The coming out while coming of age story is an integral part of most every gay person’s life experience. As public acceptance of the LGBTQ community has grown over the years, more and more young people are coming out at younger ages. The struggles between homosexuality and religion are long running and deep, though, and have colored the experiences of many in the LGBTQ community, often for the worse.
With Blackbird, director Patrick-Ian Polk offers his take on growing up gay in a religious household in a conservative, Southern small town. Polk, along with fellow screenwriter Rikki Beadle Blair, adapted the screenplay from Larry Duplechan’s 1986 novel of the same name. The film adaptation differs in quite a few ways from the novel, including a change in the setting from 1970’s Southern California to modern day Mississippi, along with significant plot changes regarding the main character’s family.
“In the book, they were pretty Leave It to Beaver,” Polk said about the Rousseau family, explaining that the family drama was added to increase the plot tension. “We also added the character of the sister.”
Polk, as with his earlier work, assembled a generally strong ensemble cast, including actor Isaiah Washington as Lance Rouseau, and Oscar-winning actress Mo’Nique as his estranged wife Claire. The character of Claire was updated from the original story to become that of a mother struggling to cope with loss of her missing daughter.
“I told Rikki that I wanted to write the part to attract an Oscar-caliber actress,” explained Polk.
Playing the lead is newcomer Julian Walker, a Hattiesburg, MS college student who auditioned for the role after being sent the casting call by a friend. Walker, who is openly gay, was earnest and raw in his portrayal of Randy. His lack of acting experience was evident throughout the film, however, as he seemed to struggle through many of the more heavily dramatic scenes, frequently resorting to overacting and emoting. His repetitive refrain of “I’m not gay” was often shrill and unbelievable. This was especially evident in his scenes with Mo’Nique, who by contrast bore a gravitas worthy of an Oscar winner.
The scenes where Walker was most effective were when Randy was happy. Walker more ably brought some depth to his performances, often buoyed by the support of this cast mates, and demonstrated his potential as an actor. Perhaps he may have benefited from stronger direction from Polk to help him overcome his lack of experience.
Where Walker really shone, too, was when he sang. Polk described Walker as having the “voice of an angel,” and he wove music into the story to great effect. From the opening dream sequence, with Randy singing in the church choir, to a touching scene were Randy’s love interest Marshall, played by Kevin Allesee, asks Randy to sing to him so that he’ll have something to remember him by, Walker’s clear and unwavering voice belies his sometimes amateurish performance.
The remainder of the cast, including Nikki Jane’s Crystal, Gary LeRoi Gray’s Efrem, and Torrey Laamar’s Todd were equally strong. Laamar, in particular, playing the character of Randy’s straight crush, who frequently ended up in Randy’s dream sequences, offered a layered and nuanced performance that could’ve easily been stereotypically over the top.
Blackbird was visually appealing, a credit to Eun-ah Lee’s gorgeous cinematography. Lee’s use of natural lighting added a warm and familial element to the story. Especially poignant was a scene where Claire is singing to Randy as they walk arm in arm, backlit by the setting sun.
The strong ensemble cast and effective cinematography was not enough to overcome an overreaching story, however. Polk and Blair were ambitious in their adaptation of the book, going beyond the struggles with coming out in a religious family by adding subplots dealing with mental illness, family dynamics, child kidnapping, and abortion. The result was a confusing and unrealistic amount of plot tension, and was too conveniently wrapped up in the end. They shot for the moon on this one but, unfortunately, missed the mark.
Ultimately, it’s possible to overlook the shortcomings of Polk and Blair’s writing and Walker’s occasionally overwrought acting and enjoy the otherwise thoughtful and touching film. This is important, because Blackbird is one of far too few films that portray the LGBTQ experience from a black perspective. Gay media is frequently very white washed, and unrepresentative of the diversity of the LGBTQ community.
Blackbird is slated for its official release in late February or early March of 2015.