Yoruba Richen’s thoughtful The New Black confronts the struggle for gay acceptance that still exists within heavily devout black communities, observing both sides of the conversation with a non-judgmental and compassionate perspective. Featuring a balanced roster of black reverends, churchgoers, gay families, and marriage-equality activists, the documentary focuses on Maryland’s 2012 referendum Question 6 regarding same-sex marriage. Considering the high population of African-Americans in Maryland’s voting districts, the choice to spotlight the diverging campaigns functions as an effective microcosm of this national values tug-of-war. Although the filmmakers’ pro-gay-marriage position is never equivocated, the members of the religious opposition are never edited down to monstrous ciphers. Instead, Richen allows Bible-bound African-Americans the space to express their faith-based reservations without layering on propaganda to smear the very human face Richen applies to the debate.
While The New Black does little to break free of the conventional talking-head documentary format, it prizes dialogue over acrimony and one-sided rhetoric. In a collection of scenes that take place at a family party hosted by Sharon Lettman-Hicks, Executive Director of the National Black Justice Coalition, Richen distills the conversation most saliently by observing differing opinions over barbeque and beers. Politically volatile family gatherings are usually unbearably transgressive, but this particular scenario thematically gets to the heart of the domestic discourse, which is a private matter that’s been dragged into the public sphere. Late in the film, as the climactic tallying of the very-tight Question 6 referendum are tabulated, Lettman-Hicks notes that, win or lose, “the conversation has started in a healthy and constructive way.” And as a doc that’s more interested in discussion than competition, The New Black is keenly aware that the only way homophobic factions will ever come close to overcoming their religious beliefs is by understanding the human lives and relationships affected by anti-gay marriage legislature.