In partnership with Greater Than AIDS, EBONY is proud to showcase Black artists and celebrities who are using their VIP status to shine a spotlight on HIV/AIDS. We'll tell you what they're doing in their careers as well as in their HIV/AIDS activism.
Patrik-Ian Polk: Writer, Producer, Director, Vocalist
Patrik-Ian Polk's gay urban-friendship "dramedy," The Skinny, debuted with the third-highest per-screen average during its April 6 opening weekend, with a total of $21,157 at its two Landmark Theatre bookings in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. (where it was held over through April 19).
While The Skinny is not a chart-topping blockbuster, these figures are notable considering that the film had neither a major Hollywood distributor nor a Tinseltown marketing and promotions blitz.
"I was really inspired by the success that Tyler Perry had with his Madea plays, and he was making millions and millions of dollars before Hollywood suddenly went, 'Wait! Who is this?' " says Polk, who distributed The Skinny through his own Tall Skinny Black Boy Productions company. "And that was the impetus to make the movie myself. I know if this movie makes money, people will pay a little more attention."
The production company, which partnered with the Black AIDS Institute to promote health and testing issues within the LGBT community, continues the film's limited, one-week engagements in Dallas starting on April 20; in San Francisco, Oakland, Calif., and Chicago beginning on April 27; in Boston, Detroit and Philadelphia on May 4; and in Los Angeles and New York City on May 11.
Polk says that his story is about five former Brown University classmates–four gay men and a lesbian–whose weekend reunion in the Big Apple quickly turns into sin, secrets and lies. When asked about similarities to Perry's Why Did I Get Married franchise, he says, "That's a fair comparison. The only difference is they're all young and not married and coupled up, but in hindsight, it does have some similarities."
In addition to writing, directing and producing The Skinny–which stars Jussie Smollett, Anthony Burrell, Blake Young-Fountain, Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman and Shanika Warren-Markland–the Mississippi native wrote, produced and performed all the songs in the film.
"Popular music is just too darn expensive," he says. "I have a bit of a musical background–I play the cello and the saxophone, and I've been singing here and there since I was a child–so I figured the best way was to do it myself."
Many of the songs from the sound track, soon to be available online, are "about some very personal experiences . . . with someone very specific," Polk says in a release. When asked to elaborate, he laughs. "We are involved, but it's super complicated," he continues. "I can't say we're together, but I can say we're definitely involved."
Ironically, at 38, Polk is something of a grandfather in Black gay cinema. Even before Black gay male directors David Barclay Moore, Kirk Shannon-Butts and Maurice Jamal arrived on the scene, the Brandeis University film-school graduate–who went on to study at the USC School of Cinema and Television (now called the USC School of Cinematic Arts)–delighted audiences at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival with Punks. The award-winning movie, produced by Tracey and Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds, is considered a modern cult classic.
Polk then created Noah's Arc, a scripted television series that helped launch an original-programming model for the MTV-owned Logo in 2006; and the 2008 hit film Noah's Arc: Jumping the Broom, which had audiences lined up for blocks for the sold-out limited-release screenings. The Skinny airs on Logo in July, and Polk is already working on Atlanta- and Los Angeles-based sequels, both set to premiere in 2013.
Call it progress? Sure.
But it's also a little like Polk's romantic relationship: super complicated.
"I think we're seeing a bit of a weird shift in that pop culture has attempted to mainstream gay identity," he says, noting a recent controversy at Logo. "They've shifted their programming in a way that none of their new shows features characters that are openly gay–they're considered of interest to gay people, but not really about gay people."
But, he adds, many ensembles now try to include a gay character just as they do Black and other minority characters. "Mainstream networks don't really want to have a show that focuses on one particular group or minority," he says. "And there are good things about that, on one hand; on the other, it decreases the number of Black or gay characters on TV."
The takeaway, says Polk: "Ultimately we just have to keep finding bold and innovative ways to keep addressing these kinds of characters and these stories, and we'll find an audience. So I always have hope."
Blake Young-Fountain: Actor, Trailblazer
This is part of a weekly series in partnership with Greater Than AIDS showcasing Black artists and celebrities who are using their VIP status to shine a spotlight on HIV/AIDS. We'll tell you what they're doing in their careers as well as in their HIV/AIDS activism.
He's played straight and gay characters in film and television. But with his high-profile role in Patrik-Ian Polk's gay cult hit, The Skinny, actor Blake Young-Fountain says that Hollywood is already seeing him differently.
"I have had directors tell me that having played this role will affect me negatively–that being in a Patrik-Ian Polk film, I'm putting myself in a box. I just choose not to believe that," says Young-Fountain, who plays Sebastian, one of the former Brown University BFFs out for a weekend of debauchery and fun in New York City. "But the roles that tend to get me noticed, the ones that people come up to me and talk about, are the ones where I'm playing gay."
The Skinny opened strong in April in limited weeklong screenings in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta–the buzz bolstering online chatter and preshow ticket sales for subsequent runs in San Francisco; Oakland, Calif.; Boston; Detroit; Philadelphia; Los Angeles; and New York City through May 18. (For exact dates and theater locations, go here.) Still, Young-Fountain, who is gay, has a strong sense of the barriers that need to be broken down for LGBT actors.
"If it's a good role and a great script, I want to play it," he says. "But I have heard people say, 'If you want to go mainstream, middle America is your bread and butter, and if you keep doing gay roles, that's all they're going to see you as, and they're not going to go see your other films.'"
Ellen DeGeneres' experience of going mainstream after coming out may not apply to everyone. "And I understand that, I guess," says Young-Fountain, "but I just have to keep on truckin'."
An honors graduate of New York University with a bachelor's in drama and journalism, the Cleveland-born actor made his professional debut in director James Bartolomeo's 2005 America's Most Wanted: America Fights Back. Shortly thereafter, he landed a starring role in the Kirk Shannon-Butts feature Blueprint.
For three years Young-Fountain made a living bouncing between New York and Los Angeles (with modeling and some theater gigs in London on the side) before permanently setting up shop on the West Coast four years ago.
"New York is the center of the universe for me," he says, "but I was finding more work in Los Angeles."
It's fitting that the budding star–who was named for Blake Carrington, John Forsythe's character on the 1980s prime-time TV soap smash Dynasty, his mom's favorite show–made it to Hollywood, where he has auditioned for numerous independent film roles and has landed on such shows as NBC's Parenthood and CBS's 2 Broke Girls.
He just wrapped production on an independent short film, Cartel, in which the baby-faced 31-year-old co-stars as an 18-year-old drug dealer serving time in federal prison. "It's completely different from probably every other character that I've played," he says. "I really thought this character could show my range."
Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist, author and documentary filmmaker who conducted interviews on behalf of the Black AIDS Institute, a co-founding partner of Greater Than AIDS.
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