Trailblazing Filmmaker Patrik-Ian Polk Takes Jabs at the Barriers to Sexual Health
by Sean Black
Photos by Duane Cramer
Patrik-Ian Polk can take a great deal of the credit for fast-forwarding queer black cinema into present-day; in fact, some even tout him as the “Father of Black Gay Cinema.” After bursting onto the scene in 2001 with his directorial debut Punks (a gay black romantic comedy produced by Babyface and Tracey Edmonds), Polk, a longtime friend of the Black AIDS Institute and a member of the Black Hollywood Task Force on AIDS, garnered further serious attention for his dramatic comedy series Noah’s Arc. Created for Logo TV, the 2005 instant hit shined an unapologetic spotlight on the lives and loves of a group of gay African-American men. Since then he’s been responsible for bringing us feature titles like The Skinny and the movie-spinoff of his TV series, Noah’s Arc: Jumping The Broom.
His latest entertainment offering is another poignant leap towards mainstreaming gay black America in a more serious yet still-subtly-provocative way. Blackbird is a coming-of-age tale about a gifted high school senior, played by impressive newcomer Julian Walker, a choirboy grappling with his sexuality in a conservative Southern Baptist locale. The film is set in the creator’s hometown of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and is based on the novel by Larry Duplechan. It stars Isaiah Washington and Academy Award-winner Mo’Nique [A&U, February 2004]. Washington also serves as a producer of the film while Mo’Nique and her husband Sidney Hicks serve as executive producers.
Apart from traveling to promote his latest film, reading scripts, and crafting his next original screenplay, Polk takes time to talk to A&U about combating the spread of HIV in the community he loves and knows the best.
“Sexual health is a huge issue for gay black men in the twenty-first century. With HIV rates continuing to be among the worst in the world our community needs to be taught the simple information that can keep us healthy and alive,” Polk insists.
He echoes concern published earlier this year in the Washington Post. Black Americans are between eight to nine times more likely than white Americans to test positive for HIV. The findings predict that the disparity will only get worse and the gap will widen because black Americans also have the highest rates of new HIV diagnoses. Nearly half of all new cases of HIV are among black Americans.
“As gay black men, we don’t often grow up with normal socialization of our sexuality. Our gayness is often something that we feel the need to hide and not share with our families openly. So where are we to learn about issues of sexual health? How to clean out your booty if you’re engaging in receptive anal sex; how a pill can prevent you from contracting HIV; etc. With my films, I’m not trying to make PSAs about this stuff, but I do try to present practical information that is rooted in the characters and the stories I’m telling.”
Aiming to bring awareness to his audience Polk believes that, by staying connected to the emotional lives of the characters he’s creating, the viewers will stay engaged and absorb some of the self-love messaging. “Emotion is universal, regardless of race, sexuality, or gender.”
Discussing filmmaking, youth, family, relationships, his influences, and HIV, A&U brings you closer to this month’s major contender—Mr. Patrik-Ian Polk.
Sean Black: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Your latest movie, Blackbird reminded me of beginnings, how we start. What sparked your interests in becoming a filmmaker?
Patrik-Ian Polk: By the time I was in junior high school, I already had a healthy interest in television, movies, and storytelling. I had no clue what a filmmaker was, but I knew I was interested in telling stories. I used to watch soap operas with my grandmother after school and in the summers. At one point, I started writing my own soap opera using the names of my school friends. We even filmed an episode once. I wish I still had that videotape. It was hilarious! But when Spike Lee emerged with his first film She’s Gotta Have It, and he wrote a companion book that detailed his journey to becoming a filmmaker and directing his first feature film, that was when I was first introduced to the concept of what a director was and that you went to film school to become one. So I have Spike Lee to thank for inspiring me and helping me focus my dreams and aspirations. Later, I ended up attending the top film school in the country, the University of Southern California.
Let’s go back to your childhood.
I grew up in the late seventies/eighties in Mississippi in a time before we had the Internet, smartphones, and laptop computers. A time when you could leave your house and not come home until the streetlights turned on, and no one worried about you being murdered or kidnapped. I was an excellent student, always did really well in school with minimal effort, and thankfully had a mother who wouldn’t hesitate to indulge my creative and educational whims. She would support any idea that I came home excited about. When my little white best friend Alicia Jackson started playing cello in second grade, I came home proclaiming I wanted to play the cello. So my mother took me down to the music store and we got my first cello. When I was about thirteen years-old, I started a major lobbying campaign with my mother for a video camera. This was back when video cameras used a full-sized VHS tape. That camera was huge! But my mother got it for me. Her encouragement instilled in me a sense that I could do anything; accomplish anything—that nothing was outside my reach. If I could dream it, I could do it. Period!
I was also allowed the freedom to explore various religious faiths as a child—Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, etc.—so I developed a strong sense of religious and racial tolerance. I was keenly aware that my sexuality was not something I could or should be open about as a young man, but I never felt the threat of being ostracized because of my homosexuality. In fact, I rarely if ever felt anything other than acceptance and encouragement as a child.
What relationships do you nurture today?
I keep a small, close circle of friends and try to maintain regular contact with my immediate family. I feel it is important to have people in your life that you can inspire or mentor, but it’s also important to have mentors or people who you look up to, who have accomplished things that you hope to accomplish. If you surround yourself with losers, then that can’t help but have an effect on your own success.
Do you embrace a broader notion of family?
There are two types of family. Your “true family,” or the family you’re born into. And your “real family,” or the family you choose. Your real family takes on an even greater significance because you choose them—especially for many gay people, who often end up being distant from their true families because of tension surrounding the sexuality issue. If you choose wisely it becomes harder and harder to tell the difference between your “true” and “real” families because they feel like one and the same.
We’ve seen many coming-of-age stories about gay characters. What sets Blackbird apart from the rest?
I think by this point we’ve seen many coming-of-age stories about white gay characters. But we have very rarely seen these stories from black perspectives. Pariah told the story of a young black female coming to terms with her lesbianism—a first of its kind. And now Blackbird tells the story of a black teenaged boy trying to reconcile his religion and his burgeoning homosexuality. As young people, we often derive our first and most significant ideas about life and lifestyles from popular culture. So it is of course important for these stories to be told so that gay youth of color have more concrete examples of their lives.
Larry Duplechan’s novel Blackbird is set in rural California during the 1970s. Why did you set your film adaptation in the present day?
I always felt the film needed to be set in the present. The book tells a lovely story set in the 1970s complete with all the cultural references of that era. But as a film and as one of the only black gay coming-of-age films, Blackbird needed to be set in the present day, especially since I set the movie in Mississippi. Besides, period pieces are hard to film [grin].
What do you think of Tyler Perry’s work?
Tyler Perry is most definitely one of my professional heroes. When I think of all that man has accomplished—the four television series on the air at once, the many films produced, the wealth accumulated, the movie studio he owns—I cannot help but be inspired to climb to new heights. One of my mantras I return to in tough times [is] “Tyler Perry lived in his car after his first production failed; he now owns an island and is friends with Oprah.”
I recently attended a dinner thrown by Essence magazine honoring black men in film; the dinner was hosted by Tyler Perry in his Beverly Hills mansion. To be in the room with Tyler Perry, Spike Lee (another personal hero), Sidney Poitier—it was incredibly surreal. I got to meet and chat with Mr. Perry, but we were asked not to take photos. There is a large group photo that appeared in Essence that I hope to get a copy of. I must admit, on my way out of the dinner party, I did make a stop in the powder room, which was as big as my entire kitchen and living room combined and I did secretly snap one cell phone photo. I have no intention of sharing it or posting it anywhere- it’s not even that great of a photo—but I do look at it from time to time. Not in a creepy, I’m-stalking-Tyler-Perry kind-of-way, but as inspiration when my life is low. When Tyler addressed the dinner party, he spoke about his first time going to Oprah’s house and how that inspired him. He said he hoped that some of us were similarly inspired that night at his house. I most definitely was. I know a lot of people hate on Tyler Perry, but to me he is nothing but a hero.
What are some of your favorite gay-themed films?
My favorite film of all time is Mahogany [starring Diana Ross (A&U, August 1999)]: Some would call that a gay film. I was lucky when I was in college at Brandeis University in Boston to be the Entertainment & Arts Editor of the paper, so I got to see all kinds of great independent and foreign films. Some of my favorite gay ones include: Lilies, Edward I, Nowhere, Y Tu Mamá También, Tongues Untied, and The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love.
Are the characters in your films doppelgangers taken from your off-screen social scene?
People always assume that because I’m a gay filmmaker making films about gay people I must be borrowing from my personal life in the creation of characters. This could not be further from the truth. Aside from the occasional line of dialogue, I rarely take from real life. So my point of connection with my characters is simply the human connection.”
In The Skinny your actors take pause in tribute to the important legacy of Langston Hughes. Has his artistry informed yours?
I admittedly don’t know a lot of about the life of Langston Hughes, but his writings have been incredibly inspirational. He captured the consciousness of the African-American experience in America and is considered one of our greatest and most mainstream writers. The fact that he was also gay adds many other layers to his works—which on the surface seemed to be solely about race, but clearly had sexuality implications as well. To live in and walk around Harlem, in some of the same places that people like Langston Hughes actually lived and visited feels very special. I often wonder what Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry and the like would think about the society we live in today and—more specifically—what they would think of the work of an openly gay black artist such as myself.
The publisher of The Langston Hughes Reader in 1958, called Hughes “the unchallenged spokesman of the American Negro.” Whom do you turn to for civil rights leadership today?
When I seek insight about civil rights issues today, I turn to the work of people like James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin, Nina Simone, Maya Angelou [A&U, January 2001]. In terms of contemporaries, I look to journalists, reporters, writers such as Melissa Harris-Perry, Rachel Maddow, Eugene Robinson, Jonathan Capehart. I don’t think it’s fair to credit me as a spokesperson for anyone [laughs]. I am an artist. I am a storyteller. I happen to tell stories about gay African-American experiences. It is unfortunate that I am basically the only one telling these stories on a consistent basis, and I look forward to there being more. But I don’t want to be credited as being the spokesperson for anyone. I am more than happy to be known as a gay black filmmaker, and if I never do any work outside the black gay genre (if there is such a thing) I will die a happy man. I love my community and it makes me happy to tell our stories. That’s not to say that I will never do a film that tells some other story that’s not specifically gay and black—but I do love what I do and feel it is my mission as an artist. To tell the stories of my people, my black gay people. We’ve existed in the shadows for far too long.
Can you describe the nexus of your work?
The best films and television not only entertain us but expose us to new ideas, new cultures, new ways of thinking about life. Certainly with my work, I recognized early on the need for gay-themed films that explored the black gay experience. Within that framework, I have tried to educate my audience on what it means to be black and gay in this country. I’ve tried to educate about important issues such as the HIV epidemic and fun issues such as the proper way to prepare for anal sex in my last film The Skinny [available on Netflix]. It’s important to me that my work not only entertain but also educate and expose the viewer to new things.
You have been a longtime supporter of Phill Wilson [A&U, February 2014] and the Black AIDS Institute and have been honored with their Heroes in the Struggle award. Whom do you consider to be the heroes today when it comes to the fight against AIDS?
The heroes in the struggle against HIV really are the researchers, doctors, clinicians, treatment advocates, the people working on the front lines of this fight. The ones working in small towns, in rural areas. Bringing sexual health messages to clubs and places in the community where black gay men gather. It’s not often work that is glamorized, but it is among the most important being done today.
A&U’s Alina Oswald interviewed you for the February 2005 issue. In it you mention the ineffectiveness of abstinence only programs in schools. Since Congresswoman Lee [A&U, October 2012], a founding member and co-chair of the Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus, has introduced The Repealing Ineffective and Incomplete Abstinence-Only Program Funding Act of 2013, HR 3774. It aims at halting federal support of abstinence-only-until marriage programs and instead allocates funding towards a broader and more comprehensive sex education program. How do you feel about this finally taking root nearly a decade later?
Abstinence-only sexual education programs are the biggest waste of government resources to come out of conservative politics. We should do away with this archaic and ineffective messaging.
Where would you direct the course of conversation around HIV?
We need to be talking about this issue much more than we are. HIV has faded into the background of our consciousness, but we as gay black men [GBM] must continue to address this issue. I’m producing a groundbreaking PSA campaign for the CDC that addresses this problem in the gay black male community. The messaging is direct, informative, practical and sure to be somewhat controversial. But we need to know the facts in order to protect ourselves. For example, the fact that we are not talking about PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis] as a viable way for GBM to stay HIV-negative is absurd to me. With the infection rates as high as they are in our community, the fact that taking one pill a day with little to no side effects can prevent someone from contracting HIV should be national news. But we can’t wait on the mainstream media to pick up our cause. We need to demand that this be made available en masse!
For more information about photographer and advocate Duane Cramer, log on to: http://duanecramercreative.wordpress.com/.
Sean Black interviewed Suzanne Somers for the August cover story interview.