Meet the Black Carrie Bradshaw

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:10

      NOAH’S ARC IS the revolutionary TV show that the mainstream media ignored, preferring the cynical clichés of The Wire. Not even two highly rated seasons on Viacom’s flagship gay cable channel LOGO could guarantee a third life for a series that pampered young gay black men the way HBO’s Sex and the City cosseted rich white women. So writer-director Patrik-Ian Polk did the next best thing and channeled his imagination into the featurelength film Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom.

    Yet not all is triumph. Jumping the Broom was only screened for critics on a rough, workprint DVD—not color-corrected, still bearing copyright watermarks, onscreen ADR codes and subtitles for dialogue dubbing. As if Polk’s brainchild hasn’t been marginalized enough, even its distributor and publicists sought to marginalize it even further.This demands mention for two reasons: 1) Beware the print quality in theaters. 2) Polk’s satisfactory entertainment seems doomed by systemic opposition to its uniqueness, what pop-culture academics used to call “Difference.”

    Noah’s Arc’s quartet of young black men counteracts the prevailing image of gayness as a young, rich, white male phenomenon.

    The title refers to Noah (Darryl Stephens), an L.A.-based aspiring screenwriter whose love and social life resist Hollywood storybook cliché. Noah may dress in couture like Carrie Bradshaw (he enters Jumping wearing a Russian toque, cape and calf-high boots) but his style is provocative; he flouts ideas about masculinity, blackness and class.

    If you accept Noah (his gentle, gazelle-like demeanor stresses effeminacy), his friends still test your tolerance: Chance (Doug Spearman) is a snooty, over-enunciating university professor; Alex (Rodney Chester) is a plus-sized drama queen who likes to cook when not dispensing counsel at a gay men’s health center; and Rickey (Christian Vincent) is incorrigibly promiscuous.

    All these characters are dark-skinned except for Ricky, whose light (possibly Latino) complexion gives him social advantages— such as racially determined sex appeal, which he squanders in self-destructive ways.Yet Polk’s affection for these characters equals his determination to validate them. (The performances have gained substance; even a “voguing” sequence is in character.) Like ABC-TV’s 1977 production of Roots, Noah’s Arc acquaints viewers with aspects of African- American character and experience that are usually hidden or ignored. Noah and friends inhabit a parallel universe to the whites-only stereotypes of West Hollywood and Chelsea.

    When they discuss the image tyranny of pop figures Terrell Owens and Fitty Cent, they articulate stress all men feel. Ethicized pioneers always perform this breakthrough in the arts. Disrespect and discredit is the price they pay—whether it’s Noah’s Arc being screened like a B-movie, or Wong Kar Wai’s profound gay Asian love story in Happy Together being denied the acclaim given Brokeback Mountain.

    Jumping the Broom tests the supposed openness of gay culture by the casual way it celebrates Noah’s identity. Noah’s wedding to straight-acting Wade (Jensen Atwood) takes place in Martha’s Vineyard, down the road from P. Diddy’s estate—a rare admission of black class advancement.This revelation continues with Noah’s persistent suitor Baby Gat (Jason Steed), a closeted British rapper whose wealth and suave machismo broadens gay stereotypes.The film’s implicit sponsorship of gay marriage follows its extensive view of black society and genuine endorsement of African- American tradition (such as the ceremonial broom-jumping, an ethnic marriage ritual dating from slavery that symbolizes community).

    When each man’s relationship is undermined by his own insecurity, the interplay of frustrated attraction and bewildering passion is more sophisticated than Noah’s Arc’s formulaic second season. It evokes the insight of Q. Allan Brocka (who wrote last year’s excellent Boy Culture and the groundbreaking LOGO puppet-animation series Rick & Steve:The Happiest Couple in All the World). Brocka, the cleverest, most unheralded screenwriter in pop, helped Polk devise Jumping’s farcical plot twists. A new character, Brandon (Gary Leroy Gray), Ricky’s twenty-something trick who was also Chance’s student, pushes against the clique’s tenuous, desperate privilege. Struggling with coming out to his parents and the confusions of out-gay life, Brandon asks, “Is this all there is to being gay—being a slut who can’t say no or being bitter and pretending you’re happy?” Basic questions of human happiness have a different ring in this context than they did in Boys in the Band (1970) and Love! Valor! Compassion! (1999) because Polk and Brocka don’t take social privilege for granted.Their humor poses a radical re-take on mainstream virtues:Wade complains to his shocked bourgie mother, “It’d be easier telling you I was an axe murderer,” which connects to the campy defiance of Alex calling his African foster child “O.J., short for Ojomodupe.”

    Polk uses different (radical) examples of love, valor and compassion.That these marginalized men don’t acquiesce to the mainstream’s oppressive morality is confirmed in the measured vows Noah and Wade exchange.They seek an answer to male companionship that redefines love and sex. Describing “a fear and yearning beyond lust,” Noah breaks past the superficial blandishments typically used to attract, sell and distract gay audiences from their truest well-being.

    Polk has more in mind than the LOGO idea of placating a potential market. Jumping the Broom exalts an underserved audience yet Polk’s discussion of the socio-economic connection of slavery and contemporary gay politics doesn’t patronize them. (“It’s gonna take more than love to save the day,” Alex advises young Brandon.) Almost 20 years ago when Marlon Rigg’s poetry-doc Tongues Untied aired on PBS, its scandalous theme “Black men loving black men is the revolutionary act of the 21st century”) sparked a National Endowment for the Arts funding controversy.

    Now, Polk’s fulfillment of Riggs’ proposal gets less attention than the spectacle of ghetto miseries in the TV series The Wire— stereotypes our culture is comfortable with. Against that, Jumping the Broom offers a subtler revolution:The snap of Ricky telling Brandon: “I’m too old to be mindfucked and you’re too young to do it.”The image of Noah tenderly braiding Wade’s hair into cornrows breaks masculine tradition—but it also makes history.

    > Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom

    Directed by Patrik-Ian Polk Running Time: 101 min.

    Darryl Stephens proves in Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom, the clothes do make the man (look gay).