Irene Huskens wants to get married. Now that she’s found “that person who makes my heart flutter and who makes me so excited I can’t wait to see them,” this captain in the Prince George’s County police department feels sure Leia Burks is the one. But for the moment, the moment in 2012 when she’s first interviewed in The New Black, she and Irene, and Irene’s two children, are waiting to see whether they can be married, or more specifically, whether the Civil Marriage Protection Act—signed by Governor Martin O’Malley and allowing same-sex marriage in Maryland—will be approved by voters on a referendum. While Irene understands the many emotions and competing traditions that shape the debate, she also sees that a basic belief is at stake: “Equality,” she says, “never hurt anyone.”
On its face, Irene’s assessment sounds utterly conventional. And as you watch her family make Pillsbury biscuits their suburban kitchen in The New Black, now showing at the Film Forum, you might be struck by how utterly conventional they look, the kids wearing t-shirts declaring their allegiance to a local football team or Marvel’s Avengers. But even as the kids look like so many other kids, they’re legally denied a crucial sign of equality, recalled by Irene as Leia’s son Marquis’ question: “When are you and mama getting married?”
Equality is framed differently by the campaign against Question 6, the referendum on the Civil Marriage Protection Act placed on the November 2012 ballot in Maryland. Opponents of marriage equality worry not only about preserving traditional marriage or their understanding of the Bible, but also that the movement for marriage equality is drawing lessons from civil rights history and activism. “Gays are trying to become the new minority,” says Pastor KZ Smith during an appearance on The Phil Donahue Show. However provocative and odd its reasoning, Smith’s statement neatly summarizes sentiments voiced elsewhere in the film, by some black church leaders and congregation members, Marylander voters and Phil Burress, president of Citizens for Community Values.
That Burress is involved in the Maryland campaign further complicates the many intersections of religion, generation, and race revealed by The New Black. For Question 6 proponent Sharon Lettman-Hicks, marriage equality is “the unfinished business of black people being free.” The executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC) brings her experience in grass roots organizing to build support for Question 6; even if marriage equality is not a first concern for all of the black community, she and her team draw a direct connection to civil rights: “Riding a bus in 1955 could not have been everyone’s most important issue back then,” proposes one organizer, but people could see it as one step of many towards equality.
On one level Sharon Lettman-Hicks’ organizing is set alongside that of Pastor Derek McCoy, executive director of the Maryland Marriage Alliance, campaigning against Question 6. He argues that marriage equality would damage black families in particular, and points to a long history of black families torn apart by US legal systems dating back to slavery. Both Lettman-Hicks and McCoy appear in scenes where they’re speaking to local assemblies or news reporters, but even as the film offers multiple views on the question, its use of personal stories tips its emotional balance. So, Lettman-Hicks brings Richen’s camera into her home, where she and family members exchange opposing ideas but don’t let these undermine either their commitments to one another as family or faith: a wide shot shows them praying together around a table, despite and because of their disagreements.
Or again, activist Karess Taylor-Hughes appears both on the job, knocking on doors and talking with voters (and sometimes not, as when she and co-campaigners have a door shut in their faces), and with family. She brings the film crew with her on a visit to Aunt Toni, who raised her, their conversation turning from the work she’s been doing to “the gay thing we’ve never really talked about.” Like the scenes at Lettman-Hicks’ home, this is an intimate moment transformed into performance by virtue of the camera’s presence, and here again, both women handle it with poise, each making clear her unconditional love for the other and also her understanding of the other’s lived realities and politics. When Toni hopes for grandchildren, Karees smiles and promises, “You’re gonna get some grandbabies, only when I can get the money for it.”
Performance is at the center of the film’s sophisticated presentations of the campaigns both for and against Question 6, performance as a mode of campaign, of living, of understanding. In most cases, it’s not performance as artifice, but performance as assertion and exploration. The film’s most vivid example may be a self-assured performance by the singer B. Slade, known as Tonéx during a rather infamous 2009 interview on The Lexi Show, formerly airing on the Word Network. When Lexi asks whether his “struggle with homosexuality” has led to resolution, specifically, “Are you ready for deliverance from being attracted to men?”, his answer is apparently unexpected. “I don’t feel the need for deliverance, so everybody can just breathe and relax on your show.”
The surprise on Lexi’s face in this grainy video clip speaks, however silently, to the power of perpetually shifting assumptions and perceptions. As The New Black shows repeatedly and so compellingly, the intersections of faith and identity, community and individuality, are constantly changing, over time and across places.