It looks like we’ll be reliving the 2012 election for an awfully long time, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We’ve already gotten at least one excellent documentary out of it, AJ Schnack’s character-minded Caucus. Then there’s Mitt, a somewhat less accomplished exploration of a high-level Republican presidential run. Yet profiles like these, whether of an entire field of candidates or an individual political figure, do not tell the whole story.
Enter Yoruba Richen, whose film The New Black looks at a smaller race with perhaps broader implications. In Maryland, where President Obama’s victory was basically assured, the biggest fight was over a ballot question. In 2012, the state’s legislature passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage, but opponents successfully triggered a referendum on the issue. Maryland Question 6, which would become the first electoral victory for same-sex marriage in the history of the country, was particularly contentious in the state’s African-American electorate. That conflict is the focus of Richen’s film, a portrait of a community framed by this historic political fight.
Hovering over Question 6 is the success of Proposition 8 in California, which reversed that state’s marriage equality law back in 2008. In the aftermath of that shock, much of the credit (or blame) for the measure’s passage was placed on the black community. By the 2012 question in Maryland, even taking into account the President’s own final “evolution” to a pro-same-sex marriage stance, it had become a truism that African-American voters are inclined to vote as social conservatives on this issue. For activists like Sharon Lettman-Hicks, who fought against Proposition 8, Question 6 is an opportunity to disprove this notion and show the possibility of real change.
As a result, this single referendum can be taken as a fight over a social and political soul. Richen responds to this essential character of Question 6 by refusing to answer it directly, choosing rather to pose a series of newer questions with answers that cannot fit on a ballot. At the heart of this new approach is the double consciousness of the people in question, LGBT African Americans. Living at the center of a Venn Diagram of marginalization, black LGBT residents of Maryland and the United States as a whole are in a precarious place. Richen responds by doubling everything, making sure that each and every perspective on the issue is presented. This isn’t done with a CNN-style commitment to “fairness,” but rather in the interest of showing a great deal of cultural and spiritual depth.
Richen introduces Pastor Derek McCoy, for example, a prominent church leader who is leading the fight against same-sex marriage in Maryland. He is associated with the National Organization for Marriage, a group based outside of Maryland that has been accused of using their cash to target minority groups specifically. McCoy objects to this presumption, pointing out the inherent problem in accusing an entire minority group’s religious leaders of being easily bought by an outside force. He also touches on perhaps the central debate at the intersection of African American and LGBT political movements: is the struggle for same-sex marriage an extension of the Civil Rights Movement, or counter to its Christian origins? Richen embraces this question, exploring a variety of ways in which leaders on either side of the issue use their shared history to support their beliefs.
Each question leads to another. This ambiguity is one of Richen’s strengths, her choice to prioritize human complexity over political excitement. She tells the story of Anthony Charles Williams II, formerly known as the enormously successful gospel singer Tonéx, until he came out of the closet and his career took quite a turn. There’s a young activist named Karess Taylor-Hughes, who takes Richen on a trip back to visit her foster mother on Long Island, a woman who might not necessarily approve of her daughter’s dedication to gay rights. The best moments of The New Black take place at the home of Lettman-Hicks, at a party she is throwing for her extended family. Her own activism inspires her to argue the issues of LGBT equality with every generation, to entirely mixed and occasionally even surprising effect.
By the end, therefore, it’s easy to forget that this is actually a very narrowly bounded political film, made entirely in the context of a single campaign. Election Day itself becomes a bit of an anti-climax. The shots of political signs, volunteers working outside of polling places and stump speeches is a bit rote, and doesn’t have the vigor of a Caucus or The War Room. Richen is at her best when up close and personal with her subjects, watching them talk over a table of food. The officially grander scale of Question 6 itself actually makes The New Black seem like a smaller film. Some day the specifics of this individual election may be forgotten, fading into the background behind the landmark Supreme Court rulings of the summer of 2013. The more prosaic moments of long-term social change will, however, be worked into the fabric of black, queer and American identities.