As a Black director who is openly gay, Patrik-Ian Polk challenges stereotypes just by showing up for work. But Polk is not content just being a player in the Hollywood game. Polk is intent on being a player who makes a difference in the Black gay community. Not only does the Mississippi native’s work feature Black gay characters who are thriving, his work also depicts those same Black gay men as dealing openly and honestly with HIV/AIDS.
“I’m constantly asking myself: What can I do about the epidemic as an artist?” says Polk. To date, his answer has been the creation of Noah’s Arc, a TV show that tackles many issues in the modern Black gay community, including the effects of the pandemic. It’s a show that ushers in a new era in television and has become a cultural phenomenon.
Polk attended Brandeis University in Massachusetts and graduate film school at the prestigious University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television, where he wrote and directed a number of short films. After a brief stint as a producer’s assistant on Amblin Entertainment’s television series, SeaQuest, DSV, Polk was immediately hired as a development executive at MTV’s then-new Paramount-based feature film division, MTV Films. Polk actively participated in the development of such productions as the hugely successful Beavis and Butthead Do America and the critically acclaimed and Oscar-nominated, dark high school comedy Election. Next, Polk served as vice president of production and development at Tracey and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds’ Edmonds Entertainment/e2 Filmworks. During his tenure there, Polk worked on the films Soul Food, Hav Plenty, and Light It Up.
Polk made his feature film directorial debut with Punks, an independent feature that he also wrote and produced. Often described as a male Waiting to Exhale, Punks had its world premiere in January 2000 at the Sundance Film Festival, as part of its prestigious American Spectrum series. The film delighted audiences, picked up many awards at festivals around the world and was released theatrically in November 2001. In New York City, the film played at the Quad to sold-out screenings and lines around the block. In 2002, Punks was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for best low-budget feature.
Riding high from the Punks experience, Polk joined the Black AIDS Institute at a retreat in Florida, a retreat that became a turning point for the fledging director.
“The idea was to bring together Black gay men from all walks of life and different areas of expertise to discuss AIDS in the Black gay community,” says Polk. “Out of that retreat, I left with the idea that there were Black gay men that were thriving and successful.”
It’s an idea, Polk says, that helped spark the birth of Noah’s Arc. Recently, Polk completed production on the second season of this, his first original television series. Reminiscent of Sex and the City, the show centers around four Black gay men in Los Angeles, and is the first scripted series for the new MTV/Viacom network, LOGO, which launched in June 2005. In addition to creating the series, Polk also wrote, directed and executive produced all nine of the first season’s episodes. The first season of the landmark show is available on DVD, and the second season just completed its premiere run on Logo and is currently in repeats.
“The Black AIDS Institute was there from the beginning of the show,” says Polk, citing access to the Institute’s resources as inspiration to come up with ways to incorporate HIV into Noah’s Arc. To that end, Alex, one of the show’s four leads, works in the field of AIDS. The first season focused on a traditional AIDS service organization’s frustration with Alex, who was using nontraditional forms of outreach to reach Black gay men (think paying hustlers off the street to get tested and passing out literature at a club for transgenders). When Alex had had enough criticism and resistance to his outreach methods, he quit the traditional AIDS service organization and started his own visionary entity, aptly named the Black AIDS Institute.
“AIDS is like a dirty little secret in the Black community,” says Polk. “I think people really appreciate the show. The network understands the need to address this issue. The statistics are staggering in both the gay and straight Black communities. The problem can’t be denied.”
The characters of Noah’s Arc certainly aren’t in denial. Ricky is another of the four leads and the most promiscuous. The character has had to confront getting tested, then, after testing negative, he’s endured a two-season roller coaster romance with a doctor who is HIV-positive. The relationship between two men with different HIV statuses is just one of the ways in which Polk depicts his community and its challenges, and so far, he’s pleased with the feedback. As evidence of the show’s success, he cites the numerous supportive emails and the way viewing parties have become standard on Noah’s Arc nights.
“Any issues important to Black gay men are important to me,” says Polk. “AIDS is the most important social and health issue today. I’ll do anything I can as an artist to have a positive impact on a social level. My strength is my art.”
Polk’s take on HIV/AIDS will be part of Noah’s Arc as long as the show exists. He also intends to infuse safe sex messages into his other works. His next feature film is Blackbird, based on the book by Larry Duplechan, and will feature the coming of age story of two young Black men in Mississippi.
“We all have to face the reality of AIDS,” says Polk, “the reality of getting tested, getting the results and knowing you can live a healthy, successful life.”