Black, Gay, and Posh: A Conversation with Patrik-Ian Polk

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
July 6 2012 1:01 PM

Black, Gay, and Posh: Talking with Patrik-Ian Polk

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Patrik-Ian Polk’s filmography includes Punks (2000) and the TV series Noah’s Arc, which ran on Logo 2005-06. His latest movie, The Skinny, which focuses on a group of black, gay Brown University graduates who celebrate Gay Pride weekend in New York City, premieres on Logo this Sunday, July 8, at 8 p.m. ET.

June Thomas June Thomas

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

Slate talked with Polk about the challenges of making independent movies, embedding information about HIV in his work, and why he loves to include “flamboyant” gay men in his films.

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Slate: I love the specificity of the group of friends that you chose to center the film on, but why such a bourgeois bunch?

Patrik-Ian Polk: I wanted to represent a particular American experience: that of African-American graduates from a tony, Ivy League university. It’s the kind of college experience that I had and that a lot of my friends had. That experience hasn’t been explored very much in film. Most times when you see black characters, they’re from working-class backgrounds. I wanted to tell a different story.

Slate: The general manager of Logo recently told me the channel is moving away from shows in which everyone is gay to more integrated settings. It seems to be it’s important to you to work in a specifically black, gay world?

Polk: It is. My work from Punks to Noah’s Arc to The Skinny has centered around black, gay characters living in what some would deem a black gay utopian kind of environment. That’s not completely unrealistic. As adults we set our social scenes, and a lot of gay people do self-segregate, whether you’re a white gay man traveling to Palm Springs for the White Party or a black gay man going to Atlanta for Black Pride or MLK Weekend. You don’t have a lot of films exploring black LGBT experiences, so I make no apologies for setting these films in predominantly or all-black gay worlds.

Slate: Another thing that struck me about both Noah’s Arc and The Skinny is that you have a special gift for portraying men who are on the more feminine end of the spectrum. They’re not the only kinds of guys in the movie by any means, but they do seem to be treated with a special kind of love.

Polk: When I started making films, we were at the beginning of a backlash against “flamboyant” gay representations. Then at a certain point, we hit this moment where every time you saw a gay character on TV, they were heterosexually painted, straight-acting characters, who, if they didn’t say “I’m gay,” you wouldn’t know that they were. It suddenly became a bad thing to be flamboyantly gay. In 2012, the pendulum has swung to the other side again. The idea is just to show love to those characters, because those are the gay guys who are always on the front lines, the ones who can’t blend in and play it straight in public. I’ve always tried to let people know it’s OK wherever you fall on the masculinity or femininity spectrum. Just be comfortable as you are, and let’s try to accept everybody and make room.

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The Cast of The Skinny: Shanika Warren-Markland, Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, Jussie Smollett,Blake Young-Fountain, and Anthony Burrell.

Courtesy of Patrik-Ian Polk

Slate: And watch out for each other.

Polk: Exactly. I hate it when I hear so-called masculine gay men complaining about flamboyant gay men or expressing that they don’t like to hang out with them. I hate all that division within the community. We’re up against so much from outside. It’s sad when we do it to ourselves.

Slate: You essentially give a PSA for PEP—post-exposure prophylaxis—in the movie. Did you feel at all constrained by a need to present information around important health issues?

Polk: Once we decided to tackle the issue of date rape in the movie, I researched what happens when you go through this experience. When you go to the ER, what do they tell you? What kind of tests do they run? Post-exposure prophylaxis was one of the things that came up. They offer it to you if the sexual encounter has been unprotected and you’re concerned about exposure to HIV. It’s also one of the things they offer medical professionals who come into contact via a needle prick. I’ve come to find that it’s something that a lot of people didn’t know about. Even if it’s not a date rape or rape situation. If you’re a gay man and you have sex with someone and you wake up the next morning, and you think, “Oh, God, what did I do? I’m worried about this,” there are options.

All of this is stuff that young people need to know and need to see. When kids see something presented in the midst of a storyline about characters that they can identify with and relate to, it resonates much more than just getting some health information.

Slate: You are involved in almost all aspects of your films—for The Skinny, you’re the screenwriter, director, editor, and you wrote and performed the music. Is it still fun to make a movie this way?

Polk: It’s a lot of hard work making a movie completely independently. The best thing is having that creative control. Lugging around those heavy cameras is the pits, but there’s a nice familial atmosphere on an independent film. Everyone bands together—you don’t have everyone isolated in their trailers or production offices. I don’t always want to be lugging equipment around, shooting in my own apartment, worrying about how I’m going to pay for this. I’m looking for ways to bridge the gap between independent and not so independent. I want to have an easier time of it, but I’m not necessarily looking forward to the constraints and all the BS that you have to deal with when you’re making $20 million movies. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to shoot a Will Smith movie. His trailer costs more than my film cost almost!

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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