Blackbird 8640 JPEG

Photos courtesy Patrik-Ian Polk.

The Long Beach premiere of Blackbird at next weekend’s QFilms brings what is arguably the film with the most star power on the roster in the festival, with Mo’Nique and Isaiah Washington headlining the film.

But far more important than the stars is the film’s tackling of two contentious subjects—sexuality and Baptist Christianity in the South—and its tale of identity and family based on the 1986 novel of the same name by Larry Duplechan. Throw in child abduction, teen sex, underage pregnancy, parental splits, and Southern woes’n’laughs, and you’ll have a glimpse at the complexity of the story director Patrik-Ian Polk (and his co-writer, Rikki Beadle Blair) is trying to tell.

BlackbirdPoster“I first read the novel Blackbird as a freshman in college,” said Polk. “It was the first gay coming-of-age novel with a Black protagonist and I knew instantly I wanted to make it into a film someday.”

25 years later, Polk finds himself directing the story of 17-year-old Randy Rousseau, a devout teenage choir boy struggling with not just his sexuality, but his parents’ separation and his own eerie premonitions.

Polk and Blair ultimately cater to a subject that neither have never shied from—in fact, producer Carol Ann Shine described them as “two icons of gay Black cinema.”

With films like The Skinny and Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom, Polk has become a master at creating films that court to gay Black maledom while mainstream Hollywood (and even literature to an extent) keeps gay characters incredibly pale. However, with the draw of Mo’Nique and Washington—both of whom act as producers for the film—the story of a young man’s coming-of-age in Mississippi could reach a larger audience than his previous films.

“Isaiah Washington is my favorite actor on the planet, so he was the first person I approached,” Polk said. “Once he said yes, he suggested Mo’Nique to play the mother and sent her the script. To my surprise, she loved it and signed on.”

With Randy’s parents cast, the cog of Blackbird—Randy himself—was a piece still missing. The character, whose vocal talents captivate his church members and whose charisma makes a young man fall in love with him, is not an easy role to assign. Polk and producers sifted through a varied list of young Black actors with long resumes and track records but, in the words of Polk, “too afraid to take on such a challenging gay role.”

“It still surprises me that actors in this day and age still have hangups about playing gay on camera, but that’s the unfortunate reality,” Polk said. “So when Julian Walker submitted his audition, I could tell he was a novice with little-to-no experience—but there was a definite spark. I had him come in a few more times and it quickly became obvious that this kid had ‘it,’ y’know? That undefinable X-factor. As an actor, he was very natural. And when he opens his mouth to sing, he blows you away.”


Julian Walker (left) with producer Keith Brown (right) on set during principal photography of Blackbird in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

The icing on the cake? Walker is openly gay and is a Mississippi native, with Polk calling him the “Black Chris Colger.”

While critics have felt mixed about the film, the people behind Blackbird dust off their shoulders without much hesitation and care about one thing only: the audience. Knowing full well that a cinematic discussion of sexuality and religion within the Black community wasn’t going to appeal to everyone’s tastes, they knew that they could appeal to the ones who need it most.

Blackbird01“Audiences have been moved to tears, have confessed that the story on the screen is their story—and this was not just the gay members of the audience,” Shine said. “This was many people in the audience who related to a story of loving your God, your family, and then discovering how to love the person you are or would become. Religion is supposed to be a way to discover how to translate divine thoughts and principals into everyday practices that lift us up from being just mere humans and allows us to aim for being great. Every audience moves through the emotions on screen and you can see the years fade away as they are transported back to the first love, the first choice between love and family and finally that hope that we can through divine guidance find a way to achieve that ultimate mandate: ‘To love one another as I have loved you.’”

Blackbird screens Saturday, September 13 at 9:15PM at the Art Theatre as part of the 2014 QFilm Festival. The Art Theatre is located at 2525 E 4th St. Cast members and producers will be on hand after the screening for a Q&A. For tickets, click here.

Read more: