Blackbird 2014 Film review by Aba

Attending the Reelout 2015 film festival was quite an experience. All the films presented for viewing seemed to have interesting plots. I chose to watch Blackbird, a 2014 film directed by Patrik-Ian Polk. The trek through the treacherous snow to find the library in downtown Kingston was definitely worth it!

The film was a touching story of a young African American boy named Randy, finishing his final year of high school in a small Mississippi state town. It is obvious from the start that he comes from a religious family, and he gives back to his church by singing in their choir. Most of his close friends seem to be religious, too. He devotes a lot of time to taking care of his mother Claire. Throughout most of the movie, Claire spends her days worrying over Chrissy, Randy’s younger sister, who had gone missing many years before. Randy struggles with opening up about his sexuality to his parents and friends, especially when he starts to develop feelings for one of his schoolmates, Ty. Fortunately, Randy’s father makes an effort to show Randy his love and support when he realizes Randy is conflicted. Later in the movie, Randy meets a young aspiring actor named Marshall, and an instant connection seems to form between them— although Randy is not quick to acknowledge it. Randy eventually accepts his sexuality and introduces his family and friends to Marshall. At the end of the movie, Randy says, ‘whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love’, realizing that it does not matter who you love, but that you love at all.

The first thing that really stood out to me was the racial representation in this film. A lot of the time, you will see casts dominated by white actors and actresses with perhaps a few roles done by individuals of colour. In this film, white people were the minority. A lot of the media that we absorb everyday may also portray homosexuality with a homo-normative stereotype. This film, however, did not represent this typical homo-normativity, since Randy was African- American and Marshall was Caucasian.

To me, the most important scene was the part where Claire finds out about Randy’s homosexuality. Randy and Marshall are parked in front of Randy’s house, kissing for the first time. Claire, who stayed up worrying when Randy did not come home on time, sees them and becomes livid. She forces Randy into the house and proceeds to yell at him for what his actions. Claire blames Randy for the disappearance of Chrissy, saying ‘God was testing them’ and it was Randy’s fault for being gay. Foreshadowing from early on in the movie suggests that Randy knew his mother would react like this. I was impacted and empathetic towards Randy’s character when he felt that he had disappointed his mother; disappointing a loved one is every person’s fear.

Claire’s angry outburst was immediately followed with their church pastor suggesting that Randy should go through Deliverance in other to stop his ‘unnatural desires’. The pastor expressed a very hetero-normative perspective, enforcing the ideals that men should love women and there is no other normal way. Although Randy later accepts his sexuality, he agrees to go through with Deliverance, saying that he wanted to be ‘normal’. A large conflict within the Christian church is the unwillingness to accept homosexuality, saying that it is a sin. This sheds some light on an essentialist point of view, stating that people are born with predetermined characteristics— including sexual preference—based on their biological sex (“Essentialism, Social Constructionism and Sexual Identity”). Essentialism is a large spectrum of traditional ideals that are taught to be the way things should be, for lack of a better explanation. The pastor’s words made it apparent that Randy’s struggle was made harder by the binary thinking he was raised in, teaching people to act according to their gender with no in-between. All throughout the movie, Randy struggles with his feelings, and it seems as though his biggest fear was of disappointing Claire, his church, and God because he didn’t feel the heterosexual desire that men should allegedly feel.

The heterosexual matrix that constructs popular culture’s view of sexuality and gender is so hard to escape because of the norms that are taught to many of us (“Gender Trouble”), even within the homes of people like Randy. This can be seen in the way Claire lashes out at Randy, condemning him for his ‘sins’. Although not all religious people think like this, I would argue that the traditional values of the Christian church play a huge role in the social constructs of how men and women should act. I am certain that there are many teens that experience a similar treatment to what Randy went through.

This movie opened my eyes to how the social construction of sexuality and gender is so present in today’s society, especially within tight-knit communities like Randy’s. Everyone is influencing each other and being influenced (Aulette and Wittner 92-93). Although this movie is fiction, the story behind it is real for many individuals growing up in our predominantly hetero-normative society and I am happy to see films like this in the media. I am glad that we have festivals like Reelout in smaller cities like Kingston, because it contributes to the social progress our society is slowly making with the LGBTQ movement.

Trailer to Blackbird 2014 film:

Works Cited

“Essentialism, Social Constructionism and Sexual Identity.” Ludicrous Palaver. 27 Mar 2006. Web. Feb 5 2015.

“Gender Trouble: Prohibition, Psychoanalysis, and the Production of Heterosexual Matrix.” Sophie Moet. 29 Jan 2014. Web. Feb 5 2015.

Aulette, Judy R., and Judith Wittner. Gendered Worlds. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009-12. Print.

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8 thoughts on “Blackbird 2014 Film review by Aba

  1. MJ

    From reading many of the reviews from the various Reelout movies, I get the sense that many focus around similar themes of hetero-normativity and homo-normativity. Hetero-/homo-normativity is an important concept in the films, and within today’s society because it sheds light on the stereotypical views we are taught as children through gender socialization. Although I think it has become more acceptable to express homosexuality, movies like Blackbird show that there are still many people who believe in the essentialism of heterosexual behaviour. This is especially evident in religious communities and within minority groups. Similar to this movie, the film Born to Fly addresses issues of hetero-normativity and homo-normativity, as well as gender socialization. Like the main character Randy, the Streb dancers go against the gendered norms that are expected of them within society. This is a theme I think is very consistent throughout all of the films.

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  2. mac2121

    Aba, I really enjoyed your film review and all of the key terms you connected with the film. I believe it is very important that we examine the racial representation of films, which you have done very well. I was interested in knowing if there was a correlation between race and religion present within the film? I believe that would be an interesting factor to examine. I am glad that you benefited from the film and I agree that the festival contributes to social progress towards the LGBTQ movement.

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    1. aba Post author

      Hi mac, thanks for the reply! That’s a really good question… I didn’t actually think about that while watching the film! I may be mistaken, but with the way the Sunday services were structured in the film, it seems to be that it may have been a Baptist church. Looking back, I’ve realize that everyone that was shown attending Randy’s church was African-American, so perhaps there may have been a correlation there, since southern Baptist churches have a rich history in being shaped by the Great Awakening and the Slavery Crisis in the United States (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baptists#Slavery_crisis Here’s more if you’re interested (: ). Interestingly enough, his pastor and leader of the church community was Caucasian, yet he was the only Caucasian character involved in the church.

      Also, your comment really made me see the intersectionality between race, religion (and even the history behind religion) and sexuality and how they are all connect to one another in some way, just as Jac said in her reply to this post!

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  3. Jac

    Excellent review! 🙂

    I really like how this film takes a more intersection approach and we do see more black people of colour being represented in media. Especially when they are being presented as gay black men which is not very common in media in general, and does as you stated, challenge homonormative culture. I also really like how this challenges the general homophobic rhetoric of a lot of religious individuals who claim that homosexuality is a sin. The film instead points out that religious institutions are not wholly responsible for homophobia, but that individual people are also responsible, and often use the church as an excuse. This is done through Randy’s statement about how those who know God know that God loves everyone. I think that a lot of people tend to use religion as an excuse for this bigotry, and I’m glad to see this film criticizes this in such a manner. Like Blackbird, one of the films I saw, Scaffolding, explores the unlikely relationships between two men. In the case of Scaffolding, the two men bond over construction outside their window. I’m really glad that films like this exist because of my own heteronormative beliefs, I would have assumed that these two men in Scaffolding (and likely in Blackbird) were simply friends as opposed to romantic interests. Films like Blackbird and others presented at Reelout really challenge this idea, and help with my slow process of unlearning this harmful habits.

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  4. rau

    Aba, I’m so glad we saw the same film and are able to communicate our similar and different takes on Blackbird. I agree with you when you say that it is liberating to see such a powerful film dominated by a predominantly black cast. I think often in movies dominated by white actors, the few black actors involved, if any, are often in minor or degrading roles. In Blackbird, although the cast is predominately black actors, the few white actors are not portrayed in weak roles that degrade their race. Marshal, in particular, is a dominant white character who has a large role in the film. I think that when black people are the minority in films, they are degraded, however, when white people are the minority, they are not. For this reason, I think the that it is empowering to see such a wonderful film represented by a majority of black actors.

    You touched largely upon an aspect of the film that I didn’t, and that is when the pastor tried to rid Randy of his “sins”. Something that surprised me about this in the film is how willing Randy is to let the pastor try to “cure” him. Randy knows that his feelings towards other men do not abide by the rules of Christianity, however, although his family was not very accepting at first, I found that Randy’s friends were very accepting. Randy’s friends told him that they thought he is gay even before he would admit it, and they thought no less of him. Considering Randy was widely accepted by his friends, his raw, negative, emotions during Deliverance showed how much of an impact his religion and his family had on him. Do you think that Randy truly wanted to be “cured” from his homosexuality? Or do you think he just wanted to please his mother and God?

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    1. aba Post author

      Hi Rau, thanks for your reply (: You are totally right in saying that Randy’s friends were accepting which I think was a really great thing to see, yet I still felt like Randy was afraid of coming out to them, or maybe to just say it out loud to himself. In my opinion, he did not truly want to be “cured”. However in that moment when he accepted the Pastor’s request to go through Deliverance, I think Randy just had a selfless and admirable desire to keep the peace within his household, and it was apparent that he was willing to do anything to take his mother’s pain away, too. I also think that Marshall played a huge role in changing how Randy thought of God and the concept of love, so in the end Randy’s actions were mostly to please his mother.

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      1. rau

        In my opinion, I think he was more afraid of admitting his feelings to himself than to his friends. I think he didn’t want to internalize his mother’s idea of him being the cause of Chrissy’s disappearance. I agree with you when you say that Randy was being selfless when going through Deliverance. He wanted to please his mother and help ease her mind while she was going through a tough time.

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  5. Ash

    I really enjoyed your review of Blackbird for several reasons, Aba! Your summary was concise, yet thorough, and it’s great that you pointed out the intersection between race, sexuality and religion in the movie. As you said, it’s not often we see religious individuals of colour that deviate from hetero-normative standards in the media. It’s fantastic that Blackbird represents them. You analyze Claire’s reaction very well, not just saying she’s a homophobic religious fanatic, but also explaining the social constructions behind her behaviour. The themes of hetero-normative, binary, and essentialist ways of thinking transcends the realm of Blackbird into ours, and it’s great that you put it in the context of the world we live in. I’m glad you enjoyed Reelout! I agree that it was a great experience and contributes to the social progress of the LGBTQ community!

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