Patrik-Ian Polk spent years supporting the work of other visionaries. In the late ‘90s, his name was attached to big- budget productions like “Soul Food,” films which did not focus on the visibility of gay black characters, contrary to his vision.
“I wanted to tell a quaint, moving love story,” Polk said. His latest film, “Blackbird,” tells just that.
“Blackbird” received the Best Feature Narrative Award this year at the 15th Annual Crossroads Film Festival held in Jackson, and the film premiered in February at the Pan-African Film Festival in Los Angeles, where it received the Founder’s Award.
With more film festivals coming up this summer, Polk aims to have the film released commercially in the fall. When Polk transitioned from Mississippi to Massachusetts as a teen, he left the disclosure of his sexuality in the South. “When I get off this plane, every person that enters my life from this point on will know my sexuality,” he said.
A trip to a bookstore in Boston marked the beginning of a vision. He explored a gay and lesbian section, something he had never seen before.
“As I thumbed across the books, there was one book with an illustration of a black person on the cover, and it was ‘Blackbird’ by Larry Duplechan,” Polk said. “It’s considered the first black, gay, coming-of-age novel, and I loved every page of it.”
For the first time, he read a story that was similar to his own. “I was always frustrated by the lack of representation of black gay characters or stories in entertainment, and I quite simply was tired of never seeing myself onscreen,” said Polk. He knew one day he would turn this book into a film.
Back in his hometown, Hattiesburg, he later obtained his undergraduate degree at The University of Southern Mississippi in 1994.
Under the teachings of screenwriter instructor Dixon McDowell in 1991, Polk wrote his first version of “Blackbird.”
“I certainly remembered the script from my class,” said McDowell, who suspected Polk would do great work.
“You can’t teach talent and you can’t teach drive,” he said. “I am very proud of him and the program is proud, but it’s not because of me that he is a success.” Remembering Polk’s days as a student, “he would have been a success anyway,” said McDowell, who only hopes he offered a hand.
Polk later attended film school in California. A proud McDowell visited Polk in Los Angeles on the set of his first feature film, “Punks,” produced in 2001. Centered around a group of gay black friends, the feature made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in 2000.
He then put a television series under his belt in 2005 when he created “Noah’s Arc” for Logo TV, a channel targeted toward the LGBT community. Like “Punks,” the series featured gay black men in the plot.
Nearly 25 years after being introduced to a peculiar novel in a Boston bookstore, Polk’s vision of “Blackbird” has finally become a reality.
While he ensures the heart and soul of the book remains untouched in the movie, the film has a different perspective. “The novel ‘Blackbird’ is set in the 1970s in rural California, whereas I set the movie in present-day Hattiesburg,” Polk said.
“Blackbird” stars Oscar-winner Mo’Nique, Isaiah Washington and the main character, USM student Julian Walker, who makes his on-screen debut.
Polk was one of approximately 50 attendees invited to the Essence Black Men in Film Dinner, hosted by Tyler Perry, a grounding moment that he said still has him pinching himself.
“Sidney Poitier, Spike Lee, Tyler Perry, John Singleton, Blair Underwood, Gayle King and Jill Scott, I am one of their peers,” Polk said, as if having an “aha” moment. “Mr. Perry spoke eloquently of his own struggles in his career and mentioned the awe he felt walking into Oprah Winfrey’s grand home for the first time. He said he hoped having us to his home that night inspired the same hopes and dreams in us, and it most definitely did in me.”
Polk, an award-winning director and producer, was inducted into the School of Mass Communication and Journalism’s Hall of Fame in 2008.
“Patrik is the university’s most distinguished filmmaker graduate,” said Chris Campbell, director of the School of MassCommunication and Journalism. “He’s doing groundbreaking work.”