Patrik-Ian Polk’s Blackbird shuttles between two distinct tonal realms: loose comedy and strained, overwrought melodrama. The movie is most engaging when working in the former mode, with Polk blithely incorporating raunch into his Southern Baptist setting: There’s something novel about watching religious African-American teens, gay and straight alike, speak frankly about masturbation and “nocturnal emissions,” all while obsessing over how they’re being judged.
Unfortunately, the appeal of these moments is diluted not only by uneven stabs at seriousness (Mo’Nique, at her worst, seems to be channeling the cadences of her Precious performance), but also by a hectic surfeit of subplots. On top of worrying about what the image of Jesus hanging in his bedroom thinks of his gay-themed wet dreams, seventeen-year-old Randy Rousseau (newcomer Julian Walker) has to deal with a best friend (Nikki Jane) who wants him to take her virginity; another close friend (Gary L. Gray) who needs an STD test; a father (a toothpick-chewing Isaiah Washington) trying to reconnect; an intense attraction to his John Cassavetes–quoting co-star (Kevin Allesee) in a student film; and a demanding mother (Mo’Nique) still pining for the daughter who was abducted six years ago.
Set in the director’s hometown of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Blackbird is clearly a personal effort for Polk: The scenes of artistic production, whether the rehearsals for a gay Shakespeare adaptation (Romeo and Julian) or the church-choir performances (with Walker showing off his beautiful singing voice), all suggest the substance behind Kyla Marshell’s observation that Polk has “become what some call ‘the father of black gay cinema.’ ” What’s missing in Blackbird is economy: Randy’s story would be more deeply felt were it not surrounded by so much miscellaneous activity.