One of the ironies of the 2008 political cycle is that the same election that brought the first African-American U.S. president to office also passed Proposition 8—thanks in part to the support, it’s been argued, of black Californians who had turned out to vote for Obama. The degree of that impact has been disputed, but whatever the numbers, The New Black opens a window on opposition to gay marriage within the African-American community, a phenomenon widely attributed to the enduring power of the church. As activist Sharon Lettman-Hicks puts it, changing the perception that gay rights aren’t a modern-day civil-rights movement is “the unfinished business of black people being free.” Director Yoruba Richen structures the movie around the fight for same-sex marriage in Maryland. After a bill passed the state legislature and was signed by Governor Martin O’Malley in early 2012, opponents amassed enough signatures to subject the law to a referendum in the November election.
Those who follow the news will already know how it turns out, but The New Black adds a bit of historical perspective, discussing the church’s importance as a refuge during slavery and its prominence as a cornerstone of community in recent decades. The film recounts some unlikely alliances between the proponents of homophobic measures and the black clergy. It’s noted that civil-rights icon Fred Shuttlesworth sided against gay-rights protections in Cincinnati in 2004, while groups like the National Organization For Marriage have attempted to harness African-American support. There’s a lengthy digression on the influence of the gospel singer then known as Tonéx, who caused a stir when he came out and is shown in an interview discussing his sexuality with the seemingly perplexed host of The Lexi Show. The film also includes more-personal anecdotes: Black men debate whether gay marriages affect their own, parishioners argue over whether gay-rights advocacy is analogous to the battles of the ’60s, an out woman asks her foster mother about her true feelings on homosexuality, and so on.
Any of these avenues could have made its own movie, a frequent problem among documentaries. At 75 minutes, The New Black feels at once sprawling and superficial. The most compelling material is the ground-level political organizing; watching pamphleteers on the streets of Baltimore as they try to convince kids to vote (“I ain’t voting on that gay shit, though,” one replies), The New Black momentarily resembles an outtake from The Wire. But the film largely lacks the urgency its subject demands. It’s an extended news segment in the form of a feature film.