Before the American version of Queer as Folk, Noah’s Arc or Looking, there was Punks, the 2000 film produced by Babyface and directed and written by Patrik-Ian Polk. The romantic comedy explores gay friendship and romance among a tribe of black gay men living in West Hollywood at the end of the 20th century, and it remains one of the only gay black films amid a sea of mostly white gay cinema. But, sadly, Punks is nearly impossible to find anywhere.
Luckily, the good people over at NewFest and Nancy (a queer podcast we’ve recommended before) produced a screening of the hard-to-find film last night at the SVA theater in New York City. The theater was packed with die-hard fans of the film and newbies like me who had never seen it before, all sandwiched in to watch.
The characters of Punks are a lovable crew who anybody would die to have as their own best friends. There’s Hill, struggling with a breakup after his French husband cheated on him; young Dante, who still lives with his parents and is trying to find himself; drag diva Crystal, dealing with backstage drama and the woes of having a high-profile and closeted boyfriend; and the film’s main protagonist, Marcus, a reserved introvert who falls head over heels for the hunky straight guy next door, Darby.
Here’s a comedic scene from Punks as Marcus spies on his hunky neighbor:
The film was Patrik-Ian Polk’s directorial debut before he’d later go on to write Noah’s Arc, a 2005 series that featured a group of friends somewhat similar to the group in Punks.
Punks was popular at film festivals, premiering at Sundance in 2000, and it won numerous awards. It was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award (2001) and a GLAAD Award (2001), and won the Outstanding Emerging Talent Award at L.A.’s Outfest (2000) and Best American Independent Feature Film at the Cleveland International Film Festival (2000).
But despite the film’s groundbreaking depictions of black gay men and its critical success among audiences, it just disappeared. What happened?
After the film, the hosts of Nancy, Kathy Tu and Tobin Low, sat down with Patrik-Ian Polk to discuss the film’s legacy, and why he thinks almost 20 years later diversity remains an issue in Hollywood.
It turns out the film never got the distribution it deserved because of issues involving the music, which is featured prominently throughout the story. Punks heavily features the songs of Sister Sledge (the women behind “We Are Family”), performed by Crystal and her troupe.
Watch a drag Sister Sledge performance from Punks:
Though Punks initially struck a deal with a small distributor of black films, that distributor didn’t pay for the music licensing because it would’ve cost millions. And because the film’s producers didn’t pay for the music licensing either, everyone associated with the film moved onto other projects, and over time people just forgot about it.
“At the time when we made the film, the DVD market hadn’t really exploded,” Patrik-Ian Polk explained during last night’s post-screening Q&A. “As a result of that the music industry sort of felt like, once they got a fuller understanding of how lucrative that market was, they suddenly decided they had previously undervalued the music in terms of placing it in films and TV.”
“So all of a sudden they wanted more and more and more, and it became more and more difficult to license music,” he said. “But at the time we had music clearances and deals and stuff, and then the small distributor we had gone with didn’t pay for the music, unbeknownst to us. And so it just created this situation. Once it was edited and released and done, nobody was going to come back after the fact and pay for it, and that prevented it from being released on television or video.”
Punks was, however, shown on Logo on Aug. 7, 2011.
Here’s a romantic scene from Punks:
Punks starred actors Rockmond Dunbar, Seth Gilliam, Renoly Santiago, Jazzmun and Dwight Ewell. Polk says the hardest part to cast was the character of Darby, played by Dunbar.
“Darby was more difficult, because that was the role of the straight guy who turns gay. The objective was to cast someone recognizable,” he says. “So there were many conversations with quite a few actors who liked the script, but they all had a problem with that kiss in the end. To the point where producers started to pressure me to change it and change the scene and take the kiss out. And I was like, ‘No, that’s the whole point. These characters are holding out for love, and you can’t take the kiss away.’ So I held strong.”
Polk says actors Shemar Moore, Gary Dourdan and Michael Jai White all turned down the role because of the steamy gay kiss at the end. But, he says, one actor in particular was a jerk about it.
“Alan Payne from the House of Payne. He was the one who said, the quote was like, ‘I don’t want my son seeing me kissing no man.’” But Polk explains that Dunbar, who got the part, was “so open and game, and he came and auditioned over and over and over again.”
Another incredible casting choice was the character of Miss Smokie, played by New York nightlife legend Kevin Aviance. But Polk admits that the role was originally written for another queer nightlife superstar: RuPaul himself.
While the role was written for RuPaul, the character was inspired by the drag emcees Polk watched as a teenager at gay bars like The Metro in Jackson, Mississippi. “I would see these amazing drag shows. These were people who had day jobs like garbage truck driver, or school bus driver. Working regular day jobs and then they would come in and do these really glamorous shows at night. It was really magical to me. So I thought this was something that needs to be seen,” he says.
“So I remember we reached out to RuPaul,” Patrik-Ian Polk says. “We were essentially told no, that she was passing.” But he says their paths crossed at Sundance when Punks was premiering. RuPaul was there with the World of Wonder team promoting their own film, Through the Eyes of Tammy Faye, a documentary about the 1980s televangelist that RuPaul narrated.
“RuPaul and I started talking at the party for [their film], and I said, ‘You know, I tried to get you for Punks,'” Polk says, “and he had no idea that we had reached out. It was one of those.”
That caused Polk to seek out Kevin Aviance, who he’d seen kill a performance of Natalie Cole’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” at the club Escuelita in New York. “Kevin performed [that song] and by the end he was rolling around onstage and I was like, ‘Oh my god….’ So that’s how we got Kevin, and he is just incredible. Legendary.”
During the almost hour-long Q&A following Punks, audience members gushed over the film, expressing how important the work was in 2000 and how important the work still is today.
“Now, looking at it again,” one audience member shared, “I realize how important it was for people of all sexualities to see this black love story. For there to be a black gay love story. And we were kind of talking as if things have changed so much, but I still don’t see a lot of black gay love in the media. I see a lot of black sex. But I don’t see a lot of black love in the media of any sexuality. It feels as compelling now as when it came out. I am amazed at how strongly it held its power and how strong the kiss holds its power, too.”
The audience member then ended her comment with a question: “Tell us, in your journey as a filmmaker, why is it still so important for us to to see black love of all kinds, and black gay love in particular?”
“When we did Punks, it had not been done,” Polk responds. “It really was like going out into a thick forest and trying to plow your way through and finding your way.”
“I’m not sure what its going to take. It’s a weird thing,” he says. “I think one of the problems with Hollywood is it views diversity in very narrow terms. If there is a project they’ll think, ‘If there is a gay couple, make it interracial. We get a two-fer.’ Like, anytime you see Black gay love on TV or in the movies, it’s always interracial. You never see two gay Black men together. Ever. Even on a show like Empire, when it first came out, I was like, ‘Why — even on this show — does the Black guy not get a black boyfriend?’”
Polk admits the character on Empire eventually had Black boyfriends. But outside of the theater, he explains to me one-on-one why he thinks Hollywood relies on interracial queer relationships instead of featuring the queer love of two Black men.
“Hollywood is white. And they just want to see everything through a white lens, I think. They still want to see a white person involved,” Patrik-Ian Polk says. “Being gay is already ‘other’ to them, so having part of it be white makes it more familiar.”
Polk tells me, “I think a lot of times when they have gay couples, this is their diversity, so let’s also throw a Black person in there. There’s never a thought to have two Black people. That is not the prism through which they are viewing things. We need more Black writers — more Black gay writers — in those rooms to at least participate in the decision-making, because that is what is really going to change it.”
Head here for the episode of Nancy about the Patrik-Ian Polk film Punks
This article includes additional reporting by Hornet Senior Editor Daniel Villarreal