“This is the unfinished business of black people being
free.” –Sharon Lettman-Hicks
In Yoruba Richen’s documentary, The New Black, a black lesbian couple prepares a homemade pizza with their two children. The two women are happy and in love. There is no denying the freedom in their home, so why couldn’t it be acknowledged by the state?
Teasing out the complex undercurrents of homophobia and acceptance within the black community, Richen explores how African Americans are grappling with same-sex marriage as a civil right, and how this eventually led to the 2012 passage of Question 6 (same sex marriage referendum) in Maryland, which was the first time marriage was granted to same-sex couples by popular vote.
The film begins with a look back at President Obama’s historic 2008 victory, which also saw the passage of Proposition 8 in California, outlawing same-sex marriage. Immediately after the proposition’s passage, blacks were blamed. Mainstream media began to target the black church as a monolith of conservative ideology, while an erroneous poll stated that blacks in California voted for the proposition by 70%. But, what about the black LGBT people, and the black people, like Sharon Lettman-Hicks, who supported and rallied for gay marriage and gay rights?
The New Black is an apt response to the rhetoric used to justify the passage of Proposition 8 as a result of black homophobia. In interviews with Hicks, black preachers in support and opposition of gay marriage, organizers, and community members, Richen shows that while homophobia does exist in the black community, as in others, the black church also became a convenient vehicle to help advance the white, Christian Right’s anti-gay political agenda. Privileging the varying perspectives of black people- from those who see homosexuality as a choice, to those who embrace different lifestyles, Richen is able to paint a textured portrait of contemporary black America; one that is informed by tradition and religion, but also questions it.
The film also strikes a nice balance between the personal and political, bolstered by its emphasis on the “new black” LGBT organizers who lead the Maryland campaign, especially Karess Taylor- Hughes. With her bouncy curls and high energy to win the right for marriage equality, she allows the audience to see how political catchphrases like “gay rights” actually impact people. During a visit home to see her foster parent, Karess asks for acceptance of her sexuality. With tears in her eyes, she admits to moving away from home because she didn’t want to “shame” her family. Her foster mother is receptive, but still admits she wants grandchildren soon.
If there’s one shortcoming to the film, it might be that its focus on the black church and Christianity as the main basis for the black community, sometimes made it inaccessible. As someone who didn’t grow up in the black church or practice Christianity, I found myself wondering about the many black Americans like me- where do they come into the equation, how do they feel, and how did those black people vote in Maryland, a place with a large community of Muslim and non-Christian blacks. These questions are not answered, nor should they have been. Understanding the role of the black church in African American society is pivotal, though acknowledging the differences in contemporary black America could’ve added another element of nuance to the film.
Ultimately, The New Black is a smart, well-paced documentary built on the momentum of the Maryland campaign that it documents. By it’s end, there’s a sense of hope, and also of satisfaction that a filmmaker has chosen balance and complexity over spectacle. I recommend you see it.
The New Black opens for a limited theatrical run at the Film Forum in New York City, February 12th-18th. For more information, visit Film Forum’s site. The film will also screen at the Pan African Film Festival on February 15th in Los Angeles at Rave Cinemas.
Read the S&A interview with Yoruba Richen HERE.