Before meeting the director of The Skinny for lunch recently, I had seen Patrik-Ian Polk refer to himself on his Twitter profile as “The gay Tyler Perry. Shut up.” But I’d also heard of him referred to as the gay Spike Lee.
So which is it, I inquired when we met, especially since many people consider the former of those two directors to already be gay?
“It’s both,” he says laughing.
Polk considers himself something of the kind of love child Lee and Perry would have had they gotten together and been able to procreate. (Pushed as to whether he thinks Madea’s alter ego could possibly be interested in women, Polk says, “He says he’s straight,” with something of a smirk on his face, adding, “I have no reason not to take him at his word.”)
The influence of both filmmakers can clearly be seen in The Skinny, Polk’s third feature film which just concluded a run at the Quad and premiered on Logo this month. In a similar way that Lee put black (hetero) sexuality on the screen in a raw, in-your-face manner completely unlike how it had ever been seen before with She’s Gotta Have It, Polk puts black homosexuality up there in a way rarely seen in narrative movies from the opening minutes of the film. Like Lee’s early films (and, actually, from early dispatches we’ve heard about Red Hook Summer), Polk is wearing many hats behind the camera on The Skinny, a project he largely financed himself.
But Perry’s influence on Polk’s career is very apparent in another way. Perry notoriously realized early in his career that there was money to be had from working “the chitlin’ circuit,” the theater circuit for black, urban audience which hosted musical plays (often with melodramatic, religious and — too commonly — homophobic themes). Perry saw this huge market of middle-class black Americans with disposable income for entertainment and realized that no one was making movies for them. Lee’s films, Perry defenders often say, were too elitist for this mass market (and aimed towards white people anyway). Meet the Browns on TBS and Madea’s Witness Protection are just the latest examples of the empire Perry has built catering to such a market.
In a similar way, Polk looked around at a a black LGBT event in Los Angeles years ago and remembers thinking to himself, “These people have money. This is a market — and no one is making movies for them.”
Polk began his career after finishing film school at USC by working as an executive at MTV Films in its early years before they’d made their first film (Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne’s Election). From there it was off to work for Kenneth Edmonds’ (Babyface’s) production company during the years they made Soul Food.
Babyface, Polk says, was always extremely helpful to him, and produced his first feature film Punks (which he calls a kind of “Waiting to Exhale with gay men”). It was interesting to speak to Polk about the issue of black homophobia, something we’ve published a fair amount about at the Voice , which he describes as “completely overblown.” Polk came up in black Hollywood as an out gay man and found that “almost everyone was completely supportive of me.” He is also very fond of the NAACP (which has awarded him numerous accolades) and notes that its current president, Ben Jealous, has been supportive of LGBT issues long before the NAACP’s recent support of same-sex marriage.
It’s also interesting to talk to Polk about politics. When we had lunch, my piece “Does ‘Gay Inc.’ Believe in Free Speech?” had just been published. Polk has had a lot of experience with ‘Gay Inc.’, both good and bad. His first film tour was co-sponsored by the Black AIDS Institute and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). HRC, Polk says, was extremely helpful in promoting his work years ago, despite the fact that to this day they’re often criticized by LGBT activists for seemingly only being interested in helping rich, white gay people.
Polk has a very mixed record in dealing with the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). Although the organization once gave him a GLAAD Media Award, he also penned an essay in 2006 called “Fuck GLAAD!” In it, he rather colorfully called GLAAD “a shamelessly white organization” and walked off with the sentiment, “I will say once more and hopefully for the last time- fuck GLAAD! Fuck GLAAD and the white horse they rode in on!”
The content of Polk’s work has strong connections to gay organizations, as The Skinny shows. Polk says he’s long been associated with the Black AIDS Institute (which has a PSA at the end of his film urging HIV prevention in the black community), and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis has a strong presence in several scenes of the film.
Polk doesn’t appear onscreen in The Skinny, but you’ll hear him a lot. He’s the voice of the songs of the film’s soundtrack. Singing is one of the many things that’s keeping Polk busy these days. He’s getting ready to go on tour with the band Fol Chen, while simultaneously preparing to shoot his next feature in his native Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Also down the road: a series of sequels based on the characters from The Skinny.
And, in the middle of it all, he’s a new dad. He fathered his child with an old friend in his hometown, and says that one of the best things about shooting his next film there is that he’ll get to spend time with his baby.
“Gaby stood up by himself today,” he recently tweeted, adding “#youcare.”
The Skinny is currently playing on Logo and is also available here.