“Playing” the Devil: The Role of Religion in Demonizing Queer Identities in Trinidad and Tobago
by Caroline Powell
18-year-old Gregory White’s world is, indeed, what John Hopewell calls a “perfect storm” due to its mixture of “religious conservatism, macho patriarchy, and desperate economic need.” Maria Govan’s 2016 film Play the Devil follows Greg as he begins an affair with much older, married businessman, James Young.
This video essay explores the aspects of Greg’s world that shape his identity in the form of a play, since Greg is essentially playing a role throughout the movie. Each “act” highlights one aspect of his character that has basically been decided for him by his grandmother, James, society, or even God. Religion greatly influences Greg’s dysfunctional family dynamics that lead to the shame surrounding his queer identity. By continuously denying his true self, he becomes trapped in a downward spiral that makes him resort to physical violence to feel in control.
Act One, “Disobedient,” highlights the central role God has in Greg’s relationships, specifically with his grandmother and James. His attempts to conform to religious and familial expectations fail as he explores his sexuality. He goes to church with his grandmother every Sunday, but there is a disconnect between preaching about acceptance and actually showing it. He interestingly wears the same shirt, his “Sunday best,” for mass and his weekend trip to James’s beach house. James is also the first person to bring up the Devil and Carnival, which signifies the importance of tradition in their community.
In her work, Angelique V. Nixon examines obstacles to representing same-sex eroticism in the Caribbean due to larger societal concerns like internalized self-hate and shame that often stem from the dominant place of religion and Christian rhetoric in Caribbean societies. Although homophobic statements are not explicitly said in the film, his grandmother’s comments about God and Jesus, often followed by a shot of Greg’s uncomfortable face, hint at his sexuality’s unacceptance in his family.
Act Two, “Soft,” focuses on Greg’s more “feminine” attributes that are used to paint him as both beloved and unconventional. Simple acts like cooking curry in the kitchen or hand-washing sheets not only hint at his sensitive, cooperative nature but also his family’s lack of money. He has worked hard to make a better life for himself, but to both his estranged father and older brother, he is “soft” and not a “real man.” As the film progresses, we witness Greg’s loss of innocence, especially when he sees James’s manipulative nature and his grandmother’s ignorance, as heard in their conversation about bailing his brother out of jail. When Greg finally does stand up for himself, however, he ends up murdering James, which shows the toxicity of hypermasculinity.
Act Three, “Guilty,” concentrates on the shame surrounding Greg’s queer identity. When James confronts Greg about his sexuality, he gets very defensive and even mentions the Lord understanding that these things happen. James says that he felt a lot of shame when he was younger, and this emphasizes the fact that the culture has not changed much. James tries to become more involved in Greg’s home and school life by renovating his house, bailing his brother out of jail, or giving him rides home, but his behavior reaches a point where it is predatory. So, by the end of the movie, you can’t help but feel relieved that James is dead (at least for Greg’s sake) but does that mean his same-sex desires die with him?
The film’s title and climax refer to the Jab or Devil Dance that takes place during Carnival. It is a ritual where the Devil is given one sacred night to “dance” in exchange for leaving the villagers alone for the year. It follows the mindset of acknowledging and being rather than denying and fearing. This is symbolic of Greg’s homosexuality. The ritual can almost be deemed cathartic, but in Greg’s case, he dances after killing James, so in a sense, he’s literally trying to dance the evil out —but is he a demon because he’s gay or because he just committed murder? Who’s actually the devil in this situation: Greg or James? Greg’s internal conflict is encapsulated perfectly when James says, “Let me tell you something—no liquor, no woman, no priest, not even God himself—is gonna change the fact that you like fucking men.” When Greg is fighting James, he is, in a way, fighting his version of the Devil.
Act Four, “Wise,” shifts focus onto the people in Greg’s life who influence his conscience most. Greg’s grandmother is the central religious character in the movie, but that does not mean she is the voice of reason. Believing in God does not automatically make someone wiser or more powerful. Greg may appreciate and respect his grandmother, but he comes to realize that she does not have his best interest at heart, especially when she wants to use his tuition money to pay James for covering his brother’s bail. I strongly believe that Devin, Greg’s best friend, is the voice of reason in this movie. He is neither religious nor well-educated, but his life experiences and intolerance for people’s hypocrisy allow him to ultimately save Greg in the end.
Devin’s idea of religion is having the waterfall cleanse his sins, so it’s only fitting that he takes Greg there after the jab dance. The video’s end scene is symbolic of Greg’s struggle. The picture of Jesus is above the mirror symbolizing the dominant nature of God’s will over individual desires. Not only is Greg questioning his identity, but the constrictive nature of religion is also weighing on his conscience.
In April of this year, the High Court of Justice in Trinidad and Tobago overturned a colonial-era law banning same-sex intimacy—a huge step in promoting LGBT rights in the country and region as a whole. Considering that this film was created before the ruling, it is important to appreciate its efforts to humanize LGBT people and challenge the dominant demonizing rhetoric that has shaped how they are viewed in Trini society.
- Hopewell, John. “IFF Panama: Maria Govan on Understanding Violence, Trinidad’s Jab Devil Dance and ‘Thriving’ Film Scene.” Variety, 13 Apr. 2016.
- Nixon, Angelique V., “Searching for the Erotic: Boundaries of Male Same-sex Desire in Caribbean Film.” Black Camera, vol. 6, no. 2, Spring 2015, pp.168-186.
- “Trinidad and Tobago: Court Overturns Same-Sex Intimacy Ban.” Human Rights Watch, 13 Apr. 2018.