“The New Black” is a documentary that tells the story of marriage equality through an African American family perspective. From church pews to the streets to kitchen tables, “The New Black” follows the African American community as it grapples with the gay rights issue in light of the recent same-sex marriage movement. Directed by filmmaker Yoruba Richen, “The New Black” premieres on PBS’ “Independent Lens,” hosted by Stanley Tucci, on Sunday, June 15 (10:30-11:30). As a member of both the African American and LGBT communities, Richen became fascinated with the overlaps and tensions between the gay rights and the civil rights movements.
In February 2012, after much discussion, the Maryland legislature passed a law allowing same-sex marriage. Immediately, opponents of the law geared up to put the issue before the voters through a ballot referendum – a strategy that had defeated same-sex marriage in other states. On one side, supporters of same-sex marriage included a number of black ministers who were challenging homophobia in the black church. Opposing them were other ministers who believed that gay marriage violated religious principles and who disagreed with placing the issue in the context of civil rights. Against this backdrop, the film traces the historical importance of the church to the black community and explores the personal stories of African-Americans who, although raised in the church, felt unwelcome when they identified themselves as gay.
“For over three years, I followed how this issue was being debated and understood in the African American community,” says Richen. “I came to realize that the issue of gay rights in the black community is in many ways a fight over the African American family, which has been a contested space since the time of slavery. Marriage is not just about marriage for black people — it’s also about how blacks have become accepted as legitimate participants in American society. The gay marriage question has forced a conversation in the black community, which is taking place in our churches, our houses, our neighborhoods, and at the ballot box.”
“The New Black” also highlights the work of the LGBT civil rights organization the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC) during the marriage equality fight in Maryland during the 2012 election. Executive director and CEO, Sharon J. Lettman-Hicks is a featured character of the film.
Richen says she wanted the film to focus on more than just marriage because that issue is just one part of the LGBT movement. “There are other key issues that get less attention but this is where the political battle is being waged. For black communities, it was a debate about family and how [LGBT persons] are accepted and defined in this country.”
It was PBS that awarded Richen money to produce the trailer—$15,000 from its Diversity and Innovation fund—back in 2010. She also received $15,000 for the Paul Robeson Fund. After the trailer, Richen was able to secure additional funds to produce the 87-minute documentary. And PBS came in as a co-producer of the film, buying the US broadcast rights.
“I really hope that people use this film for a few things, as a conversation starter about issues brought up in the film, bringing it back to their homes, churches and their communities. And then for those who are moved by the film to take action and fight for advancing social justice,” says Richen, a graduate of Brown University and currently an adjunct professor at the City University of New York (CUNY). “We need to figure out ways together to build alliances on social justice, race, and human sexuality,” adds the 42-year-old social issue documentarian, who is a recipient of the Tribeca All Access Creative Promise Award and a Guggenheim fellow.