Polk is a multi-hyphenate talent known for showcasing black gay experiences on television and film. Responsible for the iconic series “Noah’s Arc” and the films “Punks,” “The Skinny” and “Blackbird,” he’s been recognized by Outfest, GLAAD and Film Independent for his commitment to diverse stories. This Q&A is part of a special series examining diversity in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Read more profiles here.
Was there a person in the industry that looked like you and made you think this could be a career?
Spike Lee was that person for me. That was the first time I could really put a title to what I wanted to be, a director, and saw that there was a black face that also had that title. That’s how I knew it was possible for me.
At what point did you know that being black, gay or black and gay was impacting your career, positively or negatively?
When I first saw another black gay filmmaker, that was Rikki Beadle-Blair, the writer of [1995’s] “Stonewall.” He’s this bold, black, brazen screenwriter. He told me something that kind of changed my perception. He said that I should write what I really know, something that’s close to me. From there, I wrote “Punks.”
The same year “Punks” premiered at Sundance, there was another film there by a white gay filmmaker called “The Broken Hearts Club.” The films are eerily similar except “The Broken Hearts Club” is a mostly white cast. Both films were well received, but [its director] Greg Berlanti — who is a friend of mine, very talented and this in no way is to take anything away from him — has gone on to become a premiere television producer. I’m not saying Greg is any more or less talented than I am.... What I am saying is doors were opened to Greg that just simply were not open to me; he was given access that I wasn’t. Fifteen years in, I’ve had to carve out a career of independent work while a lot of my white gay counterparts and white straight counterparts [are] doing the kinds of things that I just simply have not even been given the opportunity to talk about doing.
What would being in the film academy, if you ever got the invite, mean to you?
A year ago, if you asked me if I could ever become a member, I would’ve said not a snowball’s chance in hell. If I got an invite, it would signify, from an institutional standpoint, that the work I do matters, that toiling away on these black gay films — I’ve done four feature films and two seasons of a television show — has a place within the pantheon of this entertainment industry.
What’s your proudest career moment?
Getting a phone call from Janet Jackson telling me that she watched “Noah’s Arc” and really, really liked it.