Yoruba Richen's documentary The New Black (opening today at New York's Film Forum) achieves what seemed impossible before it: It examines the generalized notion that the black community is homophobic with specificity and subtlety. Using the backdrop of the fight for marriage equality in Maryland in 2012 (where it was eventually approved by voters), Richen's film examines both sides of the debate within the black community by primarily using the National Black Justice Coalition Sharon J. Lettman-Hicks to represent the pro-equality side, and Maryland Marriage Alliance's Derek McCoy as the face of the anti-equality side.
My ideological allegiance with the pro-equality faction should be obvious. While the rhetoric of those on the anti-equality side never struck me as convincing or logical before, during, or after this movie, The New Black did help me see why people could take a stance against something that doesn't seem to involve them. By examining the importance of the church within black culture (it's where a black person "could be a person" and not worry about answering to white people, explains Bishop Yvette Flunder) and the institutionalized assault on black families dating back to the antebellum South, The New Black helps make sense of what has often seemed like a hateful, senseless assault on an already disenfranchised group. I'm not saying it's not that at heart, but I now understand how people on the anti-equality side see their cause as amounting to much more than homophobia.
The New Black engages in a difficult conversation, in which there are numerous exceptions to any generalization that can be posed. It is rich with enlightening person-to-person conversations about its central issue, abounding with great one-liners ("Equality never hurt anyone"; "Riding the bus in Montgomery in 1955 could not have been everyone's top issue, either," when the notion that marriage is not LGBT blacks' primary issue is posed), and it has a real sense of momentum as it races to the climax of election night. It's way more than polemic; it's a great film.
Yoruba Richen has agreed to answer your questions about her movie and the issues it explores below. First, you can read a sampling of my own interview with the director, which took place yesterday, below:
Gawker: Why did you make this movie?
Yoruba Richen: I started conceiving of this film the night of the election of 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president and Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in California, was passed. It was a feeling of great elation with the election of the first African American president, and then this huge defeat at the same time. What started to happen pretty much immediately was that African Americans started to be blamed for its passage and I was kind of confused and shocked why that was happening. It turns out there was an erroneous poll that said 70 percent of blacks voted for the referendum and that turned out not to be the case. But the narrative of black homophobia took hold in the media and I wanted to see why these groups were being pitted against each other. Of course black LGBT voices were completely left out of that conversation.
To me, your pro-equality politics were clear just through viewing the movie. What kind of challenges did that pose in portraying the other side?
I think as a documentary filmmaker, you can make an advocacy film, you can make a balanced film, but you can also make a film that tells the different sides and still have a point of view yourself. For me, in terms of reaching out and working with "the other side," I always knew I wanted that voice within the film and Derek McCoy led the campaign against [gay marriage in Maryland]. It was really his job to talk to the media, to win hearts and minds. I'm very grateful that he agreed to be in the film. I really try hard not to make fun of people or denigrate anybody even if you don't agree with me. It's not about what I think, but in terms of the filmmaking part of it, I do have a way that I'm framing it. Of course. As filmmakers it's always subjective.
I get that, and there are things within this movie that help me understand why people think the way they do, but there is a fundamental breakdown of logic in the anti-equality stance, which boils down to straight people telling other straight people what it's like to be gay. Did having to portray those hollow arguments make you feel any sort of way?
As the filmmaker, I'm trying to get people to reveal. It's my job to push them and I do, and through that you hope to get better information onscreen about why they think this. My last film was about land and race in South Africa, I told the story of white land owners, and sometimes people will say crazy things to you. But again, it's kind of like those are the bites that are revealing. It's like, "OK, great. This is going to make for a really interesting film."
That must be a hell of a thing to experience: Hearing things that are revolting, while at the same time knowing that they make for good material. The documentarian's multiple consciousness. The story of homophobia within the black community is a very complex one to tell. What you are doing is telling a specific story that explores a generality. Was it difficult to parse the specific from the general?
Totally. It took nine or ten months to edit the film and that's where you start getting into that. You hit it on the head: You're telling a specific story with these general themes and issues that are bigger than Maryland. I always wanted it to be that. In fact, Maryland didn't really become a storyline until 2012, after the legislator passed the bill, the governor signed it, and the other side got the signatures. I had been filming since 2010. The last official shoot was election night, and we had no idea what was going to happen, that it was going to win not just in Maryland but in those other states as well. It was a huge night. The process in terms of editing was figuring out how we would tell that specific story while dealing with these general themes that I, as a filmmaker, thought it was important to understand.
You favor the use of subtlety to tell your story — moments and what often sound like individuals' theories combine to tell the bigger story. Are you worried about people missing things?
Definitely. I've watched a lot of films as a filmmaker. You have to trust, though, that audiences are going to get the main point. People pick up different things all the time. Some people are shocked by the Christian right stuff. Other people, it's seeing the organizers in the field. But yeah, of course you worry that people are going to miss stuff. I'm not interested in hitting people over the head with things and being didactic. That's just sort of my filmmaking choice.
Have you received any angry responses to this movie?
Yeah, I've gotten a few. We've been doing the festival circuit, which is very friendly, and it's been great. As we expand, we're planning a big outreach campaign to bring it to places that aren't friendly, artsy movie houses, so I expect more resistance. I've gotten a couple of emails: "You're going to hell," and all that kind of stuff. I did a call-in show that also brought, "This is God's law and this is not right..."
What did you say to that?
I tried to make the distinction between civil law and religious law. "It's fine for you to agree with it, but my marriage certificate doesn't come from the church." There's a way in which you can go head to head on the religious scripture thing, and some of the ministers [in the film] like Reverend Coates who is in the film and who speaks forcefully for marriage equality, he does that. There are so many other things prohibited in the Bible. I didn't choose to talk about that so much in the film because I thought this other film, For the Bible Tells Me So, does that really well already.
Do you want to change minds with this movie?
Of course. I think that conversation can change minds, and not just conversation, but in our outreach campaign, what kind of institutional reach can we have? For example, with the HBCU [historically black colleges and universities] thing, there's more talk than ever about what kind of services LGBT students do and don't have at these universities. They don't have as many as when you go to the liberal arts college in New England. How can we be part of instituting that? Churches, local laws. So it's not only about changing hearts and minds, but making real change on the ground.
[Top photo credit: Jen Lemen; Yoruba Richen photo credit: Luke Rattray]
Our chat with Yoruba is now over. Thanks to all who participated. The film provides a lot more to think about on this subject. You should see it.