Blackbird (2014) Film Review

Blackbird is a film that analyzes many substantive themes such as gender expectations and sexuality within its runtime of just 99 minutes. Although the film succeeds in presenting a narrative in which the viewer must consider many thought provoking subjects, the denouement was ultimately an unrealistic letdown.

Blackbird (2014) is a coming-of-age comedy-drama about a gay black teen directed by Patrik-Ian Polk. The film is based upon the 1986 novel of the same name written by Larry Duplechan, but the film has been strongly influenced by director Polk’s own experiences. The film portrays the story of a gay teenager named Randy Rousseau (Julian Walker) juxtaposed against the backdrop of a small Christian Mississippi town and his family’s struggle to find his missing younger sister. Randy’s mother and father, Claire and Lance (Hollywood heavyweights Mo’nique and Isaiah Washington), have split up due to the stress of their missing daughter, Chrissie. Randy is unable to express his true feelings to his religious mother who is preoccupied with her missing daughter, so instead he explores his sexuality through theatre. Randy is surrounded by a cast of high school friends who struggle to deal with their own issues such as teenage pregnancy, sexual assault and peer pressure. This ensemble of teenage pals infuses humor into a script weighed down by heavy subject material and they make the film amusing without crossing the line into tastelessness.

The film was screened as part of the Reelout film festival at the Kingston Public library. The room was packed with gender studies students and Kingston locals. When I sneakily glanced around the room during the emotional climax of the film, there was not a dry eye in the place. It was very heartwarming to see people from all walks of life able to enjoy and sympathize with the same narrative.

The movie opens with Randy singing in a church choir. The scene quickly becomes erotic when he crosses the choir stand towards another choirboy. They both remove their choir robes and embrace in a passionate kiss. The remainder of the choir looks on in horror. Then, Randy awakens suddenly to discover that he had only been dreaming! When Randy realizes that he had experienced a nocturnal emission, he cries in shame. This first scene sets the tone of the movie and introduces the viewer to the themes that will be explored throughout the film, including coming of age, religion, family, gender and sexuality. The portrayal of multiple systems of societal oppression allows for intersectional analysis of the film.

The power structures depicted in the film serve to strictly control sexuality, causing the adolescent characters to struggle with developing their sexual identities. The small, religious Mississippi town in which this film is set strictly enforces compulsory heterosexuality. For example, Randy’s friends all seem to know that he is gay although even when they ask Randy directly about his sexuality he denies it. Randy’s denial can be attributed to his guilt and inability to reconcile his religious beliefs with his intrinsic sexual desires.

Sexual identity is an important theme in the film, and it does not only affect the main character. All of Randy’s friends also struggle with their own sexualities due to sexual and body policing, albeit in different ways. One example is his friend Justine who is very ashamed of her status as a virgin. Justine explains that even though every boy at school wants to sleep with her, nobody wants to be the one responsible for taking her virginity. This serves to negate Justine’s female sexual agency. Justine’s peers consider her to be unattainable and pure because she is a virgin, but they suppose that when she loses her virginity that she will be entirely up for grabs. This societal pressure causes Justine to convince Randy to have sex with her, just to get rid of her virginal curse. Societal and religious pressure also serve to hurt Randy’s friends Leslie and Todd, who are young and in love. Leslie gets pregnant, and is faced with the terrifying prospect of being a teenage mother because her Pastor father prevents her from having an abortion. There are countless examples in the film where young people are forced to surrender their agency due to societal pressures and cultural norms.

Randy is not only prohibited from expressing his sexuality by his religion but his family serves to oppress him as well. When Randy forms an intimate relationship with his friend Marshall (Kevin Allesee) his mother finds out and proceeds to blames Randy for his sister’s disappearance, saying that the Lord is punishing their family for his sexuality. His mother exhibits extreme homophobia, by spitting in Randy’s face and breaking Marshall’s car window. This demonstrates the ubiquity and destructiveness of heterosexism; it not only permeates societies but it has the ability to break up families.

This film certainly tackled complex issues in a very moving and provocative way. I will be careful not to reveal too much, although I will say that unfortunately the film was concluded in a way that was too neat considering the messy subject matter. The runtime of the film proved too short to present a realistic and complete exploration of religion, family and sexuality. Despite its shortcomings, the film was captivating; therefore I would recommend it to anyone who wants a good laugh or cry.

~ Emily

References

“Blackbird.” IMDb. IMDb.com. Web. 10 Feb. 2015. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3181920 >.

“2014 PAFF Review: Patrik-Ian Polk’s ‘Blackbird'” Shadow and Act. Web. 10 Feb. 2015.<http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/2014-paff-review-patrik-ian-polks-blackbird >.

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4 thoughts on “Blackbird (2014) Film Review

  1. Great job! This is a well written film review. Its clear you put significant thought into the organization of your review and the development of an overarching opinion about the film. I think you did a good job selecting relevant terms to discuss the film, however, l I think a few more lines expanding on the relevance of the terms would have elevated your review. For example, you touch very briefly on how there is a element of intersectionality to the film, so I would have loved to hear more about how that is the case (class, race etc). You also mention the term “compulsory heterosexuality,” but then go on to discuss the how all Randy’s friends seem to know he is gay. That was a little confusing to me because I understand compulsory heterosexuality to refer to the societal expectation and institutionalized norms which assume heterosexuality rather than homosexuality. I don’t think you were totally wrong to employ this term, but I think a more in-depth explanation would be needed to explain the term’s relevance. If you feel inclined I’d be interested to hear more of your reasoning about why you picked the terms you did for your analysis.

    Once again, I think this was a well-written blog. In particular I think you did a really nice job of analyzing the atmosphere of the Reelout festival. After hearing your isights I’s be curious to see the film myself. I look forward to reading more of your posts in the future!

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  2. Great Review! I appreciate your recognition of intersectionality in the film. However, I wish you had expanded on the multiple systems of oppression that you were referring to – Race? Gender? Class? (It sounds like all of these might be applicable to the film)

    Alike Meera, I too am confused with the use of the term “compulsory heterosexuality”. I have not seen the movie, so I cannot determine whether or not the term was used correctly. However, I think that a definition would definitely strengthened your point about Randy’s situation.

    I’m very impressed with your analysis of female sexual agency in the film. I like how you connected the loss of agency to both societal pressures and cultural norms. The diverse examples you use provide a strong portrayal of the theme.

    I wish that you had given a bit more of a detailed analysis of the film’s shortcomings so that I could better understand your disappointments with the conclusion. However, I appreciate that you did not want to spoil the film for us! I would definitely consider watching the film!

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  3. Hi MEERA1232015 and 13BPB1, thanks so much for your comments. I really appreciate your feedback. I know that some of the terms that I used can definitely seem confusing at first. Although the word limit for the blog post did not allow me to include detailed word definitions, I am very happy to help clarify matters here in the comment section 🙂

    The term compulsory heterosexuality was coined by Adrienne Rich in her essay Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. Although her essay focuses primarily on lesbians, we can easily extrapolate her arguments to apply to both lesbian and gay individuals. Although this essay has many points, the message that Rich continues to come back to is that being queer is viewed as ‘the other’ and is considered unacceptable by most people. So although at first it may seem like compulsory heterosexuality means that literally everyone in society assumes that everyone else is heterosexual, in reality the term is slightly more complex than that. However, it is definitely easy to make this assumption! I would recommend reading this essay if you’d like any more information on the origin of this term and for further clarification of its meaning. I used this term because although Randy’s queer/ young/ liberal friends were aware of his sexuality, his sexuality still was viewed as strange and unnatural by society at large (and even Randy himself!). Additionally, being aware of the Randy’s sexuality does not imply that his friends completely accepted it, which is why I believe that the term ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ works well in my film review.

    Intersectional analysis (as defined by our textbook) is the method by which we examine the crosscutting inequalities that complicate gendered differences. Multiple systems of oppression complicate gendered differences in Blackbird and I described sexual orientation and religion as the examples which predominate in the film.

    Although the length of the blog post didn’t really allow for me to go beyond the required analysis, I hope that this comment helped to clarify things and please let me know if you have any other questions. Also I would definitely recommend the film, it’s great !

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  4. I think that this film review was laid out very well. The way you portrayed the film showed us how teenage children struggling with the expression of their needs and opinions can come together as one group to try and help eachother. Using the examples of homosexuality and teenage pregnancy in terms of non-acceptance within the church shows us how religion can play a role in many different non-acceptance aspects.

    I also think the way you picked up on and brought to light that the film-makers purposely opened the movie with a scene that would set the tone for the rest of the film was a very important point to make before you began your blog. The explanation of the scene further helped those of us who have not watched the film to further gain an understanding of the protagonist so we could understand the points you made.

    My one critique would be to maybe to explore a bit more about the town that the children were raised in. I did not see the film, so maybe they did not go in depth about this aspect but clearly the town had an impact on many of the teenagers growing up there.

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