Commentary: How Blackbird Paves a Way for More Black Artists

Commentary: How Blackbird Paves a Way for More Black Artists

Film shows we don't have to wait for big studios to back our projects.

Published April 24, 2015

This week's premiere of the new Patrik-Ian Polk film, Blackbird, had all the trappings of a Hollywood movie opening. There was the red carpet, the celebrity guests, the media entourage and the debut of a new movie.

But something about the event felt different. First, it was not in Hollywood. It took place in Harlem at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. But the audience was different as well. Most of the guests, celebrities and media were African-Americans. This was a story about Black people making art that resonates for other Black people.

Blackbird tells the story of a Black teenage choir boy in the South struggling to come to terms with his sexuality. Actor Julian Walker plays the main character, Randy Rousseau, a troubled kid who dreams at night of same-sex romantic encounters he refuses to acknowledge to his friends.

Mo'Nique is Randy's God-fearing mother, haunted by the abduction of her daughter, and ready to blame Randy for the girl's disappearance. Isaiah Washington plays the role of Randy's somewhat estranged father trying to help his son come to terms with what everyone else already knows. Randy lives in a stained-glass closet.

Based on Larry Duplechan's novel of the same title, the story of Blackbird would never have been made into a film when the book was released in 1986, and the reaction to its release might have been different if it had. Back then, Ronald Reagan was president, the AIDS epidemic was killing thousands of African-Americans a year, and Black LGBT issues were rarely discussed in the Black media, much less the mainstream media.

Fast forward to 2015 and Barack Obama is president, HIV is still disproportionately impacting African-American communities, and TV executives and movie studios are scrambling to catch up with the changing times. Mo'Nique, Isaiah Washington, Tyson Beckford, Monifah and other celebrities walked the red carpet at this week's premiere. But there was another guest who caught my attention.

Bob Johnson, the founder of BET Networks, introduced Blackbird at the premiere. He talked about the importance of the film but also about the business of Black people making movies without going through the gatekeepers of the past. Johnson's new Urban Movie Channel will distribute the film, which is being released in theaters today.

Maybe things are changing. I remember appearing on Tavis Smiley's BET talk show in the 1990s debating Tavis and Angie and Debbie Winans about LGBT issues. Now the founder and former chairman of the same network is out front promoting Black LGBT films.

In reality, the Black community, like the Black experience, has never been monolithic. We live in all parts of the world, speak different languages and come from different backgrounds. We have thousands of stories to be told about our lives that don't always fit into the narrow, limiting stereotypes of Black identity. That's why the model for creating and distributing Blackbird is just as important as the film itself.

I've written four books and worked on several films and TV shows over the years. The publishing industry, the music industry and the film industry have all been slow to keep pace with the recent changes in digital creativity and entrepreneurship. That's why more and more artists are creating their own work, with more autonomy, more risks and more rewards, outside the traditional channels.

Just last week, two friends sent me copies of new books they're self-publishing. Another friend, who served as the co-sponsor for Wednesday's premiere of Blackbird, also runs an independent print magazine. They all understand the future.

As Black people, we don't have to wait for big Hollywood studios or New York publishers to validate us. We can validate ourselves. We can tell our own stories, make our own films, publish our own books, create our own TV shows and theater. And, finally, we can take on topics that mainstream society thinks we're not ready to address.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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Written by Keith Boykin

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