Out writer, director, and singer Patrik-Ian Polk has created an enjoyable comedy-drama with “The Skinny,” the story of four African-American gay men and one lesbian reuniting a year after finishing college. The group of friends come together for a weekend to celebrate Gay Pride in New York — and face a variety of romantic crises in the process.
In a recent phone interviews, Polk, who directed “Punks” (2001) and created the 2005 Logo series “Noah’s Arc,” explained that with “The Skinny,” his goal was quite simply to create “a party weekend movie.” As he developed the storylines, however, both comic and dramatic situations emerged.
Magnus (Jussie Smollett) faces trouble with his boyfriend, Ryan (Dustin Ross), who may be cheating on him. Joey (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman), a shy yet sarcastic guy, and Langston (Shanika Warren-Markland), a lesbian with obvious smarts, both pine for potentially unavailable partners — a stripper and a bartender, respectively — at a club they frequent. Meanwhile, Sebastian (Blake Young-Fountain) hopes that the more experienced Kyle (Anthony Burrell) will be his first.
Polk said he made a very specific choice to have his characters just one year out of college.
“College is the last bastion for random connections, where you can be thrown into the mix with anyone,” he explained. “It’s a bubble — you shake it around and fall where you fall — and those friends often become lifelong friends.”
“The Skinny” explores love and trust among these friends as the characters drop in and out of crushes. Comic scenes alternate with a handful of serious segments focused on safe sex. Throughout the film, we see characters offering instruction about the appropriate ways to douche for anal sex, the importance of condoms, the risks of human papillomavirus (HPV), the treatment course for post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), and why it is critical to get tested — and re-tested — for HIV. The messages he sends demand attention as the rates of HIV in the African-American community documented in the end credits attest to.
“These characters are young and figuring things out as they make their way into adulthood,” Polk said. “If you’re 21 and still a virgin, these are things you have to face. And there are particular ways that young people encounter these issues versus how a 30- or 40-year-old does. It was interesting to explore that aspect of gay life.”
The film’s focus on sexual responsibility does not stand in the way of its eroticism, however. Plenty of skin is on display during a passionate tryst in a nightclub bathroom as well as during a sex party. Polk aimed to balance sex and sex education, explaining, “We know young people have sex, and it’s important to show that and not shy away from it. But it’s also important not to shy away from some of the social issues around sex.”
Of “The Skinny,” he said. “I wanted it to be sexier than anything I’ve ever done.”
In a sequence filmed during a Pride celebration in Harlem, the film also celebrates gay African-American history.
“We were there by the graciousness with GMHC, and they welcomed us onto the parade,” Polk said. “The parade happened the day after gay marriage passed, so the atmosphere was particularly celebratory. It was spectacular to capture how electrified the air was.”
When the friends visit the “sacred, hallowed ground” of Langston Hughes’ apartment, Polk creates a wonderful scene that pays respect to the gay poet, playwright, and novelist who was a towering figure in the Harlem Renaissance.
The filmmaker hopes that viewers will “remember our history and where we come from. A lot of the strides we’ve made and are still making are from years ago. The youth of today live in a fast-food culture and have so much information at their fingertips, they don’t seek it out. Gay history is not generally taught in schools. It was important for me to show this and for them young kids to check this stuff out, and see Hughes’ neighborhood and think about what that time was like. If it inspires kids to look Hughes up, that’s a good thing.”
Polk added, “It is always good to slip in lessons in entertainment.”
THE SKINNY | Directed by Patrik-Ian Polk | TSBB Releasing | Opens Jun. 8 | Quad Cinema | 34 W. 13th St. | quadcinema.com | Faison Firehouse Theatre | 6 Hancock Pl. at W. 124th St. near Manhattan Ave. | faisonfirehouse.org