“The New Black” director Yoruba Richen on civil rights and equality

The New Black, which premiered in New York last June and was screened in film festivals around the world, is coming to the small screen tonight on PBS as part of Independent Lens. The award-winning documentary will aired last night, but if you missed it have no fear. It will air again tonight at 10:00 pm/9:00 c and is now available in full on PBS.org.

We chatted with the The New Black director Yoruba Richen (Promised Land, Brother to Brother) about her inspiration for the documentary and the many conversations it has inspired.


For Richen, the process of this film started on Election Day in 2008. In her TeTEDd talk, “What the Gay Rights Movement Learned from the Civil Rights Movement,” Richen said:

Gay marriage was on the ballot in the form of Proposition 8. And, as the election returns started to come in, 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. So, on the same night that Barack Obama won his historic presidency, the lesbian and gay communities suffered one of our most painful defeats. And, then it got even worse. Pretty much immediately, African Americans started blamed for the passage of Proposition 8.

As a member of both the LGBTQ and the Black Community, Richen couldn’t help but be drawn in by the media coverage that continued to perpetuate the myth that the black community was largely homophobic.

“Black LGBT voices were left out in the cold,” Richen said.

Fueled by her anger over watching the two minority groups she belonged to being pitted against each other, she set out to make a movie to further investigate this notion.

On election night Richen was split apart, and in many ways, The New Black is her attempt to put herself, and her community, back together.

Richen said the documentary was a product of luck and politics. Richen had originally thought the focus of the film would be set in California when pro-marriage equality activist would get a referendum on the ballot in 2010 or 2012, but as it happened Maryland became the next battle ground for marriage equality.

Richen said: “The population (blacks make up 30% of the population of Maryland), the fact that the opposition was being led by a black minister, the black church was very significant in the state, and my character, the activists lived in Maryland. All the pieces came together in Maryland. But, I certainly didn’t start off thinking that I would end up in Maryland. That’s the beauty of documentary film; it takes you to different place than you expect.”

Another beautiful thing about the nature and power of documentaries is the other conversations they can spark that may or may not have even been the original focus of the film. One of the things that stood out for me when watching the film, was the unique place that queer woman of color hold in our society. Wanda Sykes calls it “Triple Jeopardy,” It’s what if feels like to be part of the queer community that can sometimes be racist, and part of a community of color that can sometimes be heterosexist. Though the film doesn’t directly speak to how queer women of color can sometimes be marginalized in both communities, it does tackle the concept of intersectionality.

“As women of color who are LGBT, we have to deal with all the ‘isms.’ What I was trying to get at was the intersection of race and sexuality,” Richen said. “That’s not the directly the storyline, but I think through the characters and the work that they are doing that comes out.

Another surprising effect of the film, Richen noticed, is the excitement that some viewers feel over seeing black women activists at the center of the film.

“I think that is something we don’t often see. Even in our understanding of the Civil Rights movement,” she said, “it’s men that are the ones who are profiled and people know the stories of and women’s stories are less known.”

“That wasn’t something that was purposeful in that I set out to do that,” she continued. “But, these were the characters that I found and stories that I found and I’m very proud that there are black women who are featured as the actors and as the ones making change in their own communities.”

Richen also said that she has an answer for those in the black community who feel like the LGBTQ Rights movement is taking time, energy and attention away from the ongoing struggle of people of color in general and black people in particular:

“I think it is a bit dangerous to pit oppressions against each other. To do that, to pit blacks against LGBT is to ignore a large part of our community, which is black LGBT folks because we are a part of both communities, and our freedom struggles are intimately connected. An injustice to one community is an injustice to all and the goal is to fight for freedom and the rights of all people. I think that is what makes us a better country and what makes us better human beings.”

The New Black can be viewed on Independent Lens (check your local listings) or in a city near you, as it is tours the nation in honor of the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer.