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Interview: Yoruba Richen On Intersectionality of Race, Sexuality in ‘The New Black’ (At Film Forum)

Interview: Yoruba Richen On Intersectionality of Race, Sexuality in 'The New Black' (At Film Forum)

There’s a really special scene in Yoruba Richen’s
documentary The New Black, where
heterosexual black LGBT activist/organizer Sharon Lettman-Hicks gets into a disagreement
with a female family member about homosexuality at a get- together with her
in-laws. The woman states that “God did not make lesbians,” while Sharon
questions her. Earlier, in that same house, an older black aunt shares that when
her granddaughter “came out,” she told her she would always love
her no matter “which way she goes.”

It’s these kinds of sharp, varied interactions that make the
film particularly resonant. Where mainstream media has aimed to present the
black community as a monolith of homophobia and sinful preachers, Richen does
the opposite, allowing for all sides to have a stake in the issue.

I appreciate these scenes because I’ve seen them before- in
my own family, at a barbecue, amongst my friends. Folks may get heated, but
most importantly, they are heard. Through an engrossing series of interviews,
and candid day-to-day footage with young LGBT field workers, clergy on both
sides of the gay marriage debate, community members, and black men sitting on a Baltimore
stoop, Richen carefully tracks the growing momentum leading up to the Maryland
gay marriage referendum in 2012, which passed by a 52.4% vote, and marked the first
time marriage rights were granted to same-sex couples by popular vote, many of
them African American.

I talked with Richen over the phone about her motivations
for making the film, the easy, yet problematic associations between blackness
and homophobia, and what the film means to her on a personal level. 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
. The film will also screen at the Pan African Film Festival on
February 7th
 and 15th in Los Angeles at Rave Cinemas.

Shadow & Act:
Can you talk a little bit about what brought you to this documentary?

Yoruba Richen: I came
up with the idea for this film because of what
happened the night of 2008 when Barack Obama was elected president and Proposition
passed, which outlawed the recently won right for gays and lesbians in the state
of California to marry. It was quite an
interesting night to have the election of the first black president, and then
this big defeat for gay marriage, and especially for those of us in the black
and LGBT communities.

What happened next was really shocking in that they started
blaming African Americans for its loss, and this narrative took hold about
homophobia in the black community, and that it was somehow more intense than in
other communities, and there was a question of gay rights versus civil rights
becoming the media’s narrative.

I wanted to find out why this was happening, why these two
groups were being pitted against each other and what that was about, and of
course within that, black LGBT voices were not heard from in that debate at
all. I started to follow characters who were working on bridging the gap
between these communities, who were working on how to move forward now that gay
rights have sort of bubbled up to the national political scene, and eventually
the film became about how the African American community, and the particularly
the black church, was grappling with this issue, and the Maryland storyline,
even a couple years after I started filming, brought together all these
different pieces I  looking at.

S&A: Awesome, and
can you talk about the title of the film, The
New Black
, and how it fits within an ongoing debate that equates gay rights
with civil rights, especially for African American people, and where you stand
on that with the title of the film.

YR: I chose the title because of its provocative nature. It
came from this article in The Advocate
that said “Is Gay The New Black?” and it really pissed off a lot
of people. For me, the title actually means the new conversation that is
happening in our communities around issues of homosexuality. The new black are
really the activists that I profile who are working within the black community
around this issue, to fight for the rights of LGBT folk, and of black LGBT
folks in our community. To me, that’s the new black.

S&A: I actually
wanted to ask about one of those activists. When I saw the film, I noticed that
the audience especially responded to Karess Taylor-Hughes and how her personal
struggles with her family were handled alongside the film’s narrative. How did
she become involved with the film and what is she doing now?

YR: The Maryland storyline really didn’t come to the forefront until two and a half years after I started filming. I started to follow it
because it brought together these different pieces I was looking at, and Karess
is one of the lead field organizers in that campaign in Maryland. I got
connected with her, and started filming the work she was doing. She’s an
amazing woman and she had dedicated her life for the last couple years to this
issue, she had worked on the North Carolina campaign which was defeated, and
then started working for the Maryland campaign, and she was obviously totally charismatic
and funny and smart.

She was also dealing with the personal ramifications of her
work and how her family feels about her sexuality so she just embodies the
personal being political. Now, she continues to do amazingly, and she’s at
Columbia University in a Master’s Program studying Sports Management.

S&A: That’s so great
to hear. I mean, I felt a connection to many of the characters in the film, but
her story was very personal and intimate.

I also wonder,
because you have some really balanced interviews and perspectives, how were you
able to get someone like Pastor McCoy involved with the project, and were there
any obstacles to getting him in the film?

YR: I’m very grateful that he agreed for me to tell his
story and show that side. He was the face of the anti-gay marriage campaign in
Maryland so I think he wanted to do it- they were trying to win too, so they
wanted to get out what they were trying to do.

Part of my job as a filmmaker is getting people to do things
they don’t want to do, and you have to be persistent. I had to be persistent, I
had to also let him know that I wasn’t trying to demonize the other side and I
wasn’t trying to make fun of that side, and I wanted to tell both sides of the
story, and he agreed and was able to let me in.

S&A: I feel his perspective was given a fair treatment in the film. There’s a great quote
in your film that says, “All of a sudden, it was black versus gay.” I wanted
you to talk about that- what do you think is behind this conflation or
association between blackness and homophobia and what kind of stake does
American media have in perpetuating it?

YR: First of all, if you look at what happened in
California, after Proposition 8 was passed, there was an erroneous poll that
came out, that said that black people voted for it by 70% and that turned out
later to be false, and that narrative- people still believe it today, and I
have tell people, no those aren’t the numbers. Black people did vote in
majority for it, but in the same numbers as other groups.

I also think that the storyline is good because what we tend
to do a lot of times in this country is pit groups against each other, so we’re
all fighting for the same piece of the pie and it’s like, it becomes a zero sum
game. If one group advances then another group is perceived not to advance or
they perceive themselves not to advance, and because of our history as African
Americans, this idea that another group is going to advance and it’s going to
be at the expense of us, is definitely a
viewpoint in the community.

I also think there has been a strain of homophobia in our
church, as in other churches as well, and sometimes the media listens to the
loudest voice in the room. More recently, the film tries to show, the black
church figures have spoken in support of gay marriage. I think having the NAACP
come out and president Obama come out, as well as what happened in Maryland for
marriage equality, shows the voice of supporting gay rights is starting to
become louder, whereas it wasn’t necessarily before. 

If you look at where America is, African Americans are right
alongside everyone else. There’s been an evolution amongst everyone on this,
and not just African Americans. So, we’re no different really than other
communities that are grappling with this, and it’s our younger people that are
changing minds, that have a completely different view about this, and that’s
the same in all demographics.

S&A: Even when I
look within my family, I see an array of perspectives about the issue, so I
appreciate how the documentary goes into different ways of thinking.
 Also, there’s this
theme in the film with the black family and how gay marriage is seen alongside
the black family, and how the black family has been in a contested space coming
out of slavery. Can you talk about that?

YR: I think that even though we mirror a lot of what’s going
on around the country around this issue, we too have a particular history in
terms of how we’ve been allowed to have families. We’re probably the only group
beside gay people, who haven’t been allowed, and have been kept from having a
family and it was illegal for us to get married to each other and for many
years, to anybody who was white because of miscegenation laws. So we’ve been
very regulated when it comes to our families and how we’ve been able to have

I think that within that, and I had one of my interviewees
say this actually, you know there’s this race to be normal because our families
have been so pathologized that anything that comes and is not quote on quote
normal, we’re resistant to, or reject because of our history of always being
made to be abnormal, unequal and pathologized.

You know, a lot of LGBT black folks come out to their
families and they’re like, it’s not even about homophobia, it’s like why would
you take on another issue when you have to deal with being black? Why would you
put yourself through that, by taking on being gay? So, you have to look at our
history to understand the diverse opinions around this issue, and the black
church has been where we sought refuge, where our basis for our freedom
movement began, and still holds that memory so it’s important to understand
that as well to understand the influence of the black church in the black
community, even if you’re not particularly religious.

S&A: Definitely,
and what does this film to you, personally?

YR: I want this
film to be a conversation-starter and to be able to help people have
conversations around sexuality. Because of being black, being woman, and being
gay, I’ve experienced the intersectionality of this, and as a person who is
hoping for more freedom and justice for all people, I think it’s important that
we understand the intersectionality of race and gender and sexuality, and if
the film can be part of that conversation, and eventually promote change, then
I would personally feel like its met its mission; the mission I wanted it to

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