A high school senior named Randy (Newcomer Julian Walker) and his band of queer friends fight for a life outside the constrictions of their small Southern town in Blackbird, a powerful film co-starring Academy Award winner Mo’nique (Precious) and Gotham Award nominee Isaiah Washington (Blue Caprice). Black, white, straight, gay and all things in between, these friends discover firsthand both the rewards and consequences of growing up as outsiders. The film reminds us that being a teenager is always hard, even when life tells you being young should be carefree and easy. Its ensemble of young actors make an impact, as do Mo’nique and Washington as Randy’s conflicted parents.
INTERVISTA AL REGISTA
di Michael Musto (Out.com)
No one has done more for the visibility of gay African-American characters than Patrik-Ian Polk. Polk created the dramatic series Noah’s Arc for Logo, literally changing the face of gay representation, and he’s also the man behind groundbreaking feature films like Punks, Noah’s Arc: Jumping The Broom, and The Skinny. His latest—Blackbird, based on the coming-of-age novel by Larry Duplechan—has Julian Walker as a teen misfit in the church choir, with Mo’Nique and Isaiah Washington as his soul-searching parents. (Mo’Nique and hubby Sidney Hicks produced the film.)
Polk changed the book’s setting from 1970s rural California to present-day Hattiesburg, Mississippi—which happens to be his hometown—but he strived to keep the spirit. On the verge of the movie’s February 16 premiere at the Pan-African Film Festival, I poked Polk for an illuminating catch-up session.
Musto: Hello, Patrik-Ian. Why were you attracted to this material?
Patrik-Ian Polk: I left Mississippi after high school and went to college in Boston, and there was a big bookstore in Harvard Square. They had a whole shelf that was gay and lesbian. I’d never seen a gay and lesbian section. There was one book that had an illustration of an African American on the spine. It was Blackbird. I’d read other gay novels, but this was the first black coming-of-age novel. I don’t know if I’d call James Baldwin’s work coming-of-age stories. I fell in love with the book and knew it would make a great film someday.
Is the protagonist bullied?
He’s not being bullied, but he’s weighted down by the overly religiously conservative environment he’s in. As most teenagers do, he’s coming to terms and figuring out who he is. He’s struggling with his Christian faith. He really believes it when you first meet him. He’s plagued by these burgeoning emotions. We can see how he struggles with that and how it affects the family.
I know that Mo’Nique’s character has some serious issues with her son’s sexuality, but I assume she’s a better mother than in Precious?
Absolutely! She’s a Southern Christian woman. She believes in taking care of her family, but circumstances have shaken her foundation. Dealing with this information with her son is a challenge.
How did you get Mo’Nique attached to this project? She hasn’t exactly been omnipresent on the big screen since winning the Oscar.
Isaiah Washington—who’s one of my favorite actors on the planet—was my first choice to play the father. I got the script to him. He had a relationship with Mo’Nique; they had the same attorney. He said, “How about if we show this to Mo’Nique?” I never thought in a million years I would get her for this.
What was it like to work with Mo‘Nique on this gay-related project?
She is a true force of nature. She just “gets” it. She felt really connected to the themes in this film—self-acceptance, tolerance and love, regardless of sexuality and religion. And beyond her wholehearted support of the LGBT community and our issues, she’s just a phenomenal actress. And for an actress who’s won every award known to mankind, she’s incredibly down-to-earth. She’s such an amazing dramatic actress that you forget she’s a comedienne—until she lets her hair down on set and you’re grabbing your side from laughing so hard.
Do you relate to the character of the boy?
I was 17, a virginal Mississippi boy who’d never been away from home, so I absolutely related to it. And it’s extremely relevant in 2014, with everything that’s going on.
That’s always been your mission, hasn’t it—to portray gay African Americans, who are not seen enough?
When I started off as an artist, I wanted to tell stories that were of interest to me, which became a focus on stories I wanted to see onscreen. We didn’t see much gay anything when I was young, but as it became more and more popular, it stayed incredibly white.
And in trying to change that, I bet you’ve faced a lot of opposition.
When I look back on my years of work as a filmmaker, I’ve seen counterparts—white gay filmmakers—who come up exactly at the same time as I have, but there’s more acceptance from Hollywood for them. I see all these white gay filmmakers working and doing television series and major movies. It’s hard enough for black filmmakers, but then you add the “gay” monicker. But nothing good comes easy.
Was there any trepidation about working with Isaiah Washington, who had a much-reported homophobic outburst on the set of Grey’s Anatomy in 2006?
I never bought the story that the press was selling about that whole thing because the Isaiah Washington that I know was not only an amazing actor, but he was known for doing daring, bold, provocative work. He played a gay character in Spike Lee’s Get on the Bus. No homophobic black actor that I know would do a role like that. All it took was googling and researching to find out it was about two actors having a moment on the set, and a word was used, not in a homophobic context, but in the context of an argument, and it got blown out of proportion.
But should the word be used, even in an argument?
He acknowledged it was a word he should not have used. That was a case of the punishment not really fitting the crime. With Blackbird, he’s been a dream.
How did you cast Julian Walker in the part of the teen boy?
There’s always nervousness and hesitance. I get this from well known actors and not so well known actors. We went out to any young black male actor with any sort of a profile—featured actors on Glee, in the background—and there’s still that skittishness. I never worry about things like that because I believe the universe will send me who I’m supposed to have. This kid I’ve never heard of—a freshman at the University of Southern Mississippi—submits himself, comes in and reads, and he’s incredible. He hasn’t had the time to develop a lot of the internalized homophobia that those of us who are a bit older grew up with. He’s a newbie growing up in a time where it’s really quote-unquote, “OK to be gay.” He’s not saddled with all of that. He’s openly gay and young and fabulous and poised to become the black Chris Colfer.