Laid-back yet incisive, “The New Black” examines the complexity of black attitudes toward same-sex marriage, which the mainstream media tend to oversimplify as church-dominated and uniformly negative. Focusing on a 2012 Maryland referendum that sought to overturn a recent pro-gay-marriage law, director Yoruba Richen interviews activists on both sides of the controversy, and although clearly more sympathetic to gay-rights proponents, she also grants respect and legitimacy to the opposition; the result is a film that leaves room for dialogue and change as it embraces the entire black community, even in disagreement, countering right-wing attempts to use gay marriage as a “wedge issue.” Tube slots and community/advocacy venues beckon.
No stranger to divisive topics (she previously helmed the docu “Promised Land,” about disputes over land ownership in post-apartheid South Africa), Richen chooses her interviewees wisely. Pastor Derek McCoy, head of the Maryland Marriage Alliance, which organized church opposition to same-sex marriage and gathered twice the number of signatures necessary to force the referendum, presents cogent, well-framed arguments instead of issuing blanket condemnations. Indeed, the only hellfire denunciations on display come from a reverend who has since defected to the other side.
Other black clergymen wax indignant over the notion that they are mere pawns of white right-wingers, insisting quite convincingly that they have their own reasons for their beliefs. Still, Richen doesn’t avoid showing that these convictions play right into the hands of conservative Republican strategists.
Richen’s interview subjects on the pro side prove equally well selected. Regal, composed Bishop Yvette Flunder makes the case for alternative marriage with serene authority. Sharon Lettman-Hicks, head of the National Black Justice Coalition, happily married to a 25-year Air Force vet, brings a down-home, non-confrontational warmth to the table as she and her husband discuss the upcoming referendum with aunts, uncles and cousins at a family barbecue.
Tellingly, Richen concentrates on those disagreements that stem from the same shared beliefs. The importance of the church, providing blacks a strong foundation in faith and community, forms the basis for religious denunciations of both same-sex marriage and the use of pulpit power to mandate political choice. Similarly, invocations of the fracturing of black families under slavery produce affirmations of procreational marriage on the one hand, and the historical legacy of nontraditional families on the other. And, since both sides feel obligated to uphold civil rights, arguments finally boil down to whether or not gay rights fall under the same definition.
Richen structures her film around the referendum, beginning on the very morning of the election, and backtracking to fill in all the players and events that led up to it. She then follows those leaders through Election Day and into its immediate aftermath. Production values are merely adequate, the director relying on her protagonists’ warmth, charisma and clarity to carry her film.