Sunday, March 9, 2014

The New Black

THE NEW BLACK          B           
USA  (75 mi)  2013  d:  Yoruba Richen            Official site

It ain't necessarily so
It ain't necessarily so
The things that you're liable
To read in the Bible,
It ain't necessarily so.

—“It Ain’t Necessarily So,” by George and Ira Gershwin, from Porgy and Bess,1935

Equality never hurt anyone.               —Irene Huskens

While stylistically the film breaks no new ground, featuring the typical talking heads documentary format, the film does a surprisingly good job in providing intelligent, in-depth comments from both sides of the issue as it tackles the subject of homophobia in the black community, and in particular a same-sex ballot referendum, Maryland Question 6, that was put to Maryland voters in 2012.  We quickly learn that all previous initatives voted on by the public have failed, where democracy has been a tough pathway for advocates of gay and lesbian rights.  Perhaps the most memorable setback was the California Proposition 8 (2008), which historically added a ban on gay marriage to the state Constitution at the same time the first black President in history was elected in the United States.  It’s interesting how progress was euphoric in one instance, but heartbreaking in the other, often testing the views of the exact same voters.  Blacks came under particular pressure as they were largely blamed for the referendum’s success, passing 52% to 48%, even though blacks only comprise 7% of the state, yet the perception was blacks voted overwhelmingly for Obama but not for gay rights.  The proposition was ultimately ruled unconstitutional by a federal court in 2010, and sustained June 26, 2013 through the appeal process to the Supreme Court, thereby granting federal benefits to same sex couples who are married under state law.  Unfortunately, this process is required to take place state by state, election by election, appeal after appeal, as there is no uniform federal same sex marriage policy.  This lengthy process unleashes hundreds of millions of dollars in campaigns both for and against, but ultimately it comes down to each individual voter.  This film is an attempt to get inside the minds of a large section of black society, including gay rights activists, public figures, black organizers, families, and religious leaders on both sides of the issue, as a thread of social conservatism runs through black churches, often seen as the guidepost for local communities, as they lead the way on moral issues.  The strategy of right wing white Christian groups was to drive a wedge between black gays and lesbians and the traditional moral center of the black church.      

Perhaps most interesting are the historical implications of slavery, where black families came under siege by a white plantation system that often outlawed marriage, that notoriously separated family members, where marriage ceremonies were often performed in the secrecy of barns.  Since the black church was the only institution to show any sympathy for the plight of protecting slave families, this network of churches was often the only way separated families could locate one another.  Coming from such a hostile environment, the black church assumed the mantle of moral leadership during trying times, a position that it retains today, where one of the byproducts of segregation in American society has been the cohesiveness of the black church, serving as a strategic meeting ground and oratory platform during the Civil Rights campaigns of the 50’s and 60’s.  Perhaps because of this personal identification with the Civil Rights Movement, many blacks don’t share a similar identification with gays and lesbians, as they weren’t recognized as activists or even participants during the struggle.  Obviously gays and lesbians were part of the movement, but almost no one acknowledged their sexual orientation in those times, with the exception of Bayard Rustin and prominent American novelist James Baldwin, who became an exile writer in Paris.  Perhaps because of the close association with slavery, sex was never mentioned in black churches, which were seen as sacred places and houses of God.  This issue has caused a fundamental split within black churches, where activist Sharon Lettman-Hicks, Executive Director and CEO of the National Black Justice Coalition |, the nation’s leading black LGBT civil rights organization, is heard proclaiming, “This is the unfinished business of black people being free.”  It’s interesting to then see Ms. Lettman-Hicks take us into her home where she’s throwing a party celebrating her husband’s 25th year in the American military, where family and friends gather around discussing gay marriage, where not everyone’s on board, some need special prodding, and a few are simply not yet ready to acknowledge that one is born gay, as they’ve been taught that God didn’t create gays and lesbians, maintaining their belief that this is a conscious choice one makes, like a lifestyle choice, as if anyone would rationally choose to be hated and discriminated against.   

This focus on the family is an interesting idea, adding a poignant intimacy, as if you remove such a divisive subject matter and simply listen to the various points of view, what distinguishes this film is the elevated level of discussion about being black in America, where this is a fascinating dialogue on race, spoken with eloquence and personal conviction.  The director offers a bit of a soulful swagger in the way the material is presented, where some of the musical choices offer their own commentary, where especially effective was jamie cullum - ain't necessarily so - YouTube (4:29), yet we’re listening to aunts and grandmothers and foster mothers right alongside the views of more celebrated black leaders and preachers, where the political becomes personal.  Karess Taylor-Hughes was a student at the University of Maryland and one of the organizers in the campaign, seen going door to door, also keeping the troops in line on election day, but she also brings us into the home of her foster mother and reveals the emotional turmoil involved by announcing she’s a lesbian, where her foster mother is struggling to understand, but clearly she doesn’t, where this exact same moment is multiplied by the multitude of gays and lesbians that are faced with the same family rejection.  Many of the black churches led the registration campaign to place same-sex marriage on the ballot, believing that is the quickest and best way to defeat it, where this issue is raised by gay advocates in a strategy session leading up to the vote, as those are all potential voters, but the consensus seemed to be to take the high road and not attack those religious conservatives that hold fast to their Biblical beliefs, as they’re simply too well integrated into the fabric of black America.  Instead the appeal was generated by holding a broad-based public discussion, led by President Obama’s own evolving view on the matter, finally coming around as a supporter of same-sex marriage, so his image was plastered on all the political leaflets.  Unlike California, blacks comprise 30% of the voters in Maryland, and despite a coalition of black churches that were adamantly against same-sex marriage, there was also a coalition of black preachers that endorsed the idea, believing God loves everyone, and that the church is “a place of inclusion, not exclusion.”  In the black community, this appears to be an evolving issue, where not only President Obama, but legendary Civil Rights hero Reverand Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmingham, one of the founding members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, condemned gay marriage when it came before voters in Ohio in 2004 when the state approved a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage by a whopping 62%.  But in Maryland in 2012, the referendum to support same-sex marriage ultimately prevailed by a 52% to 48% margin, becoming another chapter in the long and epic struggle to achieve equality. 

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