I recently watched the fun and touching movie BLACKBIRD (2014), starring Julian Walker in the lead role of Randy Rousseau. It’s rare for me to see a gay-focused (or any) movie that is poignant, tender, erotic, fun, and compelling all at once. I appreciated the generally imaginative script, which navigated showing life for a seventeen-year-old who is Black and gay in a small Mississippi town. The center of community for Randy, his family, and his fellow African American friends is a Baptist church. Talk about a different world than mine– which is good to step out of sometimes and learn about others.’ The dialogue and acting seemed a bit stilted and formulaic in places but competent enough overall.
I was intrigued and amused with the clashing of conservative Christian sensibilities and gay sexual expression. This starts with a bang of sorts in the opening scene in which Randy sings in his church choir while amorously engaging the attentions of a hunky fellow student and churchgoer. He often dreams of having sex with this classmate and awakes to find, yet again, the results of a nocturnal emission. Randy’s openly gay best friend Efrem (Gary LeRoi Gray) kindly teases him about this, encouraging him to have sex or at least masturbate. The matter-of-fact way this issue of sexual maturation coupled with repression is dealt with was refreshing to see on screen.
I’m not sure how realistic some scenarios are, such as when Randy and his group of friends, including his fantasy crush Todd Waterson (Torrey Laamar), decide to stage ROMEO AND JULIET in which both leads are men. The character of Juliet is switched to “Julian” and to be played by Todd. Of course, Randy is cast as Romeo. How all of the teenaged characters happily coalesce around doing something so open and daring in a deep South city, within an evangelical Black community no less, was hard for my inner skeptic to set aside. Perhaps, in recent years, more African American adolescent girls have grown turned on by seeing their boyfriends kiss other men? (There were some other such “perhaps” matters to wonder about.) How this group of gutsy, progressive-minded kids existed and found each other in such a culturally conservative setting seemed hard to believe for me, as much as I wanted to believe. The actual in-text dream fantasy material was held within a lot of fantasy subtext by the screenwriter, or so it seemed to me. That said, because I the viewer so wanted to embrace such an intertwine of seemingly very low possibilities actually occurring, I ultimately went with the movie’s little universe and enjoyed myself.
Other aspects of the screenplay seemed quite realistic. Randy’s grief-stricken, religiously obsessed mother Claire (Mo’Nique) is very believable in her role. She makes his life quite difficult while he spends so much of his days trying to be a good, heterosexual Christian. Randy’s singing is transcendent to listen to, and others around him deeply appreciate it, including his love interest, white and economically poor Marshall MacNeil (Kevin Allesee). The two meet while being cast together in a local community college student movie. Marshall’s fawning, insistent pursuit of Randy finally wears down the main character’s repression, shame, and guilt, which felt satisfying to witness.
I grasped more deeply how Black Gospel singing is transcendent for both singer and listener, despite the repressive setting this so often happens within. Randy’s voice is angelic and takes him and others into a briefly blissful state. However, the inner struggle for Randy is his need to allow this singing-induced state to pleasantly merge with his positive sexual ones, which Christian doctrine he’s been forcefully taught forbids. His first love Marshall acts as a credible bridge to this inner rift for Randy, with the former explaining and showing how God naturally accepts him and his desires. It is other human beings, such as the leading character’s mother and her pastor (Terrell Tilford, playing the conflicted Pastor Crandall) who’ve had it wrong this whole time.
BLACKBIRD is very loosely based on a semi-autobiographical (I believe) novel by Larry Dupelchan. I have not read the book, but a synopsis of it states that the story takes place in Southern California, in or near Los Angeles, from what I recall. I wonder if the director and cowriter of the script, Patrik-Ian Polk, who changed the setting of the narrative to a small, Baptist-filled town in Mississippi, intentionally superimposed more liberal social norms from California onto deep South conservative ones here? Why was the location so dramatically changed in the first place? The result for me is a mixture of fantasy and realism where the two don’t always blend well. I’m not sure such a town portrayed in BLACKBIRD actually exists in Mississippi. Since I’ve never been to that part of the country, all I can do is wonder but not actually know. Was this movie supposed to be mostly fantasy? Or was it meant to be hard realism with fantasy as soothing balm? I’m inclined to think likely the former of the two. Were the other screenwriter Rikki Beadle-Blair and director Patrik-Ian Polk trying to express some revisionist, wish fulfilling fantasies of their own? If so, that is fine with me, of course. Artists create for an assortment of reasons, including to heal themselves. Sometimes, the delineation of different sensibilities and cultural norms is clear and integrated in the film. Other times, particularly when Randy is not actually asleep and dreaming, the actual geographical-cultural distinctions are blurry, rendering the movie’s style and vision seeming murky, awkward, and amateur in places. Still, the general storyline and cast of characters largely kept my interest and attention, particularly buoying me along with the adolescents’ emotional and social struggles, fun-loving banter, devotion to, and antics with each other. It is the adults in the movie who are often more problematic and bothersome, which is refreshing to see because they/we adults are so often the originating source of difficulties for teenagers, certainly for queer and Black and Brown ones. For that alone, among other reasons explained above, I appreciated and enjoyed BLACKBIRD.