Polk’s “Blackbird” Soars with Soul By: Rosa Queen

Patrik Ian-Polk, having three previous films and a TV series under his belt, has once again brought the exploration of African-American LGBTQ experiences to main stream consumption. Blackbird, Polk’s 2014 edition, focuses on a young man named Randy (Julian Walker) as he comes to accept his homosexuality amidst his religious values, shattered family, and close-minded Southern hometown. Polk presents a complicated coming of age story that will surely inspire viewers to consider a new level of intersectionality in the classic story of accepting oneself.

The film opens to the introduction of Randy, a very religious, African-American teenager from a broken home, seeking forgiveness from God for having homosexual dreams. From this scene alone, the viewer can understand Randy’s multifaceted nature. Throughout the movie, we see Randy try to come to terms with his sexuality, his feelings for his friend Todd (Torrey Laamar), the return of his father, caring for his unstable mother, hide his true nature from his friends Efrem (Gary LeRoi Gray) and Crystal (Nikki Jane), and seeking forgiveness from God.

The piece is put together in a raw and soulful way, highlighting the acting talents of Mo’Nique and Isaiah Washington as Randy Rousseau’s separated parents. Mo’Nique in particular delivers the role of grieving and sometimes unhinged mother with spectacular flair, making her scenes some of the most poignant parts of the film. Washington plays the role of initially distant, but understanding father with a level of tact that highlights the intimacy of his bond while simultaneously making the audience forget about his flaw of being estranged. It is clear that the director used the skills of his actors to the best of his ability to craft such an eye-opening story.

Having grown up in a small town in the South where the ruling power was the church, Randy finds it increasingly hard to reconcile his conscience, especially in the norms brought forward through society’s compulsory heterosexuality. Before learning of his homosexuality, Claire Rousseau, Randy’s mother, believes that her daughter was kidnapped due to a sin that God was punishing her family for. It is only after meeting an older Caucasian homosexual character, Marshall (Kevin Allesee), that Randy is able to explore and dissuade these feelings of sinning.

Throughout the film, it is clear that the ideas of homophobia and heterosexism are expressed well by a multitude of characters such as the drama teacher dissuading them from performing a gay play, the pastor willingly trying to exorcise Randy, as well as Efrem’s father believing that he was “being gay just to annoy him.” It is refreshing to see that Polk strays away from the typical racialized script of estranged African-American fathers being distant and cold, to portray Mr. Rousseau as one of Randy’s main supporters. The movie also does push some of the standard media boundaries when discussing not only homosexuality, but also sexually transmitted diseases, rape, abortions and teen suicide.

Although the director does go to address many controversial ideas, there were points of his film at which there was a return to the mundane. One of the key examples of this is the salvation of Randy’s internal controversy, not through another gay African-American teenager, but through an older Caucasian whose family has accepted his homosexuality. Though Marshall may not be a prime example of the Caucasian norm, he does once again portray the white saviour.  Another aspect that drew attention for the viewer, particularly for its absence, was any discussion of other LGBTQ topics besides male homosexuality. Although there was one scene where Marshall takes Randy to a gay bar and some other characters of LGBTQ origins may be seen, the film itself makes no mention of these characters. By the end of the movie it seems as though the only person who has had his happy ending is Randy, whereas Efrem, Todd and his girlfriend, Leslie, are dead. It was a very interesting decision to allow the main character to have a perfect story book ending with his family although this does not accurately reflect what occurs with most homosexual coming to age stories.

One particular scene that resonated with me is when Randy and Crystal decide to lose their virginity to each other and following the incident, Randy breaks into tears and is comforted by his friends. This was truly the tipping point in Randy’s story. The decision to lose his virginity to Crystal was made in order to finally establish his sexual orientation, and upon realization of his homosexuality the emotions proved too much. This image sharply contrasts from Todd and Leslie having sex in the same bed, which yielded a thank you note with a smiley face. This scene also highlights Randy’s fears, the thought of coming out to his parents as well as the repercussions it may have. Having Crystal and Efrem as support also shows the viewers that despite the social constructions and binary thinking apparent in the rest of their town, Randy does have a support system. This scene is the culminating point of the film and represents a key point in not only Randy’s life, but also one universally experienced by the LGBTQ population.

As a part of the Reelout Queer Film Festival, Blackbird only reflects a part of the overall message being sent out by the organizers. Before the film, several speeches were made on resources for the LGBTQ community, as well as ways of getting involved, and history. The city of Kingston was also show available resources to the public through the library and were able to simultaneously show their support of Reelout endeavours in a non-political and non-intimidating way. The festival created a sense of support for those in attendance, although making Blackbird a youth program only may have prevented the adult community from seeing such a beautifully crafted piece.

Overall, I believe that past its shortcomings, Blackbird represents a true feat in cinematography through its translation of so many emotions as well as its presentation of intersectionalities. Not only will this film echo with the existing LGBTQ community, but it will also serve as the introduction of many young African-Americans to coming to accept themselves. This film showed to be an excellent decision for the Reelout film festival, and easily soars above expectations.

-Rosa Queen

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4 thoughts on “Polk’s “Blackbird” Soars with Soul By: Rosa Queen

  1. Darkling

    Hi Rosa Queen,
    I really enjoyed reading your review of Blackbird. Unfortunately, I was not able to see the film myself, but reading about it from your perspective was very illuminating. The title you wrote was intriguing, and drew my attention immediately: it tells me what to look for as most significant in your piece, and sets the tone for the review very well.
    One thing that we have recently discussed in class, but that we hadn’t learned about at the time that your review was written is that “homosexual” is probably not the best word to use in reference to a gay character, or indeed for any queer person. The word is historically a pathologizing term that treats sexual identity as a binary and was used to treat queer identities as a sickness or perversion. That obviously isn’t your intent in the review, but I thought I should point it out for future reference!
    In relation to the content of your review, I think the points you made about the film challenging racializing scripts were very good. From what you say, it seems as though the film works to portray its characters with tenderness and complexity, showing all the flaws and beauty that come with being human. It is also refreshing to see queer black characters on the big screen, as queer youth are often represented within very narrow confines of appearance and background, usually being portrayed as white (and thin, able-bodied, middle-to-upper class, etc). The subversion of the typical tragic queer narrative is also good: too often, queer characters are only allowed to be portrayed positively in films if they end up dead by the end of the story. The tragedy faced by the people in Randy’s life is still awful, but it is refreshing to see a gay black protagonist survive to the end of a film and be granted a measure of happiness and hope.
    Your point about the white saviour trope in relation to Marshall is, I believe, an important one. It is such a tired and common narrative for a white man to educate a black teenager, and the film’s choice to rehash such a narrative in this context erases the possibility of young black queer people receiving support and guidance from older LGBTQ+ people of colour. White people are too often given the role of the enlightened teaching figure, which denies agency to black communities.
    If I were to challenge one aspect of your review, it is that you occasionally make generalizing and homogenizing statements that cannot be universally applied and are founded in socially constructed narratives about LGBTQ+ people. Suggesting that “a perfect story book ending…does not accurately reflect what occurs with most homosexual coming to age stories” is suggesting that it is unrealistic for LGBTQ+ people to find acceptance or support from their community or family. While this is often true, it is not at all inaccurate to show a gay character having a happy ending. I know that when I came out my family soon came to accept me fully, and while I am aware that many are not that lucky, it is also important to recognize that many of our stories do end well! You also said at one point that Randy having a support system is something “universally experienced by the LGBTQ population” which is again, a little too overarching. Avoiding generalizations can make the review more nuanced and thoughtful, and would make it even better than it already is!
    Anyway, thank you for reviewing this film so beautifully! After reading your post about Blackbird, I definitely want to see the film as soon as I can get my hands on it! Your review, like the film it discusses, soars with soul!
    -Darkling

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  2. Moira

    Hi Rosa!

    Thank you for your review – it was a very good read! I liked your analysis of the film, as well as your comments on what was NOT there – e.g. noting that the film forwent harmful stereotypes of black men, Queer folks, and “white saviours”. I really appreciated this last point – I know that we are studying several films and contexts in which white individuals are portrayed as redeemers or saviours, and that you can tie that knowledge in with this film shows a degree of analytical sophistication! I noticed that this film was a youth screening – and you mentioned that it may have kept older audiences from reaping the benefits of watching it. I was wondering – do you think that having a youth screening had benefits? Was the “vibe” different? Was there a positive result of selecting this demographic in particular? Thank you again for you insightful review, and I look forward to reading more from you in the future!

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  3. Elin

    Hi Rosa,

    Your review of Blackbird was brilliant – it was articulately written and did a wonderful job at aptly detailing both plot and character development while, at the same time, critically analyzing, through an intersectional lens, the established power structures and heteronormative, classical ideologies that pervade societal discourse with regard to LGBTQ issues. I thought that you did an excellent job at presenting an objective critique of both the pros and cons of the piece, which truly strengthened the validity of your review. In particular, I thought that the evaluation and questioning of the artistic choice by the director and writer to have a “happily ever after” ending was very interesting and thought provoking. Further, your analysis of racialized scripts and subsequently the role that they played in the film is further evidence of the depth and quality of your review of Blackbird. Similar to Moira, I was left wondering whether you thought the organizers of the film made the right decision to make it a youth screening or whether by doing so, and applying such labels, they hindered the strength of their message and the potentially limited the viewership?

    ~Elin.

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  4. gndsgirl11 Post author

    Hi Rosa Queen,

    I really appreciated your analysis of the film. Having wanted to see Blackbird as well, it was really interesting to gain your perspective on the film. It was very interesting to read about the homophobic characters and the lengths they took to try to “heal” the gay characters in the film (saying that as a way of conveying the fact that they thought they could turn people straight). It really shows how closed-minded some people are when it comes to the gay community, and how people are still so unwilling to accept that this is not a choice, just as much as being straight is not a choice. It’s interesting because even though there has been so much progress with gay acceptance, many people still tend to overlook the fact that there is still major issues when it comes to everyone accepting gay individuals and that there is still much, much more progress to be made. It was also interesting to learn about how the main character was portrayed to have a perfect life, when in reality it can often be very difficult for people to come out to their family and friends and that there can also often times be negative reactions as not everyone is as accepting. Your analysis was very interesting and insightful, and I am looking forward to what you have to say about future topics.

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