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.
“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 >.