In comparison to the number of gay-themed films that are produced – independent or otherwise, it’s always refreshing to see such a film starring black characters that aren’t all relegated to best friend status or added in for the sake of diversity with little or no actual development. Whether these films turn out good or bad, gay films starring black characters fill a void that still exists even on the independent level.
Enter Patrik-Ian Polk (whose Noah’s Arc drama series filled a similar void when it aired for two seasons on LOGO from 2005 to 2006) with The Skinny – the 2012 feature he wrote, produced, directed and edited.
The Skinny takes place over the course of an eventful gay pride weekend in New York – where five college friends reunite one year after graduating from Brown.
Hosting the group is Magnus (a pre-Empire Jussie Smollett) – who’s in medical school and living in his parents’ luxurious Manhattan property until he graduates. Magnus’s first order of business is to introduce his friends to Ryan (Dustin Ross) — the round-the-way boyfriend he’s been telling them so much about and with whom he has a pact not to have sex for the first six months of their relationship. Ryan impresses the group with his rundown of who’s who in the group (which, in this case, was a good way to quickly introduce the characters).
Magnus’s group consists of the handsome, studly and field-playing Kyle (Anthony Burrell) — who comes in from Los Angeles where he works in the movie business; the innocent, wide-eyed and naïve Sebastian (Blake Young-Fountain) who has just returned to the states after nine months in Paris (a graduation gift from his parents); and the fabulous Joey (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) — who is struggling to make a life for himself in Atlanta where he lives with his religious mother. The lone female of the group is Langston — (Shanika Warren-Markland), a beautiful and classy lesbian doing graduate work at Yale.
As is the case with most gay films, The Skinny has its share of nudity, hookups, sexual situations, secret crushes and objects of affection. As with the case with a lot of black films written by black scribes, the characters are educated, career-minded and goal-oriented. And as with the case with the work of Polk, HIV/AIDS factors into this world on multiple levels, safe sex is practiced (for the most part) and the very close-knit circle of friends is fiercely loyal to each other.
But what stands out about The Skinny is the all-too-rare depiction of black gay love and affection beyond the purely sexual. This is best exemplified in a public park scene between Sebastian, who has decided that he wants Kyle to be his first, and Kyle, who has no idea.
And then there is a very good scene about cleaning out the field before it gets plowed (which I don’t recall ever being discussed in gay cinema) that could actually stand on its own as an instructional video about such pre-intercourse preparation.
Darryl Stephens, the titular star of Polk’s Noah’s Arc, makes a welcome cameo as a Nurse and Wilson Cruz (who had an extended storyline on Noah’s Arc) cameos in the same scene as a doctor – through which Polk incorporates a discussion about the then-new (at least new to those who hadn’t heard about it prior to 2012/2013) antiviral PEP.
The Skinny is a fun and enjoyable 100 minutes with several interweaving story elements at varying degrees of drama handled with far more aplomb than Polk’s earlier, more groundbreaking work. Others may find that the multiple story elements couldn’t be fully serviced within the film’s time frame — though none are given the complete short-shaft.
But as was the case with Polk’s Noah’s Arc, where it seemed that every issue facing gay black America had to be explored – a circumstance that every groundbreaking show feels pressured to do when it’s the only one of its kind out there representing an underserved community, Polk has to make the most of the opportunity he has with The Skinny because there’s no telling when he or another black filmmaker will be able to get a comparable film produced.
And he does.
So the eye-rolling gay movie trope of beautiful actors such as Bowyer-Chapman and Warren-Markland playing otherwise confident characters such as Joey and Langston who are yet afraid to respectively approach a hot dancer and a hot bartenderess is forgiven – in this case.