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.