Being ‘Merman’ helped André Chambers overcome racism, homophobia

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“When I put [the Merman costume] on, people were like, ‘That’s you, that’s you,’” says André Chambers. Photo courtesy of André Chambers.

André Chambers wasn’t always “Merman.” As a queer Black kid growing up in majority-white neighborhoods, he frequently faced racism. He turned to cartoon character “Aquaman” for strength and escape. His relationship to the character would grow and change over the course of his life.

“I identified with him because of his affinity for water. But also, in my later years, I realized … of all of the other superheroes out there … everyone else fought individually. Superman fights people individually, Batman fights people individually, Wonder Woman fights people individually. Aquaman gets a team together. He would pull other aquatic life together to go after whatever he needed to go after, to fight for a cause. And that's how my life has developed over time with my work in an emergency room,” shares Chambers, an ER nurse by day. “It takes an entire team to save someone's life, to take care of a person. And at the same time, you have to remain calm and cool. And after a long, stressful day at work … I come right home and jump right in the pool. Sort of cleanse myself and just become calm.”

Sterling Hampton and André Chambers at the Tribeca Film Festival screening of “Merman.” Photo courtesy of André Chambers.

Sterling Hampton, who directed the 11-minute “Merman” short documentary, stumbled upon Chambers’ story on social media and quickly realized he had to help him tell it. “I was surfing the Instagram explorer page trying to find subjects, and I just so happened to stumble upon a photographer's account. And this photographer had attended a leather enthusiast competition. … And one of the pictures in the photographer's post on the carousel was Andre. And he just looked like a superhero. And I just thought to myself, I would love to learn about this amazing human being,” Hampton says.

Many hours of taping, editing, and animating later, “Merman” came together, screening most recently at the Tribeca Film Festival. Hampton says there have been “a lot of eye-opening reactions. And that's been our intention, is to be disruptive and also speak to the human experience.”

“Merman” is now streaming on the LA Times’ website and will be screening at Outfest on July 10.