The New Black Director Yoruba Richen on Gayness in Black Life: It’s a “Difficult Conversation”


Because queer lives are lived across myriad realities, conversations about homophobia are also necessarily conversations about race, religion (and power plays by religious institutions), class, cultural traditions, hidden histories, political opportunism, and steady doses of hypocrisy. Whether it is Putin’s horrific escalating anti-gay crusade in Russia, the enflamed homophobia engulfing various countries on the African continent, or the right wing’s petulant pushback against gay marriage here in the U.S., the conversation is never mono-topical.

That point is powerfully illustrated in filmmaker Yoruba Richen’s documentary The New Black. Inspired by the scapegoating of the African-American community following the passing of California’s anti-gay-marriage bill, Proposition 8, in 2008, and anchored in Maryland’s marriage equality battle of 2012, the film unravels the threads connecting religion, homophobia, race, racism, and the desperate power plays of the American religious and political right. Crucially, it does so while illuminating a complexity of thought and being still rarely granted black folks in American film.

The responses she’s gotten on the festival circuit underscore how rare that is. Richen tells the Voice, “People have said things like, ‘I brought my whole family to see this film so that we can start to talk about me being gay,’ and, ‘This the first time I am seeing my experience portrayed on film.'”

Richen is a 2012 Guggenheim winner whose previous subject matter includes the fallout of apartheid in the lives of present-day black South Africans (Promised Land) and a gorgeous short on the spiritual practices of Afro-Brazilian women (Sisterhood of the Good Death). Here, she discusses The New Black in relation to other films tackling similar subject matter, reactions from those who have seen it, and her plans for its afterlife once it leaves theaters.

The New Black is a part of a global cinematic dialogue happening right now about the intersections of race, homophobia, religion, and right-wing politics. Along with recent films like God Loves Uganda, Call Me Kuchu, and Born This Way, it takes on deeply rooted cultural and legal biases. Have you seen any of the other films? Can you speak on the ways the films – yours included – are in conversation with each other?

I’ve seen Uganda and Kuchu. They were both great films that showed how a punishing Christianity has been imported into Uganda specifically to cause further oppression of the LGBT community. To me, it feels like a continuation of the colonization of Africa that has occurred historically. I love how Uganda showed the deep evangelical American connection to what is going on and how Kuchu showed the devastating and galvanizing impact on the Ugandan LGBT community. The New Black also hits upon how the Christian right has inserted itself in the gay rights debate in the African-American community. It was first done here in the ’90s and through the Bush years before being imported to Africa.

In what ways did your vision for the film change from when you first conceptualized it to the time it was first publicly screened?

Wow, a lot. When I first started working on the film, I envisioned that it would be more about what the African American community and the white-led mainstream LGBT community were doing to work together and bridge the divide that erupted during Prop 8. The film turned out to be much more about the conversation in the African-American community. Also, when I first started, Maryland was not even a factor in the storyline. The Maryland marriage equality campaign only began in the spring of 2012, and I started working on this film in 2010. The politics were still unfolding – like the Maryland campaign, and President Obama and the NAACP coming out for marriage equality. All of this affected the lives and work of [the people in my film.]

In the end, the film became about activism, which is really exciting to me. I’m also proud that I was able to show a diversity of opinion. The overall goal is to spark dialogue in our own communities. So we are planning on working with HBCUs, churches, community organizations, and local grassroots groups on using the film to have difficult conversations about LGBT issues and to create policy and institutional change.

The African-American community was scapegoated in the wake of Prop. 8 passing in California, but studies and articles done on the data outlined the real power players – the Mormon Church and the Catholic Church – and debunked the notion that black folks were to blame. Why wasn’t any of that kind of information in New Black?

As a filmmaker you are constantly making choices, and in the end the choice has to propel the story forward. The inclusion of lots of data and talking-head analysis would have bogged the story down. I don’t think it’s a documentary filmmaker’s job to include everything, because we just can’t. But hopefully enough information is included so the audience understands the story and is motivated to find out more on their own.

There’s a scene where some black LGBT folk are sitting around a table strategizing on how to stress the importance of marriage rights for black LGBT folk who are painted as being indifferent to or uninformed on the subject. I wished we could have also heard from people like African-American feminist bell hooks and black gay activist Kenyon Farrow, who have written thoughtful, substantial critiques of the institution of marriage for both straight and LGBT folks. Those voices – or some like them – could have made it clear that some LGBT folks and progressive heteros actually have nuanced, political positions in their critique of gay marriage, or just marriage, period.

Again, choices. I did interview some of the folks you mentioned, but in the end, things have to get cut, [and those interviews] didn’t propel the story forward. It’s the nature of filmmaking. Luckily, we are planning on making modules and using other footage that didn’t make it into the film for specific education and outreach goals.

Have any of the anti-gay-marriage people in the film been in touch with you since the film’s completion? Have they seen it?

I tried to set up a meeting with Pastor McCoy when we premiered at AFI Docs in June of last year. He was open to it, but then I couldn’t reach him. I look forward to sharing the film with him and hearing his reaction.

There’s a subplot in the film about a young lesbian coming out to her foster mother that is incredibly poignant. How did you decide to emphasize that?

It was a beautiful personal moment that I thought was important to understanding Karess, one of the main characters in the film. It also showed how this young activist, who was dedicating her life to campaigning for the marriage equality bill, is grappling with the issue in her own family. I’m a big believer that the political is personal. I tried to show that throughout the film.