Writer-director Danielle Lessovitz’s Port Authority made history at Cannes in 2019, when it world premiered in the Un Certain Regard section, becoming the first film competing at the festival to feature a trans woman of colour—Leyna Bloom—in a lead role. Meanwhile some of the movie’s cast, including Christopher “Afrika” Quarles, memorably turned the festival’s red carpet into a ballroom runway; onlookers, including the world’s press were gagged, with subsequent coverage in Vogue, Vulture, and on CNN.
The film’s narrative focuses on a drifting teenager, Paul (Fionn Whitehead), who’s been in trouble with the law and finds himself in New York City with nowhere to live. Stumbling upon the kiki ballroom scene, the white cisgender man immediately falls for a young trans woman of colour, Wye (Leyna Bloom), but he fails to be honest with her about his current circumstances. Wye belongs to the House of McQueen, which is headed by the warm, nurturing, but no-nonsense Mother McQueen (Christopher “Afrika” Quarles), who helps to guide both teenagers as they navigate their relationship.
Bronx-based Christopher Quarles, better known as Afrika (they/them), came of age in New York’s kiki and mainstream ballroom communities—with mentor’s including the iconic Dominique Jackson—when they moved to the city in their early twenties after graduating from North Carolina’s Shaw University. Afrika has worked with various nonprofit agencies involved with health, HIV testing and outreach, in the ballroom and LGBTQIA+ communities. In addition to their role in Port Authority, Afrika was featured in the music videos for Follow Me by The Shacks, the Grammy Record of the Year nominated Colors by Black Pumas, Titus Burgess’ Learn to Love, and appeared in the groundbreaking Emmy and Peabody award-winning television series Pose.
Associate produced by actress, model, and activist Jari Jones—who also made history as the first Black trans woman to produce a movie playing Cannes—Port Authority is executive produced by Martin Scorsese, and opens in select US theaters this Friday May 28th, and will be available on demand and digital from Tuesday June 1st 2021.
Ahead of the release The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Afrika about the film’s authentic representation of the kiki scene, bringing themselves to their screen role of Mother McQueen, that iconic Cannes red carpet moment, and why they admire and appreciate writer, public speaker, and activist Tiq Milan.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: How did you first become involved in the ballroom scene in New York and what has it meant to you in your life?
“Well, I dibbled and dabbled in ballroom back when I was at Shaw university in North Carolina. That’s actually where my name came from. I loved walking runway and people saw me doing it, but nobody really gave me life. In fact, they were really shady to me down there. Every time I came out on the runway I would get chopped! I’d be like, I don’t understand this, what is this?! This is a community that’s supposed to accept everybody.”
“I arrived in New York City back in 2010 and went to a kiki ball. I actually thought it was a real ball at first and I didn’t know what to wear. I brought a big black dress with these red boots, and this really frizzy Tina Tuner-looking wig. When I was out there walking they thought I was a female figure doing drag runway, because I had a wig on and I was a theatrical person. I’m a really big fan of Naomi Campbell and I always used to watch her as a child, so I was like, ‘How would Naomi do this?!’ When I walked that first time in New York I got so into it and I was like, Oh my God, this is amazing!”
“People actually liked my runway and so I got invited to another ball. Then an associate of mine took me to a house meeting, because I wanted to be a Khan. I knew I could walk, but I wanted to be taught. I knew that I might not have been the best, but that I could do it and so it went from there. I ended up getting my gay parents, Lula and Tyra Allure Ross, or Dominique Jackson, who plays Elektra on Pose. Yeah, she’s my gay mother! Which is so crazy. She was such a big supporter when it came to my runways and I learned so much and it was an amazing experience.”
“I used to get out there walking runway and I used to really slay. Actually, I still do slay! I did it until 2017 and they made me a legend in the kiki scene. I’m not a legend in the mainstream scene, because I took a break from that for a while, but I’m back and active in it again now, so I’m ready to show out and get some pride. But me being in the kiki scene is how my role in Port Authority came about.”
For those who don’t know the distinction, what’s the difference between the kiki and mainstream ballroom scenes?
“The kiki scene actually started from a youth prevention aspect, as a way to get youth off the street, to teach them about HIV and how to protect themselves and to build support within the community. It’s a place where youth who aren’t ready for the mainstream balls yet can come. For instance, when I first walked mainstream balls I got chopped every time, but no one was telling me why I was getting chopped. No one was telling me things like, ‘You do this which is good, but you need to switch this up.’ Whereas in the kiki scene you get all of that and everyone’s living for you. If you have the confidence and you hit that floor, it doesn’t matter what you do, they’re going to give you life! Just the fact that you got out there means they’ll be like, ‘Yes, queen! It’s over. We live!’ That’s what they gave me.”
“The Kiki scene is where a lot of my self-esteem comes from because they supported me so much and I felt if they saw it in me then I needed to do more. With the mainstream ballroom scene they saw it too, they saw what I was bringing as something fresh, but mainstream today is very cutthroat, it’s either you have it or you don’t; either you’re relevant or you’re not. If they live for you, they live for you. You have to go into the mainstream with a thick skin, or it’s going to give you that pretty fast! You’re gonna get it whether you want it or not! I received that thick skin from my parents. They gave it to me because that’s how their parents gave it to them. That’s just how the generations work. It was a great experience for me and helped me to grow into the person that I am now.”
In Port Authority your character, Mother McQueen, says at one point “I may look like a father, but I’m a mother by nature”. They are a great head of the house, how would you describe Mother McQueen and the kind of house mother they are? Did you take much inspiration from real life?
“Actually Mother McQueen is Afrika! Who you see on screen is me. My part was actually written for me. One of the amazing things that I really loved about Danielle Lessovitz is that she really listened to our community to learn more. At first, in the script it was just the house kids, but I was like, ‘You can’t have a house without a parent, there’s some type of structure there.’ For me, I’m set up like my mom, but I know that I’m a man and that I can be stern and direct, but at the same time I’m very gentle and soft. I know how to deliver something, but at the same time make you understand it too.”
“They had me talk to Wye, played by Leyna Bloom in the film, and I had to give her advice about her relationship. Honestly, it was crazy because it was so similar to a relationship that one of my gay kids was going through, so it was easy to deliver that message to her and be like, ‘Sometimes you’ve really got to step back and focus on yourself, sometimes you can’t give all of yourself, even if you know you want to.’ When I read my role and saw my lines I thought, it’s literally me! I am a protector and it even said that in there, and that they need more mothers like me.”
“I am a butch queen mother. Nine times out of 10 they’re thinking that a mother is a female, but I identify as he and she, as long as it’s respectful. I always sustain myself as a mother figure. Even as a kid when we played house I was always mommy. So with my kids, they mostly call me mommy. Some call me father, but I am more of a mother figure. So it was a privilege to even be able to deliver that line. I loved it. My inspiration came from Nicki Minaj because she said, ‘They need more like me’, and I was like, ‘They need more mothers like me!’ So a shout out to Nicki Minaj!”
The way that the Kiki ball scene is depicted in the film feels authentic, from the rehearsals, to the house, to the function. Were a lot of people from the kiki community involved to help capture that authenticity?
“We were able to make sure that our community was seen and embodied, so pretty much everyone you see at that ball and in those rehearsal rooms in the film is from the kiki scene. We wanted it to be natural and real and for people to see what it feels like to be at a kiki function. Our functions are always glamorous and fabulous just like in the film. They come done!”
I loved the photographs and the videos from the Cannes red carpet at the film’s world premoere, what was that whole experience like?
“That was the most breathtaking experience to have in my face! Just being on that red carpet and knowing the people who have been there before and had their pictures taken by all the paparazzi was incredible in itself. I’ve seen it in pictures so many times before, so to actually be there and to embody that line and to give them a performance was amazing. Some people didn’t understand it, but most of them went wild for it!”
“It was different for Cannes and it felt good to bring our scene to a spotlight where we’d had the opportunity to be once before, but we weren’t. When Paris is Burning was at Cannes the community wasn’t given that opportunity, but Daniele made it happen for a lot of us and we raised money ourselves as a community to make sure that we were there and that we were represented. So to be centrefold in that way was amazing and it’s just been magical since then.”
What’s your favorite LGBTQ+ piece of culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years and why?
“Tiq Milan. He is actually a really really big in our community. He is my father, he’s of trans experience, and he is an amazing person. He’s the reason that I decided to chase my dreams outside of ballroom, in entertainment, knowing that there are other pieces of myself that I can get to. So I definitely want to shout him out because this man is hard working, he goes the extra mile, and he’s always been in my corner. I lost my father last year and Tiq Milan was somebody who really stepped up for me. It was very rough for me to lose a bridge, because my father was a bridge to me, and to have somebody still in that space meant so much to me. Even though I know people have their own things going on, he was still able to answer that phone and be there or call me back. I know that if I need anything, he’s gonna help me with it. I appreciate him and if it wasn’t for such great people motivating me I would be a little hectic sometimes.”
By James Kleinmann
Port Authority opens in select theaters Friday May 28th and will be available on demand and digital Tuesday June 1st 2021.