'Noah's Arc' Fills Theaters Two by Two

One of a kind: "Noah's Arc," a comedy about two gay black men getting married, stars, from left, Christian Vincent, Darryl Stephens, Douglas Spearman and Rodney Chester.
One of a kind: "Noah's Arc," a comedy about two gay black men getting married, stars, from left, Christian Vincent, Darryl Stephens, Douglas Spearman and Rodney Chester. (By Michael Tompkins -- Logo Features)
By Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 31, 2008

"Noah's Arc: Jumping the Broom," a mostly comic romp about the wedding of two gay black men, is by definition not a movie for everyone. But even if most of America has never heard of "Noah's Arc," the box office has spoken, and hence Hollywood is paying attention: The low-budget little film posted what industry watchers called phenomenal ticket receipts when it opened last weekend in Washington and four other cities.

A spinoff from a canceled series on Logo, a gay cable channel, "Noah's Arc" arrived with virtually no mainstream marketing. Yet it drew sellout crowds at the District's E Street Cinema, as well as in Atlanta, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. It gave Clint Eastwood's latest directing effort, "Changeling," a run for its money in terms of per-screen average sales, according to IndieWire.com, which closely follows independent releases. The site called the opening weekend's $30,336 per-screen average "astounding."

Granted, "Noah's" total haul for the weekend wasn't much -- $151,700 vs. "Changeling's" $489,000, never mind the $42 million for the latest "High School Musical" installment. But D.C. "Noah" fans were still lining up to see it on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, traditionally slower movie days, and it seemed likely that more cities would be added this weekend to satisfy the film's eager audience.

"I think it's kind of stunned the entire industry that wasn't really checking for us, this tiny little gay black movie," said "Noah's Arc" director Patrik-Ian Polk, creator of the Logo series of the same name. "It's showing how well you can do when you aim a film at a niche market."

Set on a wintry Martha's Vineyard, the movie mines laughs from its broad representations of the romantic tribulations of its hunky male characters, including the couple preparing for nuptial bliss. ("Jumping the Broom" refers to a wedding tradition that evolved during the slavery era, when most blacks could not marry legally.) The movie also dispenses somber messages about the stigma many African American families impose on their gay sons.

"It's not perfect," Willie Wise, a dreadlocked 45-year-old from Laurel, said of the film after seeing it this week. "For traditional people, it would be over the top and campy, but it's ours. . . . It's entertainment on the large screen for us."

Some viewers find the characters reminiscent of those in "Sex and the City" or even "Seinfeld," with their predictable, needy personalities colliding in farcical set-ups. But the film is also about a search for acceptance and family. Whatever its faults, "Noah's Arc" may be the "Citizen Kane" of black-gay-men-getting-married movies -- but then again, it's the only black-gay-men-getting-married-movie ever made.

Logo, a division of Viacom, put its own twist on the "Sex and the City" model. Rather than doing a third "Noah's" season, it had Polk make a movie instead (the budget was no more than $2 million, he said). This provided a built-in audience for the picture by playing to pent-up curiosity about how the characters were faring.

The TV series also won a die-hard following among straight women, many of whom showed their support at screenings here. Wandra Simmons, a 47-year-old from Upper Marlboro who came to the movie with Wise, offered this instant review: "The guys are hot!" (Oh, and she also liked the "beautiful" fashions -- and the story.)

Women may relate to "all the dramas" of gay men because they, too, date men, Polk noted in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. Plus, "there's a camaraderie of friendship among gay men that's more akin to female friendship."

Besides finding revenue in its narrow demographic, "Noah's Arc" has prompted a wider discussion about a hot political issue: the high-profile support that conservative black church leaders have shown for ballot initiatives to ban same-sex marriage. Polk, who grew up as a churchgoer in Mississippi, recalls an "implicit don't-ask, don't-tell policy" toward homosexuals. "There were clearly gay people all over the church, and gay people in every family, but it just wasn't discussed."

The director came to Washington a week ago to host a screening for the National Black Justice Coalition, a civil rights group for black sexual minorities that has been trying to foster more tolerance in African American churches. "Like any niche market film, it's always surprising to others when they discover it, " said H. Alexander Robinson, the group's executive director. "An understanding that doesn't happen through political discourse, we sometimes get through entertainment."

Kwin Mosby, 38, a District resident, was among the "Noah's Arc" TV fans who filled the E Street house midweek. The tied-up-with-a-bow happy ending was unrealistic, he said in a brief e-mail critique afterward, but he thought African American gays would find the film validating "in a time when their 'own' continue to shun [them] and perpetuate a long line of ignorance."

Sitting there in the dark, Mosby also detected the simple theme Hollywood has used to sell billions of tickets over the decades: "Everyone wants to be loved by those around them."

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