Photograph by Duane Cramer
No one has done more for the visibility of gay African-American characters than Patrik-Ian Polk. Polk created the dramatic series Noah’s Arc for Logo, literally changing the face of gay representation, and he’s also the man behind groundbreaking feature films like Punks, Noah’s Arc: Jumping The Broom, and The Skinny. His latest—Blackbird, based on the coming-of-age novel by Larry Duplechan—has Julian Walker as a teen misfit in the church choir, with Mo’Nique and Isaiah Washington as his soul-searching parents. (Mo’Nique and hubby Sidney Hicks produced the film.)
Polk changed the book’s setting from 1970s rural California to present-day Hattiesburg, Mississippi—which happens to be his hometown—but he strived to keep the spirit. On the verge of the movie’s February 16 premiere at the Pan-African Film Festival, I poked Polk for an illuminating catch-up session.
Musto: Hello, Patrik-Ian. Why were you attracted to this material?
Patrik-Ian Polk: I left Mississippi after high school and went to college in Boston, and there was a big bookstore in Harvard Square. They had a whole shelf that was gay and lesbian. I’d never seen a gay and lesbian section. There was one book that had an illustration of an African American on the spine. It was Blackbird. I’d read other gay novels, but this was the first black coming-of-age novel. I don’t know if I’d call James Baldwin’s work coming-of-age stories. I fell in love with the book and knew it would make a great film someday.
Is the protagonist bullied?
He’s not being bullied, but he’s weighted down by the overly religiously conservative environment he’s in. As most teenagers do, he’s coming to terms and figuring out who he is. He’s struggling with his Christian faith. He really believes it when you first meet him. He’s plagued by these burgeoning emotions. We can see how he struggles with that and how it affects the family.
Absolutely! She’s a Southern Christian woman. She believes in taking care of her family, but circumstances have shaken her foundation. Dealing with this information with her son is a challenge.
How did you get Mo’Nique attached to this project? She hasn’t exactly been omnipresent on the big screen since winning the Oscar.
Isaiah Washington—who’s one of my favorite actors on the planet—was my first choice to play the father. I got the script to him. He had a relationship with Mo’Nique; they had the same attorney. He said, “How about if we show this to Mo’Nique?” I never thought in a million years I would get her for this.
What was it like to work with Mo‘Nique on this gay-related project?
She is a true force of nature. She just “gets” it. She felt really connected to the themes in this film—self-acceptance, tolerance and love, regardless of sexuality and religion. And beyond her wholehearted support of the LGBT community and our issues, she's just a phenomenal actress. And for an actress who's won every award known to mankind, she's incredibly down-to-earth. She's such an amazing dramatic actress that you forget she's a comedienne—until she lets her hair down on set and you're grabbing your side from laughing so hard.
Do you relate to the character of the boy?
I was 17, a virginal Mississippi boy who’d never been away from home, so I absolutely related to it. And it’s extremely relevant in 2014, with everything that’s going on.
That’s always been your mission, hasn’t it—to portray gay African Americans, who are not seen enough?
When I started off as an artist, I wanted to tell stories that were of interest to me, which became a focus on stories I wanted to see onscreen. We didn’t see much gay anything when I was young, but as it became more and more popular, it stayed incredibly white.
And in trying to change that, I bet you’ve faced a lot of opposition.
When I look back on my years of work as a filmmaker, I’ve seen counterparts—white gay filmmakers—who come up exactly at the same time as I have, but there’s more acceptance from Hollywood for them. I see all these white gay filmmakers working and doing television series and major movies. It’s hard enough for black filmmakers, but then you add the “gay” monicker. But nothing good comes easy.
Was there any trepidation about working with Isaiah Washington, who had a much-reported homophobic outburst on the set of Grey’s Anatomy in 2006?
I never bought the story that the press was selling about that whole thing because the Isaiah Washington that I know was not only an amazing actor, but he was known for doing daring, bold, provocative work. He played a gay character in Spike Lee’s Get on the Bus. No homophobic black actor that I know would do a role like that. All it took was googling and researching to find out it was about two actors having a moment on the set, and a word was used, not in a homophobic context, but in the context of an argument, and it got blown out of proportion.
But should the word be used, even in an argument?
He acknowledged it was a word he should not have used. That was a case of the punishment not really fitting the crime. With Blackbird, he’s been a dream.
How did you cast Julian Walker in the part of the teen boy?
There’s always nervousness and hesitance. I get this from well known actors and not so well known actors. We went out to any young black male actor with any sort of a profile—featured actors on Glee, in the background—and there’s still that skittishness. I never worry about things like that because I believe the universe will send me who I’m supposed to have. This kid I’ve never heard of—a freshman at the University of Southern Mississippi—submits himself, comes in and reads, and he’s incredible. He hasn’t had the time to develop a lot of the internalized homophobia that those of us who are a bit older grew up with. He’s a newbie growing up in a time where it’s really quote-unquote, "OK to be gay." He’s not saddled with all of that. He’s openly gay and young and fabulous and poised to become the black Chris Colfer.
Well, if he needs any residual guilt, I have plenty to share. Congrats on the movie!
I’m hearing that Norm Lewis —a well-known Broadway presence who was Tony-nominated for the last Porgy and Bess revival—gets another great role in a musical about Nelson Mandela that’s aiming for Broadway. On March 31, there will be a backer’s presentation for the show about the South African leader, with Lewis in the lead role. But no, the musical won’t be using the Oscar nominated U2 song from the recent movie about Mandela; I asked one of the producers, whom I met at the Townhouse bar.
An expert on all things Broadway, drag star Vodka Stinger (from the Village bar, Pieces) did a scintillating act at 54 Below last week, backed by singers known as the Martha Rayes. Fizzy Vodka performed everything from a medley spanning Broadway’s weird treatment of Native Americans to a stirring version of “The Ladies Who Lunch” (the boozy number that birthed her drag name), which any smart producer would let her do in the next Company revival. The premise of the act was that Vodka was running for Mayoress of 54 Below, but lost to Broadway actress Leslie Kritzer, who stole the election. Vodka gave her acceptance speech anyway, and it was uncannily similar to Elaine Stritch’s immortal 2004 Emmy speech. (“You’ll just effin’ never know.”) In fact, it was that speech. And it was hilarious. Everybody rise.
They stood at the opening night of The Tribute Artist, the Charles Busch comedy with Busch as a female impersonator who takes on the identity of his dead landlady. At the party at Sarabeth’s, I asked Busch where he came up with the fascinating plot device of forcing the lesbian real estate agent character (played by Julie Halston) to go down on a man. “At Northwestern,” he related, “I orchestrated a four-way so I could get my friend Debbie’s hot, straight male friend.” Did it work out, pray tell? “Yes,” he replied, “but my gay roommate Ed was very upset that he had to go down on Debbie!” Ah, nobody likes a whiner.
“Charles uses a lot from his real life,” Halston interjected, smiling. “He’s always interested in themes of group sex and voyeurism, always fascinated by people’s kinks.” Julie herself is strictly vanilla, mind you—but onstage, she flourishes as a well-tailored butch. “It’s all in the pants,” she assured me. “If you wear a nice pants suit and high heels, you’ll be powerful and you’ll get the girl and the townhouse!”
And speaking of fancy people in nice clothes, here’s my riveting roundup of NYC Fashion Week so far, all based on my one fleeting, yet fashionable, visit to the Lincoln Center tent.
The most common overheard utterance: “I was like, whatev.”
The best overheard utterance: A bald photographer was telling a friend, “Backstage, someone asked if anyone needed makeup. I said, ‘No, but I could use some hair.’ ”
The most common gesture: Walking away mid-sentence because someone else just walked in. Not even someone better, just someone else!
The most frequent type of celebrity spotting: “See that [one-named] person over there? She’s the [Iranian/Indonesian/Staten Island] version of M.I.A., and she’s the real deal!”
The most omnipresent freebie: Diet Coke in tiny, Bloomberg-era-sized bottles. But you could grab way more than one. Believe me.
My favorite show: Academy of Art University’s. The San Francisco school’s presentation is always electric because the students haven’t had time to get commodified and boring. I hope they never will, even if they have a helluva coming of age.