OUT Twin Cities Film Fest: Yoruba Richen examines race, religion, and LGBTQ rights

[Editor's note: Out Twin Cities Film Fest is hitting the Theatres at Mall of America next week with special screenings and events showcasing LGBTQ-themed cinema. Leading up to the festivities, we'll be highlighting a few of the participating filmmakers.]

It was 2008, Barack Obama has just been elected president, and California had just outlawed the recently passed gay-marriage amendment. Immediately following the approval of Prop 8, the African-American community was thrust into the spotlight, and blamed for its passing. While some jumped on the bandwagon or stepped back, not knowing what to do, Yoruba Richen took the opportunity to examine why the narrative of black versus gay had taken hold, documenting how these series of events played out over the next few years.

In her new documentary, The New Black, the New York-based filmmaker takes a peek into the world of race, religion, and civil rights set against the backdrop of the 2012 Maryland election. This week, Richen took a few minutes to chat with City pages about her documentary, the struggle of LGBTQ youth of color, and why this film can be used as a tool to spark deeper and more meaningful conversations.

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[jump] City Pages: Why do you think the African-American community still struggles to accept LGBT youth?

Yoruba Richen: I think it's a few things. I feel like for a lot of African-American families, being gay can be considered another hardship. That was one of the reactions I contended with: "Why would you want another thing to deal with?" Another reason, I think, stems from the struggle we've had as a community to have family and to be "normal." It was illegal for us to have family when we were brought here. So there's been a long struggle to have this normalcy, and that can result in us looking down on people who don't fit this idea of the nuclear family. Finally, the influence of the church is also a big factor. It is important to us as a community and is a safe haven for us, historically. So I think there are many different factors with our particular struggle of being LGBTQ in the African-American community.

Quite honestly, my lens is African-American, but I've had many people say outside of our community that there are similarities in dealing with the issue in their community as well.

That leads to the next question: Do you think other cultures and religions experience the same struggle for acceptance?

I definitely think there are, and I've had people at screenings tell me that. I think the uniqueness about the African-American community is the legacy of civil rights. What that means is that we are the community that created the civil-rights struggle as we know it. So how does that affect how we deal with other groups that are struggling with their own freedom? That's the interesting lens about looking at the African-American community.

Why do you think African-American LGBTQ struggle to fit in even within the LGBTQ community?

I think there's a sense that when it comes down to it, race is still something we are judged on. The LGBTQ community has historically been dominated by Caucasians in terms of the activists and organizers. I think only recently we have begun to understand the intersectionality for LGBTQ people of color. I still think race was and is the thing that defines us, at least in terms of how we are first looked at and judged.

What was the most challenging part of the filmmaking process?

I wanted the film to be more than just marriage. I wanted to capture that, but I always felt the film was bigger than that. So when structuring the film, I wanted to keep the themes larger while still following the Maryland ballot initiative and the other politics that were propelling this issue forward. It was a structural challenge with the film.

Minnesota is primarily a Caucasian market, how do you think they will react to this documentary?

In my experience screening with primarily Caucasian audiences, I feel like there has been interesting conversation, and it has given them a peek into a world they don't necessarily get to see. That has been very satisfying for me; to be able to show that. I hope they feel like they are getting new information or a new understanding, and that it sparks conversations.

Are there any particular parts of the country you think really need to see this film?

It's been really amazing screening in the South. That has been one of the most satisfying parts of this. I feel like people in the South don't necessarily have access to get to see their stories on screen, especially black LGBTQ. They've been very responsive to having the film. We are actually doing a Freedom Summer tour with the film, and we end in Mississippi in honor of the 50th anniversary of the freedom summer. Next year, we are also doing a Southern Circuit tour. It's really cool to be able to screen there and not just in the festival circuit but to actually get the film in front not just film people but regular viewers, too.

What do you think it will take for the "black" church to finally accept or coexist with the LGBTQ community?

One of the things that has been great is that we have screened in faith institutions and even though no one is saying everything is perfect and great, what they are saying is that there's an opening now within the church where there wasn't before. I think what has happened is that the black community and the church community have progressed on this issue. And now the conversation is deepening and continuing. I'm hoping the film can be tool for that.


OUT Twin Cities Film Fest

Theatres at Mall of America

For tickets and info, visit

$10 for single screenings; $200 for all-access pass

Wednesday, June 4, through Sunday, June 8