Atlanta’s premier LGBT film festival, Out on Film, kicked off this year’s festivities with two highly-anticipated screenings of director Patrik-Ian Polk’s latest film, Blackbird. The coming-of-age drama, starring newcomer Julian Walker, tells the poignant story of a small town 17-year-old choir boy grappling with his sexuality and religious identity.
Walker’s character, Randy Rousseau, cares for his depressed mother (Mo’Nique), a devout Christian grieving over his missing younger sister. Also experiencing premonitions, Randy works to repair his relationship with his estranged father (Isaiah Washington).
Unable to initially sit for a quick interview because members of the audiences kept approaching him, the extremely warm and gracious Walker shakes hands, takes selfies and gives hugs. The jovial actor, dressed in a well-tailored gray suit, exchanges pleasantries with several childhood friends and other audience members the entire evening.
Finally seated in one of the lobby chairs with his legs crossed, the buoyant Jackson, MS native apologizes numerous times for delaying the conversation. Whenever Walker speaks, his million-dollar smile immediately shadows his responses while his starry eyes glow through his black frames.
Walker admits that he was initially intimidated during production because he was working alongside Mo’Nique and Washington. To Walker’s surprise, the veteran film and television actor willingly offered him and his co-starring peers words of encouragement.
The Oscar-winning actress and comedienne was also quite nurturing. “They were absolutely amazing,” says Walker.
“I didn’t think I could do it. They were so welcoming and loving. She gave me the tightest hug I’ve ever gotten in my life. They’re still here for advice.”
Walker then spoke in great detail about Polk’s family-oriented directorial style. The filmmaker responsible for Punks, Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom and The Skinny encouraged the entire cast and crew to build solidarity amongst each other.
“[Patrik] was very strong about us getting a bond and a relationship with each other,” adds Walker. “Whenever we had downtime, he’d suggest that we get together and work on material.”
Blackbird is based on the 1986 novel written by Larry Duplechan. The book was originally set in 1970s Southern California. However, Polk’s adaptation was shot in his hometown, Hattiesburg, MS. Some of the locations in the film include the director’s high school, aunt’s home and church he grew up attending.
Polk, who also wrote, created and directed the hit Logo original dramedy, Noah’s Arc, was originally introduced to the book in passing at an LGBT bookstore during his freshman year at Brandeis University.
The GLAAD award winner and NAACP Image award nominee found Walker through an audition tape the fledgling performer submitted online. Blackbird’s lead actor is currently a graduating senior at the University of Southern Mississippi majoring in theater with a minor in media production.
The performer closely identifies with his character. Proud and openly gay, Walker says he knew he was gay “since kindergarten.” Blackbird, Walker believes, allowed him to be fully comfortable with his sexuality.
“It was therapy,” says Walker, “and opening a closet I didn’t think I would ever have to open again. It all just came naturally.”
Walker makes countless references to his facial expressions throughout the film and whenever he converses with someone. The transparent performer hopes to evolve as an actor largely because of his mannerisms and body language.
“It’s pretty random, but that’s the one thing I really love,” says Walker. “When you’re not saying anything, you’re reacting to something. Those are the moments that stand out.”
Walker is extremely grateful that Blackbird, which premiered in February as the closing film at Pan African Film Festival (PAFF) in Los Angeles, continues to get amazing responses because of its film festival following. The film garnered numerous Out on Film Juror Awards including Best Director, Best Actor and Best Ensemble.
Walker shares that he’s even considering relocating to Atlanta upon graduation. His visit to the city was a chance for him to reconnect with several of Blackbird’s cast members since PAFF.
Walker, along with Polk, Lamaar, Woods and Jane, hosted a post-screening Q&A. He calls his experience at Out on Film “a beautiful feeling.”
“For us to finally see each other again, it feels like a family reunion,” says Walker. “It’s like we all just reunited again.”
Walker’s escalating humility is a direct result of the mounting praise for his riveting performance. He takes pride in screening Blackbird before various audiences. He is equally grateful for journalists that also express interest in interviewing him.
More importantly, Walker hopes the general public will see Blackbird as a universal story that promotes unconditional love.
“No matter who you are or no matter what you choose to be with your life, you deserve love,” says Walker. “Everyone deserves love, so stop judging.”
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.