Movie Review - Blackbird (2015)

This is the fourth feature for black, gay filmmaker Patrik-Ian Polk. It's remarkably different from his previous films because it is set in high school and concerns itself with a teenage African-American discovering his homosexuality. Polk's films have principally dealt with adults who are out of the closet and are in fact comfortable with being gay. Polk's films never have "being gay" as the key issue. It's often an important ancillary issue, but it's usually never the question at hand.

Julian Walker stars as Randy Rousseau, a black teenager living in Mississippi. His parents are separated. He lives with his mother. He dresses in the same uniform every day before he goes to school with his two best friends. Every weekend, he goes to church, like everyone, and sings in the choir. He is an amazing vocalist and he's also an amazing actor.

His acting ability is learned when his friends and a couple of classmates decide to do a play and the principal suggests Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. In an attempt to be provocative, one of Randy's classmates says they should do a gay version of that 16th century romance. Randy is cast opposite the boy on whom he has a serious crush.

Torrey Laamar co-stars as Todd Waterson, the very handsome, very sexy and very sweet, straight guy who is Randy's literal wet dream. Unfortunately, Todd has a girlfriend. Yet, Todd has no problem with people thinking he's gay. He has no problem with kissing Randy for the play. All the young people regardless of sexuality have no problem with gay people. The only people who object are the adults.

Oscar-winner Mo'Nique (Precious and Shadowboxer) plays Claire Rousseau, the mother of Randy and chief among the adults who object to homosexuality. Yet, her son's preferences fly completely under her radar. Throughout the film, she is in an unstable mental state but mostly depressed. The reason she's so is because her daughter and Randy's younger sister Chrissie has gone missing.

If there's any failing in the screenplay, it's the telling and resolution of this story about Chrissie's disappearance. Much in the way that Randy's prayer about Chrissie is very much an after thought, Chrissie overall becomes a bit of an after thought. It provides Mo'Nique with sufficient material or fodder to turn in a heart-wrenching performance of a grieving mother. It also provides enough to understand tangentially the state of Randy's family, but Polk doesn't delve into it enough so that it doesn't feel ultimately hollow by the end.

Kevin Allesee plays Marshall MacNeil, a 21-year-old aspiring actor and filmmaker who meets Randy during an audition for a student film. Marshall does not hide the fact that he's gay and that he wants Randy as his boyfriend. Marshall is a very attractive young man but he is white. Aside from one, off-handed remark from Claire, Marshall's skin color is never made into an issue.

Based on the 1986 book by Larry Duplechan, one of the most important black gay writers post-Stonewall riots, the movie touches upon the idea of a gay exorcism. The 2009 video of a gay exorcism from Manifested Glory Ministries seems to be the most recent reference. Of course, there are plenty of examples in the ex-gay movement and of people who believe they can pray the gay away, which Randy tries. Yet, the ex-gay movement is mostly skipped over. In the news, a black ex-gay named Andrew Caldwell from the Church of God in Christ's 107th Holy Convocation was spotlighted in a viral video and stands as a perfect example of what young boys like Randy are facing, so this film could have benefited from a character like that.

Having not read Duplechan's book, I almost wish Pastor Crandall, played by Terrell Tilford (One Life to Live and The DL Chronicles), had been that character. In a heart-to-heart with Randy, I wished Pastor Crandall had admitted to being an ex-gay. It would have added an interesting layer to the storyline in which he deals with his daughter Leslie, played by D. Woods, handling her teenage pregnancy.

Isaiah Washington plays Lance Rousseau, the father of Randy who is a bit estranged but is trying to rebuild his bond with his son. Lance is the least unlike any of the other adults because he is the most gay-friendly. Despite the incident resulting in his departure from Grey's Anatomy, Washington has been a gay-friendly actor appearing in films with LGBT themes like Stonewall (1995) and Get on the Bus (1996) in which he himself played a gay man. The only oddity here is that Washington and Walker don't look like father and son.

Gary LeRoi Gray plays Efrem who is a fellow, gay African-American, but he doesn't have the same hang-ups as Randy and there's no explanation why. Most likely due to his lack of having parents like Claire. Efrem, otherwise, is the film's comic relief. It's odd that at no point the movie ever discusses the possibility of romance between Efrem and Randy, even if it's a quick mention about how Randy isn't Efrem's type. Gray was in Polk's second feature Noah's Arc: Jumping the Broom (2008), a film that did address gay male friends exploring the potential of romance, so perhaps Polk didn't feel the need to broach that area again.

Walker gives a great performance as the highly conflicted and defensive teen. It's also difficult to be an actor playing an actor, but Walker proves that he can handle any material whether it's something as egregious as the "gay rapist" student film that Randy and Marshall do or it's the grand Shakespearean love that Randy and Todd do. Walker also brings the house down with his singing vocals. A song he sings in Marshall's car is powerful and soulful and dares anyone not to fall in love with him in that moment.

There are a few nitpicks. The movie seems to take place in the present. Yet, there seems to be an absence of social media. Marshall takes Randy to a cruising spot but makes no mention of Grindr or the myriad of easier and more effective ways that gay men hook-up online. Unlike with previous films, there isn't any visual flourishes that stood out to me. For example, both Punks and The Skinny had sex scenes that stood out in terms of the colors used to light those scenes and the way they were edited. Polk's sex scene here is hot but it's pretty straight-forward, or no film-making tricks were employed at all. The ending also perhaps wraps things up in too neat of a bow. Duplechan did write sequels but Polk might not be interested or able to pursue those sequels, so wrapping things up here probably seemed prudent.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated R for sexual content, language and some drug use - all involving teens.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 39 mins.


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