In regards to race and homosexuality, 2014 will mostly be remembered for two things: The protests in Ferguson, Missouri and gay NFL draftee Michael Sam kissing a white man on ESPN. What will unfortunately be overlooked is last year’s abundant number of black filmmakers telling stories of being black and gay…and racking up awards, network television deals and box office bank in the process.
Oddly enough, this work was not done by the many web series producers who have been cropping up left and right. With the absence of Sean Anthony and his award winning show NO SHADE, the web offered not much that was quality, creative and original.
Fortunately, the professionals stepped up to the plate last year in a major way to show the amateurs on the web just how its done. Let’s take a look back at the 6 black gay films and television work released last year for our public consumption.
Patrik-Ian Polk’s Blackbird had a great run on the festival circuit in 2014. Starring Academy Award winner Mo’Nique (Precious) and (reformed homophobe) Isaiah Washington, the film opened at the Outfest Fusion Festival, the Out on Film Festival, and took home the Festival Founders’ Award at the Pan-African Film Festival.
Having said that, the film sucks.
No, really. It was extremely hard for me to make it though this film while still taking it seriously.
Not only is the film a retread story of a young (clearly) gay young man “struggling” with his sexuality in a world where ALL of his friends are openly gay and/or women, it features a yet another tale of a gay man desperately looking for love.
I do applaud Polk for his ability to raise financing to continue to make films at a decent level of quality. On the other hand, his films continue to look visually bland and generic, even with budgets to work with. Independent film in particular seems to beg for the opportunity for experimentation.
Instead, Polk gives us this:
Take Dee Rees’ low budget 2011 LGBT film “Pariah” for example. It has a visual style that defines the main character’s journey.
Polk’s films do none of this. Admittedly, Pariah’s cinematography was helmed by one of the best in the business, Bradford Young. Not every filmmaker will have access (or be able to afford) a Director of Photography that can do this:
Here’s the problem, though. Pariah was Dee Rees’ first feature film.
Blackbird is Polk’s FOURTH! Not to mention he also directed two seasons of Noah’s Arc! Why does his work still look and feel like after-school specials?
Speaking of special, the acting in this movie was not the strongest, even for a Patrik-Ian Polk film. While Isaiah Washington does a fine job here in his limited role, Mo’Nique hams up every scene she’s in shifting from psychotic to dementia at any given time.
True to form, Polk anchors the entire film on one young gay character who’s naive and unsure how to function socially. This time around we’re following the coming Out journey of main character Randy played by the really green newcomer Julian Walker.
On the other hand, Polk has always been great at casting the sexy young heterosexual male eye-candy that the softer main gay character lusts after for 90 minutes. Here, we get that in spades with the appearance of attractive newcomer Torrey Laamar.
This is where most of the positives end for me. But I’m in a minority. The reviews for Blackbird have been very positive and the film was embraced by audiences in the festivals. I can only assume that the reason was that none of them wanted to go on record bad mouthing a black gay film in the same year that Michael Sam made history.
THE AUDIENCE: C
THE FILMMAKER: F
THE FILM: E
5. THE HAPPY SAD
Based on the Ken Urban play of the same name, The Happy Sad follows two unrelated couples whose lives intersect throughout the film when a black gay couple decides to start an open relationship.
We’ve previously discussed and reviewed this film, and we didn’t think highly of it. That opinion largely still stands, with a few new observations.
First off, this is yet another black gay film that lacks a distinct identity. Unlike Blackbird, this is surprising here. Director Rodney Evans’ previous film Brother To Brother took fantastic visual risks, elevating his status as a black gay filmmaker to watch.
This film, on the other hand, is shot pretty basic, almost as if Evans was attempting to keep the stage play feel of the source material. Speaking of that, the story is pretty basic as well. Not much actually happens in this film besides some couples moping about troubled relationships while simultaneously having No Strings Attached sex with other people.
Fortunately the artistic simplicity ends there because the acting is actually very good considering what they had to work with. The actors playing Marcus (LeRoy McClain) and Aaron (Charlie Barnett), the men in the black gay relationship, do a fine job.
In the play, these characters were not originally written for men of color. This was a very nice choice by Rodney Evans, but he did so without injecting race (or a discussion of race) into the film as a result of this switch.
This is not to imply that the men should have been fitting into black gay stereotypes or had long discussions about interracial dating, but something to acknowledge the challenges of black gay men and their relationships would have been nice. Especially since Evans handled this so masterfully in his feature film debut.
Avoiding that element totally eliminated a potential level of complexity for this otherwise overly simplistic film.
On top of that, the motivations of the main characters were blindly non-existent.
We’re to believe that after 6 years a monogamously gay couple, having no apparent problems in their relationship, would randomly decide to have an open relationship. Sure, they apparently had welcomed a third person into their bed before the film begins, but its never clearly established what led them to this drastic option to “spice things up”.
Also, one of the gay men falls in love with the white guy he’s sexing on the side. No, you read that right. HE FALLS IN LOVE WITH HIS HOOKUP BUDDY! After only a few sex sessions! Not even having had a single date or conversation lasting more than 5 minutes!
Clearly gay relationships are complicated, but in a film that presents itself as a character study, they shouldn’t be completely nonsensical.
Sadly, this film was a disappointment. The actors seem capable yet they are rarely given opportunities to show range and stretch due to the depressingly bland screenplay. Fortunately for the film, it was well received by audiences in both film festivals and those watching it on Netflix.