Chicago's Black Alphabet Film Festival presents Blackbird, a film directed and co-written by openly gay filmmaker Patrik-Ian Polk. Blackbird is a coming-of-age story about a 17-year-old choir boy in Mississippi who struggles with his sexuality while living in a conservative religious community.
The film stars Oscar winner Mo'Nique, Isaiah Washington and newcomer Julian Walker, and is based on the novel Blackbird, by Larry Duplechan. In an email interview, Polk discussed turning the novel into a film, breaking ground with the TV show Noah's Arc and what a blackbird means to him.
Windy City Times: The film is based on the novel Blackbird, by Larry Duplechan which was first published in 1986. When did you read the book?
Patrik-Ian Polk: I first read the novel as a freshman in college in Boston. I was a young kid from a small town in Mississippi, away from home for the first time. And I was amazed to see an actual 'gay and lesbian' section in a bookstore in Harvard Square. Skimming the shelves, there was one book that I could tell from the spine, had an illustration of a Black person on the cover. That book was Blackbird.
WCT: Did the novel resonate with you in any way on a personal level?
PP: The story resonated with me because it was the first book I'd read about a young Black gay person coming of age. And it's a richly told story with wonderful characters and music.
WCT: Why did you want to turn it into a film?
PP: I just knew instinctively that I would one day make that book into a film. That was 1989. Twenty-five years later, here we are.
WCT: Mo'Nique co-stars in the film and she is the executive producer along with her husband, Sidney Hicks. How did the two of them come to work on the film?
PP: Isaiah Washington is my favorite male actor and was always my first choice to play the main character's father, Lance Rousseau. Once he signed on, he suggested Mo'Nique for the mother, Claire, and sent her and Sidney the script. The rest is history.
WCT: Julian Walker plays the main character, Randy Rousseau, and this is his first film. Was it daunting for him to play the lead in such a dramatic role, and have that be his film debut?
PP: I think he was nervous at first, but everyone embraced him and made him feel comfortable. And he took to it immediately. He's a real talent.
WCT: What was it about Julian's audition that led you to cast him in the film, where there must have been more experienced actors who auditioned?
PP: We went through quite a few actors out in Hollywood, but there was no one fearless enough to take on this challenging role. When I saw Julian's first audition, it was amateurish, I could tell he had little to no experience, but there was a spark of something there. Something worth examining. I'm glad I took a chance. All that searching in L.A. for the perfect actor and he was right there in Hattiesburg, Mississippia junior at the University of Southern Mississippi! And he's openly gaywhich is so refreshing.
WCT: You got many accolades for the 2005 groundbreaking Logo series Noah's Arc, which centered around the lives of gay, Black male characters. Why do you think that, almost 10 years later, there is not one show on TV with multiple gay Black characters?
PP: I certainly wish there were more. But I don't waste time questioning why. I just keep pushing to make more and more films and more television shows. I'd rather continue being part of the solution than expend precious energy griping about the problem. I am excited for Lee Daniels' new series Empire, which debuts next year on Fox and promises to explore some gay issues within a Black family drama.
WCT: Why is Spike Lee an inspiration?
PP: Spike Lee came onto the scene when I was around 13, at a time when I was just starting to formulate ideas about what I wanted to be, what I wanted to do with my life. I think I always knew, but the first Black face I could put on that jobthat title of filmmaker and directorwas Spike Lee's. He wrote books about making his films and those books taught me how movies get made, how people become filmmakers. I learned about film school reading his books. So I knew I wanted to go to film school. And I love his films because his films are truth and they never lack vision.
WCT: What does "blackbird" mean to you?
PP: In the book, the title refers to the Beatles song, which was a big hit in the '70s. The book is full of '70s musical references that I knew I would never be able to afford in a film. That was one of the reasons why I wanted to do this as a modern-day story.
But I think the lyrics of that song resonate no matter when the setting and whether or not the song actually appears in the film: "Blackbird singing in the dead of night, take these broken wings and learn to fly." I think Randy Rousseau is learning to fly. He even talks about flying as a metaphor in the film. So that's what Blackbird means to metaking whatever broken wings life has given you and learning to fly.
Blackbird will be screened at the Black Alphabet Film Festival July 2. For more info, visit blackalphabet.org/ .