Patrik-Ian Polk believes it was more than coincidence when he came across the book “Blackbird” in a store in Boston when he was a freshman in college at Brandeis University.
“I found it randomly. I found it in a bookstore with a gay and lesbian section—I’d never seen a gay and lesbian section before. It had a black person on the spine … I like to think I was supposed to find it,” he says.
The book, by Lambda Literary Award-winning novelist Larry Duplechan and published in 1986, is set in Southern California in the 1970s; “Blackbird” the film is set in the present day in the small Baptist town of Hattiesburg, Mississippi—the same city where Polk was raised.
The richness of the story and the characters in the book were enough to inspire Polk to make this film, one he’s wanted to do since he read “Blackbird” more than 20 years ago.
“The book is different. I made some significant changes, but the essence of the story is still the same,” he says.
In the film, Randy Rousseau (played by newcomer Julian Walker in an amazing acting debut) is 17 and trying to come to terms with his sexuality while also trying to stay true to his strict Baptist upbringing.
Playing Rousseau’s parents are Academy-award winner Mo’Nique and Isaiah Washington. Washington, formerly of TV’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” was involved in a controversy in 2006 when fellow cast member T.R. Knight accused Washington of calling him “faggot.” Washington apologized, but blowback from the LGBT community finally led to Washington being fired.
“We love to reduce people to silly little tabloid moments,” Polk says, calling the controversy “that ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ nonsense.”
Polk said having Washington act in his film is a high point of his career—he considers the award-winning actor, who has worked with the likes of Clint Eastwood and Spike Lee, one of the best actors in the business.
“He is my favorite actor on the planet. He’s one of our greatest actors,” Polk says of Washington.
It was Washington who asked Mo’Nique to join the project and the two are amazing together in the film.
“Both were amazing,” Polk says. “They nail it every time.”
But Julian Walker steals the show with his portrayal of Rousseau.
“This film tackles the issue of religion and Christianity in a very interesting way,” Polk says. “We all grapple with our lifestyle and with our religion … and certainly when one is gay or lesbian that is magnified.”
The movie is not about bashing religion but rather about what people do when they hold Christianity very close to their hearts but their identity goes against what they’ve been taught.
“Blackbird” is much different from Polk’s popular Logo series “Noah’s Arc,” but he says all his work centers around the black gay experience, so this film is not a major departure from his previous work.
“There’s not much representation [of the black gay experience]. I’m excited when I see other work, but it doesn’t happen very often. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one in this genre, which saddens me,” he says. “But there is always hope for the future.”
Atlanta has played a key role in Polk’s growth as a filmmaker, and he is honored to have his film open at Out on Film. As a “black gay mecca,” the city has been very supportive of all his work and he says he looks forward to returning.
“Atlanta has a thriving black gay population and it certainly has been very good to me,” he says.
Viewers will not only be impressed by the acting and the story, but by the music as well. Julian Walker’s voice is a presence all its own.
“There’s not been a film like this before,” Polk promises.
Oct. 2, 7:15 p.m.
Q&A to follow including cast members Julian Walker, Torrey Laamar and Nikki Jane
Landmark Midtown Art Cinema
After party at Apré Diem