“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
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.