Human Rights Watch Film Festival New York 2013: ‘deepsouth’ + ‘The New Black’

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York extends through this week with a couple of films about black experiences in the United States. A roughly sketched mini-essay of a film, deepsouth tilts at some towering windmills with a provocative thesis that never gels. The first moments layer multiple graphics, atop a map of the American South, showing how patterns of slavery, poverty, and HIV/AIDS infection all roughly cohere along the same axis. It’s a daunting assessment, briefly rendered.

Screening on screening 17 June, deepsouth goes on to hopscotch from Mississippi to Louisiana and Alabama to illustrate how different individuals and groups are coping with these recurrent and systemic challenges. They take a variety of roads, but curiously (or not so curiously, as this is the South), the film repeatedly circles back to family and food. Of these individuals, Kathy Hiers stands out for he energy and charisma. A determined, coffee-fueled activist from Alabama, she spends much of her time slogging to Washington, DC, where she speaks at conferences on HIV and strains to pry open the pocketbooks of federal government financing for housing and other programs. “This is a social disease,” she reiterates while expounding on her central theme of the Deep South as a place that has been continually overlooked by the powers that be. This is a woman who might have come across as a scolding policy warrior, but is instead one of several appealingly warm figures in the film.

Nearly matching Kathy for energy and enthusiasm are Monica and Tammy, who run an annual retreat for those living with HIV. Facing a room full of frightened, lonely, and frequently sick, the two women do their best to pump up spirits with games, talks, arts and crafts, and heaping platefuls of food. There’s an edge to their positivism, the sort born of struggle and pain, as Monica (nearly three decades living with HIV) says: “I don’t have the time or the T-cells to waste.”

Just as Monica and Tammy are trying to create an ersatz family for those who feel cast aside, Josh, a black gay college student in his early 20s, is shown seeking his own. Not feeling entirely comfortable in his hometown, he tries to find a type of security with his “gay family,” a loose assembly of young gay men who have crafted an independent clan unto themselves.

In addition to shorter thumbnails about a man who drives 30,000 miles a year just to distribute HIV pamphlets and a high school health teacher comically explaining the facts of life to her class without citing actual facts (Mississippi state law mandates abstinence-only sex education), these stories comprise a series of fascinating portraits. It is no slight against them to say that the film doesn’t quite weave them together to create a compelling narrative. deepsouth is a rough tapestry, made of impressively strong fibers.

Yoruba Richen’s The New Black offers another sort of analysis of social and political histories. Screening 19 and 20 June, the documentary considers the background politicking that shaped the campaigns for and against Question 6, a referendum to legalize same-sex marriage that went on the ballot in the 2012 general election in Maryland. Unlike deepsouth, this film focuses more on process than on its human subjects, though they are generally a bright and sunny bunch of activists, including the reverends leading the fight against Question 6.

The New Black (2013)

What The New Black has going for it is a clear examination of the forces that determined the argument over the referendum. Prior to 2012, each time that a state had put the issue of same-sex marriage to a popular vote, it was defeated. In an ugly twist that the film examines in some detail, the largely white Christian Republican opponents of same-sex marriage discovered that one effective tactic was to solicit the support of black ministers, community leaders who tended otherwise to skew Democratic. The film reminds us of a news report that surfaced during the Question 6 campaign, uncovering a document from a conservative group that explicitly outlined a strategy to “drive a wedge” between gays and blacks, “two key Democratic constituencies.”

Against this backdrop, The New Black spends much of its time following a number of the black activists (several of whom are also gay) fighting to pass Question 6, as well as people like Irene Hutchins, a black lesbian and police captain who would like to have the opportunity to marry the love of her life. Her experience is set alongside others, including those of black lesbian activist Karess, who seems to have more energy for the issue than a dozen of her volunteers, and gay black gospel singer Tonex. Their efforts in favor of the referendum are opposed by Pastor Derek McCoy, a black reverend who derides the idea that same-sex marriage is analogous to the civil rights struggle. His is an argument for which stiff-chinned pro-Question 6 activist Sharon Lettman-Hicks has little time. To her, the fight for marriage equality is nothing more than “the unfinished business of black people being free.”