The first time I saw Blackbird, the film about the coming out of a gay Black teenager based on a novel of the same name by Larry Duplechan, was at the Pan African Film Festival of 2014 where it screened in the prestigious position of closing night film. I will return to this fact later.
Initially, I wasn’t too impressed. Written and directed by Patrick Ian-Polk, best known up to that point for the TV series and movie spin-offs, Noah’s Arc, the movie struck me as the kind of slick fluff that film festivals like to choose for opening and closing nights in order to attract a large audience. Although much of the story focuses on the Black teenagers of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, the adult roles were played by Hollywood “names,” Mo’nique (pretty fresh off of her Oscar for Precious) and Isaiah Washington. I would guess this is why the film was ultimately greenlit. Mo’nique got to chew up the scenery in the showy role of a demented mom, but Isaiah Washington had little more to do than radiate folksiness as the unconvincingly-written character of a working-class Black Southern man who is not only ready and willing to accept his son’s homosexuality but who tells him that he kissed a man on a dare when he was younger . . . and liked it. (Cue the Katy Perry song.)
Here’s some of the plot: born-to-be-gay, conflicted Christian boy, Randy Rousseau, meets and is befriended by out white boy, Marshall MacNeil, who slowly coaxes him out of the closet. Around Randy’s arc swirls much, mostly hetro melodrama. Randy’s best bud, Efrem, contracts an STD as a result of secretly cruising for gay sex in the bushes. Another hunky friend, Torrey, for whom Randy has the hots, impregnates his girlfriend, the Baptist preacher’s daughter who dies during a subsequent abortion. Torrey then commits suicide by slamming his motorcycle into a train. Randy’s sister, Chrissy, who was abducted from a shopping mall six years previously is returned home at precisely the same moment that Randy brings Marshall home and introduces him, with artful hesitation, as “my boyfriend.”
In spite of these larger stories, the movie’s focus is on Randy’s coming-out narrative. Everybody around Randy knows he’s gay, in spite of his denials, and seems cool with that. That’s wish-fulfillment #1. Then when Randy becomes involved with a white boy in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, nobody bats an eye (except for the crazy mom, who wields a bat, believing that Chrissy was taken from her by God in punishment of Randy’s sinful character). That’s wish-fulfillment #2.
In an early getting-to-know-you conversation, Marshall makes an interesting, if arbitrary distinction between movies and film, citing John Cassavetes as an exemplar of the latter. “Movies are about dreams; films are about truth.” Blackbird clearly qualifies as a movie by that criterion. In spite of the presence of some potentially troubling elements, like the homophobia of Black Baptist Christianity, this small Mississippi town is not only post-Stonewall (there’s a gay bar) but post-racial. Blacks and whites fraternize in perfect harmony, and the movie’s Black elements, pretty young people and the church choir making a joyful noise unto the Lord, are aesthetic attractions unlinked to poverty, racism, and thw history of Jim Crow. Blackbird never had much of a wide-release, and Rotten Tomatoes gave it an aggregate rating of 29%.
And yet . . . the movie does cultural work that an equivalent film, such as a Black Cassavetes might make, cannot do. For many, seeing an attractive young Black man make gauzy, slow-motion love to an attractive young white man will be a first. And since the cinematography of such a scene is totally taken from the hetro soft-porn conventions now common to R-rated movies, a certain audience empathy is assumed and perhaps demanded. It’s not preaching to the choir; it’s seducing the congregation. “Don’t disrespect God by being ashamed of His work,” Randy’s dad tells him. That might resonate with some of the recalcitrant Christians.
After the screening of Blackbird at the Pan African Film Festival, I was standing in line waiting to get into the closing party. A well-dressed middle-aged Black man and his elegantly attired wife were behind me. “How did you like the movie?” I asked. The man shook his head. “I’ve been to Paris, and I haven’t seen anything like that,” he replied. His wife smiled. He may not have pleased that he was tricked into watching men kissing on screen (there was a lot of that going on, and not just between Randy and Marshall), but I’m willing to bet his wife enjoyed herself.
-- Robert Philipson