Yoruba Richen brings to her films a diverse perspective coming from a multifaceted background, all of which came into play when making her new documentary The New Black. The film has the honor of concluding Independent Lens’s 2013-2014 season with a broadcast television premiere this coming Sunday, June 15 at 10:30 pm [note the special day and time; check your local listings]. “As The New Black shows repeatedly and so compellingly,” wrote Cynthia Fuchs of PopMatters, “the intersections of faith and identity, community and individuality, are constantly changing, over time and across places.” The film is “essential viewing,” adds Martin Tsai in The L.A. Times.
Richen spoke with us over the phone about the path she traversed to get to The New Black. [See also her very recent TED talk, "What the Gay Rights Movement Learned from the Civil Rights Movement."]
What led you to become interested in film and media production? Was it always your dream or did you come to it over time organically?
Yoruba Richen: I actually have a background in theater, my mom’s a playwright, so I grew up in the theater. But I always had this desire to do social justice work as well. Had to figure out how if was going to be a lawyer, and try to get on the Supreme Court and save the country [laughs] or if I was going to pursue acting and directing. It was really after college that I discovered video documentary — I’d always loved documentary growing up but it never seemed like a feasible thing to do, it seemed out of reach.
But in the ‘90s when technology starting getting smaller, more accessible, I was in grad school doing something totally different — urban planning — and hadn’t done creative work for a number for years, and missed it. I had a friend who had access to a video camera and editing space, and we decided we were going to make a video about the impending welfare changes that were happening at the time, and how it affected a black neighborhood in San Francisco. While making it I had an “Ah ha!” moment, “oh, okay, this is how I can combine my creative work with my social justice self,” and this all came together.
I did another video on publication education the next year and it was then I decided to head back to New York to pursue this as a career. I learned by doing. Eventually I was hired as production coordinator on an HBO film, that was my first deep dive into documentary filmmaking. And I had great mentor in St. Clair Bourne, he took a chance on me and hired me to be his production coordinator for the film he produced on Gordon Parks [Half Past Autumn] which aired on HBO. Then got jobs as an associate producer and producer.
So what led you to make this film, The New Black, in particular?
I began conceiving of The New Black in November, 2008. It was the night of the presidential election and I was in San Francisco. The months leading up to the election were intensely emotional for many Americans, especially African Americans. The idea of a black president was one we had routinely dismissed as something that would not happen in our lifetime. At the same time, marriage equality was on the ballot in California and as the night progressed it became clear that the right for same-sex couples to marry — which had recently been granted by the California courts — was going to be taken away. The euphoria that the city felt about Barack Obama’s election was countered by spontaneous protests and visible outrage at the loss of marriage equality.
Almost immediately, it was reported that African-Americans voted for Proposition 8 by 70%. That these reports later proved false was not enough to counter the narrative that blacks were to blame for loss of marriage equality while gays had helped elect Obama. Many of us who were members of both communities watched horrified as latent resentments, outright racism, and homophobia bubbled to the top of the national political scene.
So for over three years I followed how this issue was being debated and understood in the African American community. In the course of production, I realized that the issue of gay rights in the black community is in many ways a fight over the family, which has been a contested space since the time of slavery. So marriage is not just about marriage for black people — it’s also about how blacks have become accepted as legitimate participants in American society.
And where do you think things have shifted within the black community on gay marriage even since you made this film? Is it still as divided as it was or do you see a slow shift or a sea change…?
I look at this through the lens of the African American community here but also feel like we’re representative of the country as a whole; the shifts keep happening on a state level and on a national level. It’s interesting to be in this time period and follow over a number of years shooting this film. Change happens in different ways — in our families, in our communities, and legislatively. And I think in the black community there’s an opening in talking about the issue, which is new. And there are many of us continuing to push that opening and expand the conversation.
In conversations you hear about the film after Community Cinema screenings, how are people reacting?
Community Cinema has been amazing, to be able to have it screened all over country, it has a great reach inside communities. Obviously I haven’t been to all [the screenings], but we have feedback surveys, and I do think it’s changing the conversation. In front of mostly white audiences an interesting conversation transpires; [the film is] a peek into a discussion they don’t normally get to see. Or in front of African American and mixed audiences, where there’s a real identification, there’s been good conversation over what the film highlights.
The film gets at the church-based divide on this issue in general. Are church communities seeing the film, too? Have more traditional-minded African American pastors felt the film depicted their perspective fairly after seeing it?
We’re doing targeted work with faith institutions for conversations around the film. After a screening in St. Louis, a very powerful black minister apologized to the LGBT community for the way his church had treated members. Hearing that stuff anecdotally is really amazing. We don’t even know the reach but our sense is it’s already having an impact.
Funnily enough when we premiered last year, I wanted to show the film to [same-sex marriage opponent] Pastor Derek McCoy, wanted to watch it with him, and he agreed, but then I couldn’t reach him — anyway, I just sent the film to him last week and look forward to his feedback. I do. So that question has yet to be answered. Obviously, I hope they do feel it treated their perspective fairly.
I think McCoy especially felt like it was his job to convince people to vote against the bill. Interacting with the media is what they were doing already to get their message across. And the other ministers, too. They did give us access, they weren’t ashamed of their viewpoints, weren’t trying to hide it. I told them I was trying to look at people on all sides of the issue, I was following this initiative, debated in the black community, and wanted to get their perspective.
What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
Bishop Eddie Long‘s story, which really highlights the hypocrisy of many black churches on the gay rights issue.
Have you been in touch with Karess since the film was finished? What is she up to now?
We were just texting as a matter of fact. She’s been an amazing partner in getting the film out there. She’s in grad school at Columbia, studying and getting her master’s in sports management. She’s bringing the activism she’s been doing in the LGBT community into the world of sports.
What are your favorite films?
All That Jazz, The Weather Underground, 9 to 5, Do the Right Thing.
Could you talk a little what you’re working on now?
It’s a project looking at how African American female entertainers fought for equality on and off the stage and screen. The film will look at a few people in particular.
Any other plans for The New Black after the PBS screening?
There’s the HBCU Black College Initiative to bring the film to advance LGBT issues in their institutions. We’re also going to be part of the Southern Circuit Tour in 2015, screenings set up everywhere. And we’re doing a tour right now [June 2014] for Freedom Summer, for the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Summer in Jackson, Mississippi. We’ll be there for that anniversary for a screening on June 28, where there will be other films on the Civil Rights Movement as well.