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LGBT Activists Challenge the Status Quo in Documentaries 'The New Black' and 'Call Me Kuchu'

Photo of Jacob Combs By Jacob Combs | Thompson on Hollywood June 25, 2013 at 1:06PM

To the outside observer, political movements can become reduced to a series of rarely-challenged expressions of conventional wisdom. But two new documentaries "The New Black" and "Call Me Kuchu," which are landing on the scene contemporaneously, present a compelling challenge to assumptions about LGBT rights.
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David Kato, the Ugantan LGBT rights activist featured in the new documentary "Call Me Kuchu."
David Kato, the Ugantan LGBT rights activist featured in the new documentary "Call Me Kuchu."

To the outside observer, political movements can become reduced to a series of rarely-challenged expressions of conventional wisdom. Plenty such axioms exist when it comes to LGBT rights: marriage equality is inevitable in the U.S.; most African-Americans oppose equal marriage rights because of their religion; LGBT people are invisible everywhere but the West.  But two new documentaries "The New Black" and "Call Me Kuchu," which are landing on the scene contemporaneously, present a compelling challenge to these assumptions. "The New Black" just won the audience award for best feature at AFI Docs.

Yoruba Richen's "The New Black" focuses on the Question 6 campaign in Maryland, a 2012 ballot initiative which asked voters to affirm or reject a marriage equality bill passed earlier by the legislature. Similar campaigns took place in Washington and Maine, but the Maryland campaign was different because of the state's racial composition: African-Americans make up 30 percent of the state's population and comprised around a quarter of its electorate in 2012.

For Richen, "The New Black" was born in the aftermath of Proposition 8, California's 2008 voter-approved marriage equality ban, which was quickly (and incorrectly) attributed in large part to California's black voters.  Richen planned to examine the alleged divide between the LGBT and African-American communities when California went back to the ballot to repeal Prop 8; when Maryland beat California to that punch, though, she knew the film's moment had come.

"The New Black"
"The New Black"

The very title "The New Black" is itself a subtle and evocative clue to the puzzle that Yoruba's film presents. She's alluding to the frequently stated yet controversial idea that 'gay is the new black' -- a statement with supporters and detractors in both communities. But Richen's film is less interested in attacking or defending that concept and more interested in pushing through it to a crucial, often-overlooked question: what about those people who are are LGBT and black?

With this in mind, the two focuses of Richen's insightful documentary become one. Most of the film is devoted to an examination of the campaign itself through the lens of Maryland's black community: Richen interviews men and women working both for and against Question 6, capturing the complex diversity of opinion on the issue.

But the film is equally devoted to two young gay activists, members of a new generation that is challenging the status quo both writ large and within their community.  As "The New Black" demonstrates, the divide between gay issues and black issues is an illusion and, ultimately, a distraction from a deeper conversation about difference in America.

"Call Me Kuchu" is the debut feature of directors Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall, and like "The New Black," the film's title is an invitation to the rich nuances of its story. Centered on David Kato, the first openly gay man in Uganda and a pioneering civil rights advocate, the film channels the affirmation of Kato and his fellow 'kuchus,' or LGBT people, that they exist and that their rights should be recognized and protected despite the virulent homophobia of their country.

This article is related to: Documentary, Gay cinema, Politics


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.