Vanilla Sex is the combination of a short anecdote from director Dunye, which she recounts to someone else, set (mostly) to a series of photographs scrolling up the screen. Occasionally, the footage changes to what seems to be home movie of Dunye and some other people playing around, nude (until Dunye shows up, it almost seems like it’s historical nudist footage), in the great outdoors. Fun playing not sexy playing. Fun non-sexy playing.
The photographs are of Dunye and a couple other women. They appear to be process photographs–they’re trying to stage, presumably, another photograph or installation piece–but it’s not clear it doesn’t matter. What matters is how they relate to the anecdote, which is about a time Dunye went to California and heard the white California lesbian definition of “vanilla sex”–no toys–versus her own, East Coast, Black lesbian definition–a Black person with a white partner.
At least one of Dunye’s friends in the photographs is white–the other appears to be Gail Lloyd, because even when Dunye’s short subjects have no narrative (or even titles or credits), there are familiar faces–and the anecdote echoes off the imagery. Same with the home movie footage. It doesn’t directly relate, other than showing how Dunye’s community, but it does echo with that anecdote.
Vanilla Sex doesn’t have a narrative (at all, even as the series of photographs gets more and more interesting, they don’t have a conclusion); instead it’s a visualized musing, with its three elements–the monologue, the progression of photographs, the wilderness party footage–playing off one another, informing one another. Dunye’s got a superior sense of filmic narrative, even when she isn’t doing narrative.