Review: Blackbird

The film is, like its main character, too naïve to understand or, at least, to deploy the reparative powers of camp.

Blackbird
Photo: RLJ Entertainment

Blackbird opens with sexually repressed Randy (Julian Walker), a closeted black high school senior from a Southern Baptist family, singing a duet in his choir with another guy. The scene culminates with the two making out and taking their clothes off on stage and at least one member of the choir fainting in horror. Turns out this is just a wet dream, one of many that Randy will have throughout the film, which sometimes includes guys knocking on his window and asking, “Is this a gay party or can a dirty straight boy join in?” Randy tends to wake up from these dreams with jizz all over his hands, and stricken with the kind of guilt that gets him on his knees, begging the lord for forgiveness.

The dream motif actually turns out to be one of the Patrik-Ian Polk film’s least hackneyed devices; after all, a gay boy in the most stifling of closets (this despite the realness of Randy’s Joan Crawford eyebrows) can only gasp for air in the unconscious. The device recovers its usual triteness, however, once we hear an entire song about dreams, just in case we haven’t understood that they’re quite important for Randy, while watching him lose his virginity to some white dude in, of course, slow motion.

While this gospel Glee of a movie about gay alienation has its share of witty lines (“What do they teach you straight boys, nothing?”) and sweet tear-jerking scenes, Blackbird flounders by using a song in every other scene, or whenever it wants to evoke an emotion, and by casting Mo’Nique as yet another mother monster. She slaps Randy in the face when he eats the pie she’s baked for her missing daughter, and arms herself with a baseball bat when finding irrefutable proof that he’s gay. To add to the film’s TMZ-triggered problems, having Isaiah “Not-Your-Little-Faggot” Washington, as Randy’s father, play the one gay-friendly voice in an ocean of homophobic hysteria is an embarrassingly forced mea culpa.

In its best moments, Blackbird exudes the cheekiness of But I’m a Cheerleader, as in Randy meeting a bona-fide gay, Marshall (Kevin Allesee), who ushers him toward his first sex-cruising experience at a park late at night. Randy asks, “Is this some kind of lovers lane?” But for a film that wants to be something of a teen musical, a coming-of-age story, and a gay fairy tale all at once, it’s too often bogged down by an unnecessarily somber subplot about Randy’s sister, which never quite fits the narrative, and worn-out images of Jesus freaks trying to pray the gay away through exorcism. Indeed, being a closeted black gay boy in Mississippi is surely suffocating, but Blackbird is, like its main character, too naïve to understand or, at least, to deploy the reparative powers of camp.

Score: 
 Cast: Mo'Nique, Julian Walker, Kevin Allesee, Isaiah Washington  Director: Patrik-Ian Polk  Screenwriter: Rikki Beadle Blair, Patrik-Ian Polk  Distributor: RLJ Entertainment  Running Time: 99 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2014  Buy: Video

Diego Semerene

Diego Semerene is an assistant professor of queer and transgender media at the University of Amsterdam.

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