After she was already well into filming The New Black, documentary director Yoruba Richen thought she might visit the home of National Black Justice Coalition's Executive Director Sharon Lettman-Hicks for a family BBQ. Yoruba Richen wanted to see a private side of Lettman-Hicks, away from her work as a vocal civil-rights advocate for all groups, including the fight for same-sex marriage in the LGBT community.
"Sharon had told me there are varying opinions on [that] issue within her own family," says Richen, whose film premieres at the Los Angeles Film Festival the week of June 13. "I didn't realize quite the extent of their varying opinions until I got there."
The black community, to quote one pastor who appears in the film, 'isn't monolithic,' nor is the LGBT community.
The fiery debate inside the house was hot enough to fuel up the grill.
The diversity of opinions around homosexuality within one African-American family confirmed that Richen was on to something with her documentary about Maryland's 2012 vote on Question 6. The ballot initiative to legalize gay marriage in the state was the first where African-Americans had a sizable enough constituency to have a major say in determining the matter.
Another election initially inspired Richen to make the film. In California for the 2008 election of the first African-American president, Barack Obama, the New York-based filmmaker observed commentators linking the strong turnout of the African-American vote with the passing of the state's anti-marriage equality Proposition 8.
"I was kind of baffled at how these two groups were being pitted against each other," Richen says now. "Of course, the black LGBT people were left nowhere and made invisible."
Richen puts LGBT people of color front and center in The New Black, depicting young activists going door to door asking neighbors for their vote and challenging their community to reexamine their beliefs around an issue that's been traditionally taboo, particularly among a group that is deeply religious.
The director also reflects many other points of view. The LGBT community's struggle for civil rights might have many surface resemblances to the struggle that African-Americans still endure today, but the black community, to quote one pastor who appears in the film, "isn't monolithic," nor is the LGBT community.
"One of the things that surprised me, and I'm a black person, is that for the African-American community, the marriage issue is bigger than just about marriage," says Richen. "It's not just about the right to get married and love who you love, it brings up these notions about how we conceive of family, who's allowed to have a family, who's not allowed to have a family, and then the anti-gay marriage forces, a lot of times their rhetoric is about the fragility of the family, and whether you agree with that or not, it's certainly evocative of the higher rates of divorce and pregnancy and nontraditional families that we have in the black community."
Richen explores deep into the past to explain the present, going all the way back to the days of slavery when African-American families were broken up and had only their faith to cling onto. She hopes people who see The New Black can take her findings rooted in the past and apply them to the future.
"History is moving so quickly right now around gay rights issues," says Richen. "I would love audiences to have a sense of where we've been and where we are in terms of the movement, in terms of looking at race and LGBT issues and what are the next steps in that movement. The civil rights movement is something that African-Americans have a unique relationship and history with; [so] what does it mean to expand that to other communities and to other issues. I would like for the audience to really think about that and how they can move that even further."
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