'Blackbird' sets the tone for Out On Film
Patrik Ian-Polk's look at race and faith in the LGBT community opens fest's 27th season
It's fitting that director Patrik-Ian Polk's Blackbird is the opening feature for the 27th season of Out On Film. The festival will screen more than 80 features, shorts, and documentaries that portray various aspects of the LGBT experience. Blackbird stands out for its engagement with race, faith, and adulthood.
Screening at 7:15 p.m. Thurs., Oct. 2, Blackbird is an adaptation of the Larry Duplechan novel of the same name, and features Mo'Nique and Isaiah Washington. The film tells the coming-of-age story of Randy Rousseau (Julian Walker), a black teenager who must balance his devout Christian faith and budding homosexuality while living in his small Southern town. Though the premise suggests the gravity of the subject matter, the film itself balances these serious undertones with humor, pathos, and original Gospel performances.
Polk says that he first read Duplechan's novel in college: "It was a book that really spoke to me as a young, black gay man." Immediately he recognized its potential as a film and began to work on a screenplay. "I think I wrote the first draft of the script back in 1991," Polk says. "So it's a project that I've kept around." Now, after previous attempts at making the film, Polk has completed his decades-long vision with an adaptation that closely resembles his own upbringing. Shot and set in Polk's hometown of Hattiesburg, Miss., the film incorporates his high school, a church that he attended as a child, and even his aunt's house. But for Polk, not only were these locations a clever use of available resources, they were also integral to personalizing the film. Having not lived there since he was in high school, Polk says it was a dream to go back and shoot a movie in his hometown.
Despite being an independent filmmaker, Polk managed to recruit Hollywood stars for the project. In an emotionally stirring performance, Mo'Nique plays Randy's mother, Claire, her first serious role since winning an Oscar for Precious. Opposite Mo'Nique is Washington, who is also one of the film's producers, playing Randy's estranged father, Lance. Working with experienced actors made it easier to focus on other aspects of the production, Polk says. For the rest of the cast, the presence of big-name actors on set also proved beneficial, especially for Walker, who made his film debut.
"He was nervous at first," Polk says. "But what you quickly realize if you work on any type of film is that for the most part, everyone is there to do a job, and no one is concerned about 'Oh, that's Isaiah Washington,' or, 'Oh, that's Mo'Nique.'" Polk adds that Walker, who attends the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, has since changed his major to theater.
Although the bigger Hollywood names beef up the cast, they also allow the film to attract a wider audience, bringing LGBT stories further into the mainstream consciousness. From this vantage point, Polk wants viewers to wrestle with the questions that the film raises.
"I think that religious people who may have a problem with homosexuality based on their religious beliefs can hopefully gain a measure of understanding," he says. "LGBTQ people who are trying to reconcile their sexuality with their religion hopefully can find some comfort and something to relate to in this story as well."
But Polk also hopes to see the film challenge the expectations of even LGBT viewers. "I think there exists a bit of a divide in the gay community between the white gay community and the black gay community," he says. "I think that's unfortunate." Polk says that it would be a mistake for viewers to dismiss the film simply because they don't identify with the characters' race. Instead, he considers the film an opportunity to bring attention to underrepresented members of the LGBT community.
"We have explored the white coming-out story up, down, and sideways," he says. "So I just hope that we're now ready to explore that experience from other perspectives, and Blackbird certainly does that."