With bittersweetness, I watched Play the Devil lay out familiar panels of my birth island’s social, cultural and physical landscape.
Director Maria Govan’s nuanced 90-minute narrative provides a glimpse of Trinidad’s class inequalities and easy interethnic relationships that have created a society of various combinations and colours that remain close to my heart.
The film is also an homage to the ubiquitous grandmothers and aunties who stand in for parents who, for any number of reasons, are absent or long gone from the lives of their children. I also recognized the still-pervasive, church-bound religiosity that is stifling yet clung to for courage, comfort and hope, co-existing with the beauty of the country’s mountain and seascapes that have a visceral, spiritual power of their own to soothe, cleanse and renew.
The opening scene follows 18-year-old protagonist Gregory and his friend Devin as they trek, pilgrimage-like, to Avocat Falls on the country’s north coast. They are awash in the paint of the Blue Devil, a traditional Carnival figure evolved from the legacy of the island’s plantation days, granting those who embody it a fleeting power to instill fear with their pitchforks, high-pitched screams, and fake blood drool as they insistently demand a dollar if you want to be left alone (or at least escape with your clothes paint-free). This form of Trinidadian mas (short for masquerade) is in sharp contrast to the more commercial, contemporary Carnival that emphasizes “pretty mas” with its sequins, beads and bikinis.
I expect most of the film audience’s sympathies to skew in Gregory’s favour. His mother is dead and his addicted, opportunistic father is not a loving, stabilizing force in his life. He is a talented student with scant financial resources but a doting, hardworking grandmother, who believes her grandson’s ticket to success lies in winning a scholarship to medical school and trusts the Lord will provide — even as Gregory secretly harbours dreams of being a photojournalist.
His older brother is a gruff, tough-love sibling who approaches the world with an armour of stereotypically aggressive masculinity, while Devin, who speaks of escaping “this place,” has seemingly settled on leading a life that is potentially ripe for criminality.
In the midst of this dizzying stew of pressures and limitations, Gregory is battling to keep his sexuality under wraps but gives in to the assertive advances of the wealthy, upper-middle-class James, who plays by the island’s heteronormative rules of respectability: he is married to a woman, has a daughter, and decided (reluctantly) to run the family business.
Apart from being attracted to men, one of the things that Gregory and James have in common is a panoramic view from their respective homes, which are both nestled on hilltops. James’s view of twinkling lights underscores his life of luxury. More than once, we see Gregory tossing stones from his more humble home perched in the Paramin Mountains, the majesty of the view suggesting a world of possibilities ahead but in the end feeling like a kind of mockery of his ambitions and desires. In effect, the vastness belies the sense of confinement its characters experience, much like the physical cages housing the birds Gregory photographs with James’ camera on their trip to Central Trinidad.
As the film unfolds, James’s pursuit of Gregory becomes more aggressive, unnerving the teen with his offers of financial assistance and impromptu visits to the home he shares with his grandmother.
Like the island’s former slaves who used the power of the mask, oil, mud and paint in their own celebrations of self and mockery of a once-ascendant European plantocracy, Gregory retaliates in the persona of a Blue Devil, lunging and shrieking at James, who is among a Paramin crowd that has come out to witness the spectacle of this mas.
“I think Gregory sees his desire for men as devilish, as something that’s wrong, that’s the tragedy of the film,” Govan tells Xtra. “Playing the devil gives him the power to confront James.” And yet, as Gregory repeatedly charges at his persistent lover, his palpable fear mingles with the power he is trying to summon.
There is room for empathy all round, even if James clearly has the means — both economically and in terms of social class — to live more ostensibly as a gay man. Potentially.
As I wrote in a July 2013 column for Xtra, for many a Trinidadian, “fear of ridicule, or diminished reputation, is still enough of a deterrent to being unabashedly out, never mind the colonial-era laws that still may, on a whim or whiff of blackmail opportunity, be invoked to punish the deviant and the different.”
In both Gregory and James, I saw aspects of my own inner conflict on the road to acceptance of my sexuality. I watched Gregory silently question the sincerity of the “All are welcome” sign under the crucifix at the church he attends halfheartedly with his grandmother. I remembered my 30-year-old self going through similar motions as I moved closer to a fuller embrace of myself — and a life in conflict with a society where religious beliefs of one denomination or another, married to limiting views of who and what was acceptable, felt like a persistent weight.
Like James, I had the privilege of leaving and gradually coming into myself away from a familiar, critical gaze. Unlike James, I did not, in the end, succumb to playing at straight.
There are trade-offs. Reconciling between two societies is not easy. For 15 years, Canada allowed me the time and space to emerge into my queerness and to witness its own still-unfolding evolution of acceptance of people like me.
But I still love my birthplace. I eagerly scan its twinkling lights — even as I used to prepare to censor myself — while I wait for the wheels of my flight to hit the ground and brace for the blast of warm, humid air to wash over me. If it’s January or February, I go to sleep to the sound of steelpan music from the neighbourhood yard, and sometimes awake to a short, sharp downpour that soon gives way to birdsong and hot sun.
I see a more visible gay life and I know fellow Trinis who are out in one way or another — something I couldn’t say before I left for Canada all those years ago. In a way, I envy that they have stayed and prevailed among our own — and didn’t run, like I did.
And yet, my spirit is freer than it has ever been. I won’t say I’m comfortable in my gay skin in every setting when I am home — and that holds for some places in Canada, too — but I am less likely to pull any punches about my sexuality.
Govan says she was nervous about screening Play the Devil in Trinidad because of the anti-gay laws that are still on the books, but points out that government funding backed the film. Even when scouting locations for the shoot, she says she and a producer, Abigail Hadeed, were forthright when explaining the film’s plot and received nothing but support.
She remembers Hadeed telling her about the “lines and lines going out the door” after the film’s September 2016 screening at the Trinidad Tobago Film Festival.
“Trinis really came out, and I think it’s really important to affirm that we don’t see ourselves as Caribbean people very often represented by Caribbean people in film,” says Govan, who is Bahamian. “I think that people, no matter what, really welcome that and the effort that folks have made to do that.”
She says she realizes that in a lot of places around the world people are “beyond” the film’s story. “In the Caribbean, we’re not. I didn’t make the film only for a Western, progressive audience. I made it for young boys and for the conversation afterward, really.”
Govan sees Trinidad as a complex place where people enjoy a good laugh and banter a lot, but senses an underlying density and heaviness. “I feel like a lot of pain hasn’t been processed, and this film is about that in a way. It’s about not really looking at the hard places in a really honest way.”
For Govan, the thriving legacy of the Blue Devil ritual in its mountain stronghold within a context of self-repression, provides the space to reveal and confront what we deem to be darkness. “It’s a very liberating ritual that gives the shadows a space, which is far healthier than pretending that there is no such thing,” she offers.
“In order to really work with those hard places in ourselves, acceptance and compassion I feel are more useful than repression.”