Once upon a time there were five little boys ... who did not go to the police academy! Apologies, but I couldn’t help paraphrasing the opening lines from the intro to Aaron Spelling’s 1970s jiggle classic Charlie’s Angels after watching Patrik-Ian Polk’s latest feature Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom, a theatrical extension of his eponymously-titled TV series, just out now on DVD.
Some years back, I caught several episodes of Polk’s show at the historic Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles, and came away less than enthralled. This well-intentioned project about a flock of black gay friends in contemporary L.A. simply had no heft to it. In his zeal to be scrupulously PC, Polk seemed to have forgotten that artful drama and political correctness can’t always dance together, as Donald Fagen once crooned. His light-as-a-feather dramedy, chockablock with GQ-quality role models, was too prettified and simplistic to provide any emotional nutrition.
Of course, that didn’t prevent it from enjoying a multi-season run on LOGO, cable TV’s premiere gay channel. Would it be impertinent of me to suggest that the show’s Spellingesque inconsequentiality is the reason it succeeded on basic cable television?
Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom reunites the same five pals from the series: sassy Alex, the titular Noah, his formerly down-low “fiancée” Wade, hot tomato Ricky, the haughty Chance, and Eddie, Chance’s long-time squeeze. The boys – I’m black, I can call them that – are headed to that rustic-chic East Coast haven Martha’s Vineyard for a legal-in-Kennedy country wedding between the sultry Wade (Jensen Atwood) and Noah at the summertime pied-a-terre of Wade’s family. Why they’re trekking to that island in the winter is beyond me, as it’s renowned as a summer getaway, and winters are New England bleak!
Ricky (Christian Vincent) has in tow a barely-legal twink, coincidentally one of Chance’s students. You can feel the plot thickening. Not even waiting to get inside before squeezing the boy’s Charmin, this brazenness is typically Ricky, who proclaims, “Monogamy for men is a contradiction in terms”. If Ricky isn’t asking for trouble, he finds it anyway, as he steps out to prowl one evening, in no more than a light, unzippered jacket! Patrik, have you forgotten this is Massachusetts—in winter?!
Meanwhile, Alex (Rodney Chester) has taken over as the wedding organizer, and this shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s watched the show. Alex is a flamboyant Miss Thang and at times a tiresome stereotype. But Chester’s portrayal is flat-out and not unrealistic, and Polk’s decision to let Alex be Alex is important, a rebuke, perhaps to many gay men of color who would just as soon brush the queens in their midst under the rug, though some on the other side of the fence would complain that Alex represents the sexless Will & Grace / Queer Eye girly-man, obsessed with kitchen tiles and Oprah’s waist size. At any rate, Alex could never be described as “sexless”, shaking his rump in a teasing webcam dance he performs for his back-at-home lover, the linebacker-sized Trey.
Ricky’s little trickster Brandon (Gary LeRoi Gray) is a type all-too familiar in gay-themed flicks, fresh-faced, green, expecting earnest sincerity from every man who beds him, his yearning a gentle indictment of the corruptions and cynicism that come with age. Gray is sweet and charmingly vulnerable – surprise! – but ultimately, Brandon seems more a symbol, a cudgel used to spotlight the imperfections of his newfound friends than a character of much complexity or ambiguity.
A more intriguing presence is Baby Gat (Jason Steed), an Afro-British hip-hop star who also happens to be gay, closeted, and head over heels for Noah (Darryl Stephens). He doesn’t score much screen time and frankly, what little he gets is largely wasted, but I have to wonder … how many treacherous paths did a guy like this have to navigate while growing up? A black man, living in Britannia, loving men, which he chooses to hide, and loving rap, a community which insists he keep quiet.
What thoughts percolate in his mind? What does his future hold? We get no sense of the inner turmoil Gat must surely be feeling. Arguably, a much more vivid story could be told about this man’s life. And why, if Gat is so hush-hush about his bedmates, is he so free and easy regarding his sexual predilections around Noahs’ gossipy cronies?
On the plus side, this DVD is an uber-deluxe package, with a veritable candy store of extras waiting to be uncovered by hardcore fans of Noah’s Arc, if not many others. There’s the obligatory making-of featurette, with comments from Polk and some cast principals, a snoozy “video diary”, which rambles a bit, a wedding video – guess who the grooms are! – featuring a pleasing jazz instrumental, and a somewhat redundant cast photo shoot, great for more ogling of the admittedly tasty cast!
That’s just the beginning! Also vying for your eyeballs are interview snippets with several so-called “homo-hop” artists, including Deadlee, a self-described “cholo fag” from Los Angeles. These performers all appear in a fascinating LOGO-aired documentary Pick Up the Mic, which challenges assumptions about what rap should or should not communicate and who gets to do the rhyming. This is followed by ads for various LOGO programs, including the animated Rick & Steve. Imagine if “Davey and Goliath” were produced by Fisher-Price and set in the Castro!
Finally, we’re treated to an episode of the new reality – yes, another! – series, Shirts and Skins, about an all-gay mens’ basketball team, the San Francisco Rockdogs, sharing a quaint Victorian rowhouse. The boys are a strapping, multi-culti band of hotties, and move with fluidity on the court and through masculine and feminine expressiveness. I generally ignore “reality” television, but I may check this one out.
Ultimately, Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom (and the TV sitcom) is dramatically-lightweight, by-the-numbers hackwork devised to encourage self-esteem in gay African-American males and greater acceptance for homosexual lifestyles in black America. A most laudable goal, particularly when you consider the horrendous HIV infection rate in black society, and I take no pleasure in slamming this project because, on paper, there may be no more crucial stories to tell than what Polk attempts here.
But it remains airbrushed fantasy. Every character is Ebony model-cute, drives a stylish car, enjoys a fulfilling, lucrative profession, and, excepting the well-nourished Alex, sports a gym-sculpted body. Not to mention the oh-so-trendy attire. In one early scene, I couldn’t help wondering if Noah was Russian, judging by the Wife of Muscovite Baron-couture outfit he was draped in. Unintentional laughs are laughs just the same.
Also, the film’s plot floats on more misunderstandings than ten episodes of that faux-titillating, safe sex perennial, Three’s Company. These fellas just have an uncanny knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time!
Along with manipulative musical underscorings of key scenes – why are American directors so frightened of silence? – and Polk’s uninspired, pedestrian direction, and one has to conclude that Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom comes off as feel-good, nothing-better-to-do-on-Saturday night light entertainment, and little more. It’s easily digestible, but just as easily forgotten. Would that its pioneering status as the first black gay-themed film to get a national release were matched with soulful wit, vibrant camerawork, and psychological daring.
I wonder what Spike Lee would make of this material. Polk will certainly continue to work, but I look forward to the day time – which may never come – when the Tall Skinny Black Boy (the name of his production company) will stop pandering and really cut loose.