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Film Review: The New Black

Religion often appears to be losing a foothold in the United States, as regular mass-goers might attest.

Photo: Jen Lemen, License: N/A

Jen Lemen

A campaigner for marriage equality in maryland in The New Black

The New Black

Directed by Yoruba Richen

Plays Feb. 6 at the MICA Brown Center at 7:30 p.m.

Religion often appears to be losing a foothold in the United States, as regular mass-goers might attest, but for a robust percentage of the African-American community, the church wields a forceful influence in one’s life, determining, among other things, conduct, values, and political beliefs. In the Maryland-centric documentary The New Black, director Yoruba Richen narrows her lens to focus on the black church’s often ultra-conservative ideology, what powers it, and how it affects the community’s dealings with the gay and lesbian populace.

On Election Day in 2008, when anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8 was passed, exit polls revealed that California’s African-American community had voted largely—up to 70 percent—in favor of it. This, in the very same election that saw Barack Obama triumph over John McCain. LGBT supporters nationwide were taken aback. Richen gives us a TV news clip of Robin Tyler, one half of the lesbian poster couple for same-sex marriage in California, expressing her regret over the election’s outcome. “I am disappointed in the African-American community but hopeful that they will revisit it and see us also as a civil rights movement.” As Tyler and her partner pose for photos, a newscaster’s voiceover intones, “They’re convinced they’re riding the same bus, and they too won’t sit in the back.”

Same-sex marriage supporters ought not to have been so stunned, though. In what seemed a surefire strategy for winning the black demographic’s backing, they conflated the LGBT struggle for civil rights with African-Americans’, without examining the realities—or the history—of the black church. Richen rewinds to 1992 in Cincinnati to consider the overturning of the Human Rights Ordinance, an anti-discrimination law that protected gays and lesbians. A TV spot seeking to quell the ordinance features civil rights crusader and Martin Luther King Jr. cohort Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth avowing, “I know quite a few things about discrimination. Cincinnati, Issue 3 is not about discrimination.”

It’s a hard image to stomach. And Richen shows its continuity right through 2012 when she films Question 6 opponent Pastor Derek McCoy of the Maryland Marriage Alliance (see “Holy War,” Feature, Oct. 3, 2012) talking about how he encourages his kids to reevaluate the idea that equality is always, without question, great. “If you think past that five or ten minutes and start looking at society at large and many other factors, you might have a different thought process on it.”

Balancing out the number of religious right-wingers in The New Black are various talking heads pointing out that evangelical radicals are more than happy to manipulate the African-American church’s aversion to homosexuality for the advancement of their own political agenda. More powerful, however, is Richen’s 2012 footage of the pro-marriage equality campaigning efforts in Maryland and the honest, often-heated dialogue that goes on between black men and women at a party or between a canvasser and a group of black 20-somethings hanging around a stoop in Baltimore City.

While the suspenseful resolution of the film’s main conflict is somewhat moot—few could forget the passage of Question 6 and the celebrations that ensued—The New Black reminds us that while we may be a step closer to civil equality, work remains for everyone when it comes to actually achieving it.

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