The New Black: Film Review

A thoughtful conversation starter that brings misrepresented, oversimplified issues into a nuanced light.

A documentarian looks behind the headlines at LGBT activism and acceptance among African Americans.

At the center of Yoruba Richen’s The New Black is Maryland’s 2012 ballot referendum on a bill legalizing same-sex marriage, and its reception in the state’s sizable African American communities. Eschewing cinematic flash for a direct approach, the film chips away at mainstream media portrayals of a monolithic African American constituency that’s anti-LGBT. Beyond the straightforward reportage, the documentary is a thoughtful examination of socially conservative, church-based traditions responding to voices of reform, many of them arising within churchgoing families.

News footage sets the stage for the electoral challenge — a ballot initiative aiming to overturn the state bill — while new material follows on-the-ground work and observes personal exchanges. Director Richen, who previously turned her lens on post-apartheid South Africa in Promised Land, focuses on a handful of gay-rights activists as they canvass neighborhoods and engage strangers and relatives in conversation.

Richen quickly traces Barack Obama’s evolution on the issue of gay marriage, from his conservative stance during his first campaign for the presidency to his unambiguous support of LGBT rights during his second inaugural address. Questions of political expediency aside, the symbolic impact of the president’s about-face is undeniable — although mentioning it doesn’t necessarily help activists Karess Taylor-Hughes and Samantha Master change hearts and minds.

Footage relating to gospel singer Tonéx (who now goes by the stage name B.Slade) goes to the heart of the sociocultural matter: In a 2009 interview on the Word Network’s Lexi Show, he confessed to homosexual attractions and experiences, and found himself facing a talk-show interlocutor who fully expected him to repent.

On the political front, some interviewees draw a direct link between the Maryland initiative and California’s Proposition 8. They see the petition for the referendum as the work of out-of-state right-wing interests whose chief aim is to divide gays and African Americans, two key blocs within the Democratic Party. Crucially, they point out that backers of the California proposition conducted an aggressive outreach campaign to black voters that framed the anti-gay-marriage argument in terms of religion rather than civil rights. On the other hand, black church leaders say it’s wrong to assume that African Americans who oppose marriage reform are merely yielding to pressure from white evangelists rather than expressing their own convictions.

But in that question of civil rights versus religious morality, The New Black offers insights into human nature and the notion of minority — and the truth that those long trampled upon do not necessarily rush to lift up others who are persecuted. Particularly penetrating are comments that point to the legacy of slavery: Facing the terrible reality of families torn apart, African Americans have long understood the importance of adapting with nonconformist family configurations, conventional church teachings notwithstanding.

Through formal interviews and fly-on-the-wall observation, Richen’s film delivers a valuable contribution to an ongoing national dialogue. It reveals gradations of LGBT acceptance within black American families and neighborhoods, conversations that don’t make the front page.

Opens: Friday, Nov. 1 (Promised Land Film)

In association with ITVS, Ford Foundation Just films, Chicken & Egg Pictures

With: Sharon Lettman-Hicks, Karess Taylor-Hughes, Samantha Master, Derek McCoy, Rev. Delman Coasts, Anthony Charles Williams II (aka Tonéx)

Director: Yoruba Richen

Screenwriters: Yoruba Richen, Erin Casper

Producers: Yvonne Welbon, Yoruba Richen

Directors of photography: Nadia Hallgren, Garland McLaurin

Music: Kathryn Bostic

Co-producer: Angela Tucker  

Editors: Ali Muney, Erin Casper

No MPAA rating; 74 min.