THE NEW BLACK
On election ballots, personal expression of belief is limited to a binary choice, and on propositions and referendums, you are either for or against. The New Black centers around a marriage equality ballot measure in 2012 and finds complex attitudes behind the yes and no votes, particularly in the African-American community.
After Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley signed a state law that permitted same-sex marriage in his state, opposition groups were able to mount a statewide referendum on the law. They succeeded in large part by utilizing the established base of churches, and in metro Baltimore and the predominantly black Prince George county, black churches found themselves on the frontline against the redefinition of marriage. LGBT African-Americans found themselves caught in complex situations within their families, churches, and communities.
The New Black explores several layers of the issue, but the main conflict is between religious leaders and non-profit organizers. Over the course of several months, both sides gather support and defend their claims, but special consideration is given to the question of whether African-Americans, as a persecuted minority, should side with homosexuals. Many socially conservative blacks refuse to see the the same-sex issue as a civil rights issue, but some ministers in the film find reasons to be inclusive. As one reverend in the film says, “the black community is not monolithic.”
The film includes interviews with dozens of ministers, politicians, and organizers, but also embraces the personal story of a few key participants, the most endearing of which is a young activist and motivator for a chapter of Marylanders for Marriage Equality. The film follows her on voter registration drives on the streets, offering a chance to see the arguments play out one-on-one. Another brief passage of the film presents the kitchen table discussions of the extended family of Sharon Lettman-Hicks, executive director of the National Black Justice Council. These scenes give outsiders the chance to see how these debates go on within the communities themselves.
By framing the action around the election day climax, the film has a straightforward storyline, but events aren’t fabricated or contextually edited. There’s little melodrama and a lot more honest, personal speech. For instance, Reverend Derek McCoy, the film’s main representative of the anti-marriage equality side, is given plenty of time to explain his reasons and is never demonized. After election day is over and the same-sex law stands--the first time in American history where such a law was upheld by a popular vote-- the film takes no joy taken in McCoy’s defeat, only celebration on the part of the pro-equality organizers.
Even though the film is self-contained around one state’s vote, the awareness it brings about the African-American community is valuable, and it is sure to keep the conversation going as it continues to tour the country.
THEY GLOW IN THE DARK
While same-sex marriage is still just a gleam in the eye of hopeful activists in the states of the Deep South, They Glow in the Dark presents the civil union between two middle-aged men who have moved to New Orleans, a relatively safer haven for LGBT couples.
Jim Baysinger and Michael Sterling are HIV-positive, celibate men. Both men are living in the aftermath of their tactile, hedonistic youth, and are honestly bitter about their current conditions: broke, downhearted, sick, and stressed. Both men have true loves who are either dead or have been absorbed into an uncaring world, and the bare-bones film gives them plenty of opportunity to unload.
Their relationship is presented in the film as one of reliance as opposed to romance, though its hard to say whether having the camera in their home overly affected their normal interaction. Baysinger shapes clay figurines that the couple sell to tourists in the city’s French Market, then come back home where they pursue their interests separately. Baysinger reads and records music. Sterling combs through Missed Connections on craigslist, searching for a lost love he encountered in the French Quarter in 1973.
Often the film feels claustrophobic, as if this was one long weekend of self-examination caught on camera, with small confessions and rants kindling a larger fire of rage and dissatisfaction. Sterling does provide plenty of comic relief throughout even as he bemoans his lost vitality. At one point he talks of his plan to start dressing in drag when he is seventy because old ladies can get away with any indiscretion. The film actually has a bizarre Grey Gardens feel to it, and viewers may find themselves torn between sympathy and discomfort.
Though the film is lacking technically--there are subtitles throughout because the sound quality is so bad--it’s an open, honest look at how same-sex unions don’t come in one-size-fits all packages.