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:
“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.