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
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