 book of personal essays of the same title from journalist and activist George M. Johnson. Director Nathan Hale Williams films three actors — Dyllón Burnside (”Pose”), Thomas Hobson (”Sherman’s Showcase”) and Bernard David Jones (”The Mayor”) — in an art gallery setting where they perform monologues from Johnson’s memoir, including one that begins: “I was five years old when I got my teeth kicked out.”

Dyllón Burnside, Bernard David Jones and Thomas Hobson perform monologues in film "All Boys Aren't Blue," which is screening as part of 8th Annual Black Alphabet Film Festival. (iN-Hale Entertainment LLC)


For years after, Johnson (whose pronouns are they/them) was self-conscious about their smile. “Picture after picture after picture, I refused to smile. What did I look like to others, a child who rarely smiled? Did they ever take it as a sign that I was dealing with a trauma I couldn’t get past? Or did they just pass it off as a boys-will-be-boys thing that I would eventually grow out of? To go years without smiling in pictures, rarely being questioned why, leaves me to ask the question: What other signs of trauma do we miss or ignore in Black children? Black boys are supposed to be rough and tough, to suck up the pain and not shed a tear … (and) when that kind of pressure builds within a young queer kid, the fear becomes constricting and can wrap you in layers, each more difficult to peal away as you grow up.”


The Black Alphabet Film Festival runs Nov. 6-7 at the University of Chicago’s Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. All films are also available to be streamed. For more info and a full lineup of films go to www.blackalphabet.org/film-festival.


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