June 20, 2013 | by Joey DiGuglielmo
Taboo topics
Yoruba Richen, The New Black, Kennedy Center, Gay News, Washington Blade

Yoruba Richen, director/producer of ‘The New Black.’ (Photo by Luke Rattray; courtesy the filmmakers)

‘The New Black’
AFI Docs
Saturday at 1:30 p.m.
Goethe-Institute
812 7th St., N.W.Sunday at 1:15 p.m.
AFI Silver Theatre
8633 Colesville Rd.
Silver Spring, MD
$13
afi.com/afidocs

One of the big debates with reality TV is the inevitable degree to which the camera’s presence affects the way people act. It’s unquantifiable, of course, but it’s also a challenge for documentary filmmakers.

Yoruba Richen says she knew it would be hard to capture the kind of exchanges she wanted to get in her film “The New Black,” a piece that explores both last year’s battle for Maryland Question 6, a referendum question that won 52 percent of the vote last November to uphold same-sex marriage rights there, but also the larger issue of how the African-American community is grappling with gay rights and the degree to which many feel it’s comparable to the civil rights struggle. The roughly 80-minute documentary screens twice this weekend as part of the AFI Docs (formerly Silverdocs) festival that continues through Sunday.

Two such exchanges especially stand out — one Sharon Lettman-Hicks, executive director of National Black Justice Coalition, has with anti-gay family members at her husband’s (she’s an LGBT ally) retirement party and the tear-laced discussion 24-year-old lesbian Karess Taylor-Hughes has coming out to her religious foster mother.

Richen says both took a delicate approach.

“It’s hard,” she says during a phone interview from her Brooklyn home. “It’s really hard. You can’t just come in with lights and 5,000 people. You try to be as spare as you can. Like at that barbecue, it was just me and a camera person, that’s it. And there has to be a level of trust there. At that point with Sharon, we had already been filming for two years and the same with Karess. But there can be an advantage too because I think that for us, especially in the African-American community, we don’t always get a chance to share our stories so there can be a level of comfort and excitement that we are getting to talk about this issue. Also I think the fact that I’m black and there was another black person doing the filming helped everybody be a little more comfortable as well.”

Richen, a lesbian, met Lettman-Hicks at an LGBT conference in Dallas in 2010 and quickly recognized her as an ideal vehicle to explore the issues of race and sexuality that had been haunting her since many blamed blacks for California’s Prop. 8 ballot measure in 2008, the success of which overturned same-sex marriage rights there. After starting the project, she started to see Maryland — where gay marriage hadn’t yet bubbled to the surface when the project began — as a strong microcosm for the issues the entire country is dealing with at the intersection of race and religion.

Lettman-Hicks says she gave her family and her husband’s family a “heads up” before the film crew arrived. About three people opted out and said they didn’t want to be filmed.

She says she was happy to put herself and her family out there — even ones who aren’t politically on the same page with her — because she sensed the ultimate effect the piece could have.

“I came to LGBT activism later in life,” Lettman-Hicks says. “But my husband and I are both humanitarians and this is our passion, to make the black family whole again and stronger. These are just my brothers and sisters and these conversations are long overdue. Too many people have been harmed, both directly and indirectly, and the underlying issues stem much deeper.”

Samathan Master, a 25-year-old Columbia, Md., resident who identifies as a black queer femme, got involved with the project through her partner Kandice Fields, who is friends with Taylor-Hughes. She has worked with Equality Maryland and Human Rights Campaign and knocked on doors for Question 6 last year. She says she was happy to participate because the issue is loaded with history and baggage.

“Any conversation around sexuality and the black community is met with trepidation,” Master says. “I don’t really think black folks are any more or less homophobic than their white counterparts, but I think the way black people have dealt with sexuality since the days of slavery has been to not talk about it so then you have this movement and this thrust of LGBT equality and people coming out, right, so … there ends up being all this baggage we’ve carried with us century after century but it’s always been very quiet baggage and now that people are out and talking about it, there’s been an attempt to silence something that we’ve always known has existed but never really been vocal about.”

Refreshingly, though, “The New Black” isn’t just an LGBT propaganda machine. Anti-gay ministers such as Bishop Harry Jackson are interviewed in the film. Less notoriously, though, is one of its key figures — Pastor Derek McCoy, president of Maryland Family Alliance and associate pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Md.

Richen says even though McCoy worked against Question 6 (and thus against same-sex marriage), she says her integrity as a documentarian necessitated the inclusion of other voices.

“He worked with me and I’m very grateful he did,” Richen says. “I really did my best to let them present their stories and their truth and they didn’t ask me a lot up front about my personal positions.”

Richen and her crew shot more than 100 hours of footage over a three-year period wrapping last November. Had Question 6 failed, she’s not sure she would have ended the story when she did though it ended up giving the ending a celebratory feel. She followed several key participants through Election Day. Richen won’t say how much the film cost to make but says she had support from PBS, Tribeca, Sundance, the Gill Foundation and several other entities. She says it came in the normal range — under $1 million, which is normal for a project of this scope.

Lettman-Hicks says viewers are in for a treat and that watching the film recently at its Los Angeles premiere was a powerful experience.

“It was all done with a lot of integrity,” she says. “There wasn’t one thing in there where I was like, ‘What’s that in there for?’ … A lot of it is reflective of my day-to-day life. Some of these conversations we’re having, that’s a day at work for me, but what was really a surprise was watching some of the young people. I was so touched by Samantha and Karess’s courage out there canvassing the streets in Baltimore. I was just so, so proud.”

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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