Monday, June 23, 2014

Blackbird @ Frameline38 June 22, 2014

Director, Patrick-Ian Polk, producers, and stars in Blackbird
Blackbird directed by Patrick-Ian Polk features a star-studded lineup of talent with outstanding performances by newcomer to the screen Julian Walker as Randy Rousseau.

Haunted by Christ, Randy struggles with nocturnal emissions--leaks in his faith which he is unable to stop. Add to this a mother who has lost her mind with grief, younger sister abducted or missing for six years--yellow ribbons dangling from bare tree limbs like leaves or bottle fruit. Is this the new sacred tree? Will spirit descend and rectify the wrong? What can this devote, yet confused young Christian do with these dreams which are consuming his consciousness?

The dreams are so real the audience is confused as well until Randy awakens. By far, this is the strongest component of the film, which also features lovely scenes in church with the protagonist leading the choir in song. Other strong moments are those between Randy and his friends --  who know he is gay even though he denies it. Except for his sexuality confusion, his distraught mother and absentee dad, Randy is a pretty normal Southern boy (smile).

There are lovely moments where the friends (the two boys and a girlfriend) talk to him about his sexuality which is complicated by his feelings of guilt. We see Randy praying fervently for himself and his mother and missing sister. His dad (Isaiah Washington) is no longer in the home, but he is keeping an eye on his son, who he sees as he walks to or from school. He offers him a ride and finds amusement in his boy's assertiveness, even though I am sure it also pains him, when the child walks away.
Actors, Julian Walker & Kevin Allesee

Washington's character, Lance Rousseau, is the only one who gives his son space to see a different answer to his entreaties to the man on the cross. It is also interesting that Mr. Rousseau becomes the parent Randy calls on for help. Maybe it is his stubborn presence within the physical absence. There are many silences surrounding Randy which operate like voids or open spaces that further trap the faltering youth.

Mr. Rousseau tells his son about his younger life and his sexual trysts attended by his mother, to Randy's astonishment. This makes his son rethink his doubts about his faith. Perhaps he isn't cursed. Perhaps he isn't condemned. Perhaps he is okay just as he is.

His father is a patient man, who participates from the fringes in his family's life--his sorrow is of a different sort and gives another dimension to the concept: abandonment or absence. He is physically absent from the home, yet, he is more present than his wife, Claire Rousseau (Mo'Nique) who does not acknowledge the child she did not lose, Randy. Randy's pain is ours as we watch her ignore his needs, both emotional and physical. Her neglect adds another layer to the complexity of the adolescent's problem.

What will Randy do about these dreams which are becoming more like hallucinations when faced with the person who inspires these dreams? There are fine performances by the young cast, all from Mississippi, Harrisburg to be exact.

I know Hattiesburg, Mississippi. My uncle lived there and Genevieve Bayan and I stayed there when visiting New Medina where Imam Warith Deen Mohammed was speaking. New Medina was to be a Muslim town. There we met Muslims from around the country who had bought land here and were building homes and a school and a grocery store.The conference was at Southern University in Hattiesburg (where director received his undergraduate degree). My uncle and aunt had two homes there. They are in Picayune now. I think my cousin still lives there.
Director, Patrick-Ian Polk speaking w/cast
and producers of Blackbird

Adopted from Larry Duplechan's novel by the same title, writers Polk and Rikki Beadle-Blair (Metrosexuality, FIT) create a lilting beautiful tale of acceptance and triumph. At times a bit confusing, especially the concluding dream --nonetheless, we see a level of acceptance in this Southern town quite unlike what is anticipated when one thinks about the black church's reputation regarding homosexuality. It is rather amazing that Randy's close childhood friend is "out" and hangs with the minister's daughter and her boyfriend, who agrees to play a gay character in the senior class's closing production, they rename, Romeo and Jules. It is elements like this, which might not have happened were this not a film that add a nice fantasy element in keeping with the script and the story Polk tells.

Sexuality and sexual questions are ones all the close friends raise, Randy the only one who feels guilty. Mo'Nique's character is mourning and crazed by grief. She has checked out of her son's life and lives only for the return of her daughter, gone now for six years. One wonders how the protagonist has grown into the healthy kid he has given his mother's emotional absence as we cringe as we see the pain her negation has on his young still formative life.

I wonder at Mo'Nique's ability to carry these maternal characters from Precious to Blackbird; she steps so well into these toxic maternal roles given her comedic and dramatic range, yet who wants to be known for such? At least in Blackbird she is allowed a degree of redemption. At the Q&A she states she makes these films to save children.

Polk shares at the Frameline38 premiere how he stumbled across the novel, one in a series, 21 years ago, and how he immediately knew he wanted to adapt it for the screen. He contacted the author then, who gave him the option for $1 and so this work is one from the director's "To do list."

I haven't read the book so I cannot speak to all the additional elements; however, I am sure the older Rousseau's queries to his son about safe sex is a 2014 addition. Maybe not? Nonetheless, I like every scene Isaiah Washington's character, Lance Rousseau, is a part of --even those where he doesn't have lines like when he is in the church seated in the rear listening to his son sing (and leaves before he is acknowledged), or at the end of the film, where we see him taking care of the lawn or standing silently behind his wife and son.

When Randy takes an ad from the a tree for an audition for a film and meets Marshall MacNeil (actor Kevin Allesee) in an abandoned lot, we are afraid for Randy, even when we learn that this attack was a part of the audition. A bit older and a lot wiser youth at 21, Marshall finds Randy's innocence charming and attractive. I like it that Marshall does not take advantage of this. It is in the interaction between the two, a questioning Randy and an attracted Marshall, that the dialogue is superb. Allesee's Marshall is kind, yet frank with Randy as he introduces the questioning kid to a world he didn't know existed, except perhaps in his dreams.

There is a sordidness present in the Piney Woods car park the two visit where young and older men, both black and white, pick up other men who are looking for love and acceptance or a place to hide their desires at least for the night beneath a starry canopy.  There Randy sees someone he knows. This is juxtaposed with a club Marshall takes Randy to to dance, where he says in answer to his friend's query, "What is this place?" "It is a place where 'he can be himself.'"

In this club scene we see the director performing in a band (smile). I failed to mention that Marshall is white, a talented filmmaker, yet poor, his homestead a trailer park. At times it was really hard to understand Allesee's accent on screen, and at the Castro Theatre Sunday night, June 22, the actor was clearly overwhelmed by the experience, his response to questions a self-depreciating profanity-laced tirade. Hopefully he will relax and get used to the accolades (smile).

Within the film we see a middle class black community, juxtaposed with a white community unable to afford the dreams Randy and his peers have for themselves. It is refreshing to see on screen a community where the kids are law abiding, go to school, respect their parents and believe in God. As such, we have a feeling that Randy's family will work it out and that Randy will resolve the conflict present in his dreams.

The novel is set in Southern California; however, Polk sets it in his hometown, Hattiesburg. I am told, this particular genre fiction (1970s) has as its trope the black man rescued by a white man. This is revealed in the closing dream-scape where a tearful Randy is visited by his classmate Romeo who foretells his future, one where his white friend and lover will save him and provide access to a charmed life when actuality, it is Randy's acceptance of himself and the love he has for his family that saves him.

The physical window that opens where dreams enter the room allows the interaction between the secular or profane and the sacred. It contracts and expands as its multiple dimensions are explored. Voyeurs are extended invitations into this porous psychic space to witness Randy and his friends take turns losing their virginity, and Randy's remorse as he tries to wash his desires away, yet each night they return to haunt him.

I love the bloody hand print on the mattress . . . evidence again of the porous nature of the psyche. The youthful stories of sexual conquest, yearning and disaster are interwoven and connected. It is in his bed that the pastor's daughter loses her virginity. His bed is the true stage in this drama as first one then another character finds resolution . . . demons are exorcised and Christ is relieved of his cross. 

Why is it so important to lose one's virginity? When did being a virgin lose its attractiveness? Julian Walker's Randy shows that virginity is an attitude or disposition not necessarily a physical state. In the film within the film we see how this is so. Once again, Walker really carries the work, of course with excellent support from a fantastic cast --professional and otherwise, but it is his lovely singing voice, big eyes and sweet demeanor that share a story of acceptance and love, which with certainly appeal to both parents and youth. What parent does not want for his or her child a life filled with pride and certainty?

It is a story gay and straight audiences can appreciate, because when things are not working out in one's life, they haunt your dreams.


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