Randy (Julian Walker in his film debut) is a talented choirboy and drama student trying his best to cope with family, friends and personal issues – the disappearance of his sister, the separation of his parents, his symbolic dreams, and the struggle to accept his sexuality. Blackbird is a coming of age comedy drama, set in a picturesque rural Mississippi town.
Opening with a dream sequence that the Queen of Pop Madonna, would envy as the music video to Like A Prayer, the audience is immediately immersed into Randy’s gospel singing, Jesus praising, wet dream. Dressed, repented and downstairs to leave for school, Randy’s hypocritical mother Claire (Mo’Nique starring in first role since Precious) is transfixed with a milk carton realising that it no longer advertises missing children (The campaigns ended in the late 1980s in the USA).
Collected for school by promiscuous Efrem (Gary LeRoi Gray) like a biblical plague, pleasure and guilt follows Randy from the bedroom out into the world of teenage discussions on masturbation littered with six year flashbacks of the disappearance of younger sister Chrissie. Interestingly it would appear in rural Mississippi, high school kids are now smoking cigars (when did smoking Menthol become unpopular)? A diet coke-man advert homage, introduces the audience formally to the recipient of Randy’s closeted sexual fantasies, Todd (Torrey Laamar).
Voice of an angel Randy and his apparent group of sympathetic straight friends; collaborate for a school production to update William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, to a gay-themed story-line. Musical numbers continue with the excellent “You Suck”, and hilarious drag him out-of-the-closet one-liners “I’m In the Choir – that’s butch” which help, to soften an increasing number of sub plots; child abduction, teen pregnancy, sexual transmitted diseases, Christian fundamentalism and underage sex.
Throughout, Randy copes alone at home with the emotional well being of mother Claire, and the apparent confusion over how his sibling became lost. With a poster of Jesus on his wall and a rotating disco-ball light in his bedroom corner, Randy is clearly misinformed about the philosophical concept of causality – cause and effect. His dreams are more frequent (vivid symbolic sequences), and as he lashes out at those closest to him, Randy pursues independence and a casting opportunity. Lost at finding the casting audition location, devil incarnate Marshall (Kevin Allesee) offers his hand to show him the way. The audition piece is a gay rape scene acted out by Randy and Marshall in front of a oddly fanatic casting director.
Marshall declares “I’m so going to hell as I have the hots for an underage choir boy”, and there starts a cat and mouse perusal of sexual conquest, which throughout the latter part of the film feels genuine as Marshall, reveals his angel wings. As Randy and Marshall’s relationship blossoms, so does the sexual exploration of his peers. From friends using his room for sex while he is at Bible study, exploring the local gay cruising area, Randy’s amusing father’s (Isaiah Washington) admission, that he once kissed a boy “Asian tongues and everything”, and lastly Randy’s wet dreams (they must have a lot of bed sheets in the Rousseau household).
Intaking one final soundbite “whoever does not love is not of god, as god is love”, is eerily more appropriate as a reference from William Shakespeare (rather than John the Apostle), as the audience is drawn into the final act of tragedy and deliverance. Essentially a play and two films within a film, Blackbird from writer and director Patrik-Ian Polk cleverly combines race, sexuality, religion and small town values. As is common with many films, incomplete subplots may have fallen foul to the cutting room floor, resulting in unexplained cliff-hangers (whatever happened to Randy & Marshall’s first film – well by chance I met the director at BFI Flare, send your questions in). Blackbird makes no apologies for its bold messages and nor should it, intuitive audiences may see a darker drama than it disguises itself to be.