How The Skinny Humanizes Gay Cinema

The title of The Skinny refers to gossip–the low-down between friends–but read another way (in the credit sequence’s colorful graphics) it also refers to sexual opportunities in New York City. Writer-director Patrik-Ian Polk is interested in the erotic possibilities found by five young black gays, recent Brown University graduates, who reunite during New York’s Pride Week celebrations. Gorgeous, young, educated black gays like these don’t appear in movies by Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes nor in mainstream Hollywood films. They hail from a society that only Polk puts on screen–a world recognizably his own vision like Wes Anderson’s and equally as affecting.

By placing them in New York, Polk gives his characters a cultural coming-out (in the debutante sense) which also means advancing upon the bourgeois mainstream already so well represented by media-empowered white gays that these characters seem new–in fact, almost alien to the New York Times whose dismissive review linked Polk‘s characters to “an invisible demographic.” Nothing could be more clueless–or so tragically revealing of mainstream media’s self-important blindness.

Fact is, as Polk casts and photographs his characters, they are visualized quite handsomely. Joey‘s joking lament “Who knew an Ivy League degree in semiotics would be so useful!” turns out to perfectly define the film’s success. These good-looking black folk are living signs–of black, gay social progress and arrival–although the mainstream media might label them “minorities”.

Magnus (Jussie Smollett, a Prince-look-alike but with dimples) breaks up with his thug-hot boyfriend Ryan (Dustin Ross), while virginal Sebastian (Blake Young-Fountain) hankers after his studly best friend Kyle (Anthony Burrell). Beautiful British dyke Langston (Shanika Warren-Markland) and the elegantly masculine Southern queen Joey (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) watch from the sides, nervous about making their own hook-ups. This group resembles the ensemble of Polk’s trailblazing LOGO-TV series Noah’s Arc, but he’s refined the stereotypes into more subtly-performed archetypes. These actors represent the range of urban black males less realistically than were the women in Pariah but more idealistically, like the co-eds in Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress. Their rom-com search for love is also a quest for self-acceptance (infatuated Magnus opens the film kissing and grinning with emotional satisfaction) despite New York pressures of class, disease and insecurity that keep them from being carefree.

Yet, Polk’s characters seem charmingly carefree the same way as Anderson’s. Polk finds comedy and drama in Magnus & friends’ state of untested innocence. He has discovered a knack for personal identification and audience assent that sets him apart from more celebrated black or gay cineastes. This makes Polk not merely a queer filmmaker but part of the current brotherhood of genuine American Eccentrics.

Would Gus Van Sant or Todd Haynes have the affectionate wit to lovingly stage a discussion about sexual hygiene? The Times’ nonplussed reviewer could only belittle the moment as a PSA rather than a disclosure of brotherly intimacy (made so by Bowyer-Chapman’s winning sense of concern and confession). Aspects of The Skinny indeed have a gossipy style of instruction–it’s part of unfortunate p.c. habits Polk picked up from television. His style could be subtler (the images could use some concentration) still it’s imminently watchable. And populist in ways most gay-identified filmmakers never achieve having worked themselves into the specialized ghetto reserved for detached artistes like Van Sant and Haynes. Only John Cameron Mitchell and Ira Sachs are trying to work themselves out of that rut.

Polk salutes different role models: His quintet’s NYC sightseeing includes a stop at Langston Hughes’ brownstone on Striver‘s Row. “This is sacred, hallowed ground for us black men–and women. This is part of our history. Look at it, ” Sebastian insists. And Joey gets real:“Imagine all the dick he must have gotten up here in Harlem!” Offering New York as a wonderland of blackness and gayness, Polk combines those struggles, re-presented as historic desire and ambition fulfilled by a new generation. “This is stunning; you get to wake up to this everyday,” the female Langston says of Magnus’ condo view. “Thanks to my parents,” Magnus says nonchalantly.

That’s Polk’s lowdown on American cinema’s most glamorous arrivistes (he knows their privileges and disadvantages). But The Skinny also portrays idealistic friendships based on the necessities of solidarity and struggle (such as lipstick lesbian Langston divulges when describing the gay cliques at Brown). Sebastian’s brotherly love for Kyle and Magnus’ class-hopping attraction to hoodrat Ryan are as sociologically rich as the British TV version of Queer as Folk–a still unsurpassed highpoint of gay pop portraiture. (The Times‘ comparison to Sex and the City is the wrong model.)

The Skinny is light fare–as much a fantasy world of the imagination as Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress–but its advance on the white supremacy of official queer cinema carries weight. Polk isn’t being sanctimonious or merely inclusive; though one of today‘s wittiest dialogue writers, he seriously shows the rarely-seen nature of gay camaraderie that derives from his dream of black solidarity. You can also hear this in his soundtrack compositions (“Let me love you long like a Janet Jackson song”) which critic John Demetry points out borrows from the great cruising sequence in Julian Hernandez’s Broken Sky. Yet the Times had the temerity to stigmatize Polk’s characters as “promiscuous”–a claim that simply reveals the white mainstream’s unease with black sexuality.

That claim misses Polk’s gift: his characters are sexual but they’re also tender. They remember to be human according to the sensitivity preserved in R&B. Look how even hedonistic Kyle rediscovers his brotherhood. In Kyle’s trusting promise “I got you, I got you!” Polk’s view of sexuality becomes hugely compassionate. It resembles Anderson’s view of childhood: a natural state of affection and source of desire.

Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair