With past films like The Skinny and Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom, writer-director Patrik-Ian Polk has become known for steamy ensemble dramedies about the lives and romantic woes of black gay men. His latest, Blackbird, while focused on a younger set of characters with tamer sexual history, has Polk’s imprint all over it, painting a vivid picture of the struggle, shame and awkwardness that comes with growing up black and gay in a tiny Mississippi town.
Newcomer Julian Walker stars as Randy, a good-natured choirboy with a gorgeous voice and a host of personal issues – his little sister’s disappearance, the separation of his parents (played by Mo’Nique and Isaiah Washington), his strange and unsettling visions, and his repressed attraction to the same sex. Coming of age against a backdrop of blue skies, creeks, and pickup trucks and surrounded by a pack of misfit friends, he is the only one in his life who doesn’t seem to know (or accept) that he’s gay. As he and his classmates work on a controversial school production of Romeo & Juliet, all the problems in his life come to a head.
With Oscar winner Mo’Nique starring in her first role since 2009’s Precious along with Washington - both of whom are also producers of the film - Blackbird could potentially draw a wider audience that’s unfamiliar with Polk and unprepared for his brand of humor and frank discussions on sexuality. But from the provocative opening scene setting up Randy’s conservative Christian beliefs against his closeted sexual fantasies, it’s clear that this is a film about confronting uneasy feelings and bringing tough issues to light.
While any story like this runs the risk of stereotype, Randy’s confusion is fortunately balanced by a group of sympathetic straight friends (Nikki Jane, Torrey Laamar, Wanita Woodgett of Danity Kane fame) as well as other gay characters who are more sure of themselves. There’s Marshall (Kevin Allesee), his co-star in a local student film, and his wise-cracking friend Efram (played by standout Gary LeRoi Gray). Walker does a solid job in his first major film role opposite veterans like Washington, who's amusing here as a small-town dad trying to make sense and acceptance of his son’s choices.
Tonally the movie is equal parts comedy and drama and always, like its lead character, a bit theatrical. The characters all seem mature beyond their years, the accents extra sharp, the shots super composed, which lends to a sense of hyperrealism that coincides with Randy’s dream-like state. Writing shines most in the hilarious verbal jabs between him and his teenage buddies, who try to drag him out of the closet with slick one-liners that prove they can be just as clever and raunchy as the adults. Cringeworthy moments, like when Randy’s friends ask to have sex in his bed while he’s out at Bible study, pull us into his predicament and serve to soften what could otherwise make for a heavy, dramatic narrative.
If there’s an issue with the film, it lies with story. With Randy facing so many challenges, there’s not enough space to fully explore them all. Closeted homosexuality, Christian proselytizing, child abduction, parental relationships, teen pregnancy, and more – are all tied up very quickly and perhaps, too easily, given the amount of conflict. It makes one curious about how closely the movie sticks to the source material, the 1986 Larry Duplechan novel of the same name, which Polk apparently infused with parts of his own life story.
But ultimately, Blackbird is a well-shot film that does what it was intended to do: entertain, and provoke thought and discussion. With striking visuals and Polk’s trademark smart, candid commentary on sexuality, the movie is sure to spark a lively post-film conversation.
Blackbird premiered at the recent Pan African Film Festival where it was chosen as the Bulleit Frontier Film for pushing the boundaries of the modern frontier of cinematography.
Distribution plans have yet to be announced.