Review: 'The New Black' Offers Complex Portrait of Black Same-Sex Marriage Debate (Now In Theaters)
Photo Credit: S & A

Review: 'The New Black' Offers Complex Portrait of Black Same-Sex Marriage Debate (Now In Theaters)


“This is the unfinished business of black people being

free.” –Sharon Lettman-Hicks 

In Yoruba Richen’s documentary, The New Black, a black lesbian couple prepares a homemade pizza

with their two children. The two women are happy and in love. There is no

denying the freedom in their home, so why couldn’t it be acknowledged by the state?

Teasing out the complex undercurrents of homophobia and

acceptance within the black community, Richen explores how African Americans

are grappling with same-sex marriage as a civil right, and how this eventually

led to the 2012 passage of Question 6 (same sex marriage referendum) in

Maryland, which was the first time marriage was granted to same-sex couples by popular


The film begins with a look back at President Obama’s historic

2008 victory, which also saw the passage of Proposition 8 in California,

outlawing same-sex marriage. Immediately after the proposition’s passage, blacks

were blamed. Mainstream media began to target the black church as a monolith of

conservative ideology, while an erroneous poll stated that blacks in California

voted for the proposition by 70%. But, what about the black LGBT people, and

the black people, like Sharon Lettman-Hicks, who supported and rallied for gay

marriage and gay rights?


The New Black is

an apt response to the rhetoric used to justify the passage of Proposition 8 as

a result of black homophobia. In interviews with Hicks, black preachers in support and

opposition of gay marriage, organizers, and community members, Richen shows

that while homophobia does exist in the black community, as in others, the

black church also became a convenient vehicle to help advance the white,

Christian Right’s anti-gay political agenda. Privileging the varying

perspectives of black people- from those who see homosexuality as a choice, to

those who embrace different lifestyles, Richen is able to paint a textured

portrait of contemporary black America; one that is informed by tradition and

religion, but also questions it.

The film also strikes a nice balance between the personal

and political, bolstered by its emphasis on the “new black” LGBT organizers who

lead the Maryland campaign, especially Karess Taylor- Hughes. With her bouncy

curls and high energy to win the right for marriage equality, she allows the

audience to see how political catchphrases like “gay rights” actually impact

people. During a visit home to see her foster parent, Karess asks for

acceptance of her sexuality. With tears in her eyes, she admits to moving away

from home because she didn’t want to “shame” her family. Her foster mother is

receptive, but still admits she wants grandchildren soon.  

If there’s one shortcoming to the film, it might be that

its focus on the black church and Christianity as the main basis for the black

community, sometimes made it inaccessible. As someone who didn’t grow up in the

black church or practice Christianity, I found myself wondering about the many

black Americans like me- where do they come into the equation, how do they

feel, and how did those black people vote in Maryland, a place with a large

community of Muslim and non-Christian blacks. These questions are not answered, nor

should they have been. Understanding the role of the black church in African American society

is pivotal, though acknowledging the differences in contemporary black America could’ve

added another element of nuance to the film.

Ultimately, The New

Black is a smart, well-paced documentary built on the momentum of the Maryland

campaign that it documents. By it’s end, there’s a sense of hope, and also of satisfaction that a filmmaker has chosen balance and complexity over spectacle. I recommend you see it. 

The New Black opens for a limited theatrical run at the Film Forum in New York City, February 12th-18th. For more information, visit Film Forum’s site. The film will also screen at the Pan African Film Festival on February 15th in Los Angeles at Rave Cinemas.

Read the S&A interview with Yoruba Richen HERE.

Shadow and Act is a website dedicated to cinema, television and web content of Africa and its global Diaspora. With daily news, interviews, in-depth investigations into the audiovisual industry, and more, Shadow and Act promotes content created by and about people of African descent throughout the world.

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