A month out from the highest-stakes election of our lifetimes and with no end in sight to an ongoing global pandemic, now seems like a good time to ask ourselves (with apologies to the late Mart Crowley for the paraphrase), “Who are we?”, “Who were we?”, and “Who do we hope to be?”
LGBTQ+ viewers have a chance to do exactly that, thanks to a hotly anticipated Netflix offering that revisits a cultural touchstone from our past.
Reasserting once more its position as a heavy-hitter in the effort to bring LGBTQ stories to mainstream screens, the streaming giant’s Ryan Murphy-produced remake/reinterpretation of “The Boys in the Band” is guaranteed buzz by pedigree alone. Slick and star-studded, it brings the aforementioned Mr. Crowley’s groundbreaking 1968 play – by way of director Joe Mantello’s Tony-winning 2018 Broadway production, with cast intact – from stage to screen with an eye toward conveying the historical context in which this once-maligned slice-of-gay-life drama was written and takes place. For those who need a recap, “Boys” takes place in the apartment of Michael, a young-ish gay man in New York, as he throws a birthday party for his friend Harold. As the guests gather and the alcohol flows, their witty banter begins to turn bitter, with secrets, resentments, and fears bubbling to the surface – along with the deep self-loathing that comes from living as a gay man in a world that hates gay men simply for daring to exist.
In 1968, it was a bold but bleak expression of queerness, coming on the cusp of a historical breakthrough that would happen a year later at Stonewall. In 2020, it’s still pretty bleak, depicting a subculture full of damaged men tormented by a culturally induced dysfunction for which most of them still had no language to describe, but which we can now easily recognize as internalized homophobia. Borrowing from the then-and-still-influential palette of dramatists like Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee (both gay men, incidentally), its acidic humor and near-tragic psychodrama emerge from the memories and experiences shared by nine such men over the course of their evening, revealing the trauma that dominates all of their lives just beneath the brittle psychic armor with which they both shield and conceal themselves.
Inevitably, as the march toward Equality progressed through the 1970s and ‘80s, the characters of Crowley’s gay opus came to be seen as inconvenient, at best, and insulting, at worst. Derided as stereotypes reflecting straight expectations of normalcy, they were viewed by many within the movement as dated relics best swept aside and relegated to the dustbin of history, along with the play they inhabited. Looking back, it’s perhaps easy to see why. Forged in the middle of the fire, it’s a piece devoid of sentimentality, a kitchen sink slice of realism that lays bare the ugliness of its characters’ attitudes and behaviors and leaves it up to the audience to see through the unpleasant surfaces they present. Viewed today, despite the critical reassessment that allowed it to reclaim its rightful place as an important piece of LGBTQ+ history and ultimately led to Mantello’s hit remount, it’s still an undeniably harsh trip down a memory lane that most of us would rather forget.
Thanks to historical hindsight, though, the new film manages to find the perspective necessary to make it not only possible to give “Boys” another look, but to make it worth the effort. Driven by Mantello’s sensitive direction, the script reveals layers of subtext that may have been previously obscured for many viewers. Mantello steers his gifted dream cast with an eye toward illuminating the lines between cause and effect that make these characters tick, and while purists may quibble over efforts to cast a rosier tint over the play’s message, his spot-on instincts walk the delicate line between apologist gloss and humanistic compassion without significant missteps.
In this vision of the play, for instance, it’s possible to recognize the deep hurt that is behind Michael’s devolution into viciousness; a man for whom anxiety is such a constant companion that he’s given it a nickname (“Ix”) and who clings to the cold comfort of his Catholic faith in the hope of being redeemed for the sin of simply being who he is, it’s hard to lose sympathy for him – even at his cruelest – when the pain that fuels both these things and more is laid so bare before us. In the same way, the other problematic behaviors on display throughout – almost all of which can now be understood as symptoms of a disease in which those within a community stigmatized for its “otherness” turn against themselves and each other because they are powerless to strike back against their oppressors – evoke our empathy more than our distaste.
The talent of the players bolsters this effect immeasurably. Jim Parsons may be a bit of an acquired taste, for some, but the quirks of his persona and delivery fit like a glove on Michael, whose efforts to conceal his pain only reveal it at a level beyond words. Andrew Rannells and Tuc Watkins (as Larry and Hank) cut through the passive-aggressive vagueness of their characters to make them instantly recognizable and understandable as a couple grappling with the difficulties of an open relationship; Matt Bomer (Donald) once more proves he has much more to offer than his beauty, as does Charlie Carver as the fresh-off-meat-rack hustler hired as a birthday present. The authenticity of Robin de Jesus and Michael Benjamin Washington (Emory and Bernard) breathes thrilling life into roles that have sometimes been criticized for “tokenism,” and even the somewhat thankless character of Alan comes off honorably through Brian Hutchison’s performance. It’s Zachary Quinto, though, as “ugly, pockmarked, Jew fairy” Harold, who claims his place as the “heart” of the piece; in his magisterial performance, he manages to find not just the hard-earned wisdom of Harold, but also the kindness that lies beneath his surgically precise knack for finding the weaknesses of whichever sparring partner he happens to be up against at the time.
With Ryan Murphy as the force behind the new film, it should go without saying that it’s a matter of taste. Like all of Murphy’s productions, it is heavy on the style and glitz; the costuming and scenic designs have that too-perfect aptness to them that often undermines the authenticity of big-budget period pieces, and there’s the predictable but questionable inclusion of “flashbacks” and full-frontal nudity that make for a more visually stimulating experience but seem gratuitous in a piece that is otherwise so true to its theatrical origins. These are all fair points.
In the end, however, these surface trappings are irrelevant to the strength and dignity of the play; that, in the hands of Mantello and his talented cast, are preserved in full. Their efforts remind us that these characters are not stereotypes, but archetypes, emblematic representations arising from a life lived in permanent fight-or-flight mode – and it’s sobering to recognize that, even 50 years later, we can all look at our circle of friends and recognize each and every one of them.
That alone makes it clear that “Boys” has still not outlived the importance of the message it carries.
Legendary activist gets his due in ‘Hating Peter Tatchell’
‘Don’t accept the world as it is’
Looking at the fight for LGBTQ equality from inside the bubble of the United States, it’s easy to get the impression that the movement essentially started at Stonewall, and that most of our progress is the result of work from our own homegrown activists. That’s obviously not the case; though there have been plenty of American heroes that have done more than their fair share in the effort, the contributions of others who join the fight on the international front deserve recognition, too.
“Hating Peter Tatchell,” available now on Netflix, is a great introduction to one of them.
It’s a documentary from director Christopher Amos that chronicles the life and work of a tireless champion for LGBTQ rights – and human rights in general – whose six decades of campaigning have made him simultaneously one of the most lauded and loathed men in the world. He has shaken up the British establishment with his radical acts of civil disobedience, aggressively pushed for change in global attitudes about homosexuality, and stood up against tyrannical world leaders – and he’s done it all from the front lines.
Amos’ brisk but informative film takes us on a tour of Tatchell’s career, bolstered by plenty of archival footage (much of which only exists because Tatchell saved the VHS tapes himself) and given perspective through evocative interviews with the likes of activist Angela Mason, actor Stephen Fry, and Tatchell himself, who also engages in an ongoing conversation with actor and fellow LGBTQ activist Ian McKellen about what motivates his lifelong fight for equality. Along the way, we get insights into Tatchell’s personal life, in particular his relationship with his deeply religious mother. The film culminates with his riskiest crusade yet, the disruption of 2018’s FIFA World Cup in Moscow to draw attention to the persecution of LGBTQ+ people in Russia and Chechnya.
Tatchell, we’re happy to say, survived that journey, and is still fighting tirelessly through the Peter Tatchell Foundation, a small London-based human rights organization that also supports democracy, LGBTQ+ and human rights movements in countries like Russia, Uganda, Iran and Pakistan. But busy as he is, he took time to join director Christopher Amos for a conversation with the Blade about the film.
BLADE: Peter, a lot of hard-working activists often struggle with burnout. How do you find a balance between your activism and your day-to-day life?
PETER TATCHELL: My life has been tough. I’ve campaigned 12+ hours a day for 54 years, been violently assaulted over 300 times and still receive masses of hate mail and death threats, mostly from homophobes and far right extremists. I’m perpetually tired. It’s made relationships difficult to sustain. But I love the human rights work that I do. What motivates and sustains me is my many successes and the positive feedback from the 20,000+ individuals and campaigners that I’ve helped over the last five decades.
BLADE: Your activism even extends into your relationship with your mom.
TATCHELL: I’ve seen my mother’s regressive views as a challenge and never ceased engaging with her. As a result, she’s been on a journey of growing understanding and acceptance. Although homosexuality is against her Christian beliefs, she doesn’t see it as a major sin. Moreover, she mostly supports my LGBTQ+ work, says LGBTQ people should be treated with respect and has accepted my partner. It shows that patience and perseverance can change hearts and minds.
BLADE: On that subject, the movie features a lot of footage from an era when a lot of people were opposed to your confrontational methods. Some of that persists even in the contemporary interviews. Christopher, was that an intentional choice?
CHRISTOPHER AMOS: As much as I support Peter’s work, achievements, and sensibilities, I knew it was important to also present opposing opinions. It’s important, for progress, to listen to opinions that are different from our own, even when we disagree. And it’s important that we don’t hide history, we can learn from it. When I was watching the hundreds of hours of archives, I was shocked by some of the views which made it onto television talk shows at the time. Hindsight is a powerful way of highlighting just how much progress has been made.
BLADE: In this case, it certainly highlights that some of Peter’s more “radical” positions have been vindicated over the years, in spite of the naysayers.
AMOS: Peter was ahead of his time. He has a natural instinct for what is fair and equal in society.
BLADE: Is that what drew you to him as a subject for a film?
AMOS: Peter’s activism inspires me, and perhaps identifying with the journey of an Aussie moving to London made his story especially significant to me. We first met in 2000, when I was editor of Bent magazine, and Peter regularly contributed articles. I was always surprised by how many of the LGBTQ community derided his work, despite the huge contribution he was making to advancing our rights. This struck me as an interesting premise for a story about his life, something which adds a layer to the biographical account of his life. I wanted to highlight his achievements but also explore his motivations.
BLADE: What do you want audiences to take away from his story?
AMOS: Peter’s journey over the past half-century highlights the advances in the gay liberation movement. That gives me hope for the future and I hope will give others hope too. But it can also inspire us to take action, to use our voice. I want viewers to be moved, but also feel motivated to carry on this fight for equality. Many people often ask what they can do, but Peter doesn’t wonder, he just does something.
BLADE: Peter, is there an action you’ve taken that you are particularly proud of?
TATCHELL: I don’t spend much time relishing my successes. Once a victory has been secured, I focus my mind on the next challenge. But I’m pleased that I ambushed Mike Tyson and got him to express his opposition to homophobic discrimination, and that I staged the first LGBT+ protest in a communist country (East Germany, 1973). And also, I twice attempted a citizen’s arrest of the Zimbabwean dictator and homophobe, Robert Mugabe.
BLADE: What do you think is currently the most crucial fight or fights for the future of queer rights?
TATCHELL: In the West, the biggest battles are to ban conversion therapy, defend the trans community and support other progressive movements, like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. Globally, the main challenge is to decriminalize homosexuality in the 70 countries that still outlaw it, and then to secure legislation against anti-LGBT+ discrimination and hate crimes.
BLADE: What would you say to people who want to become more involved but don’t know where or how to start?
TATCHELL: Join a LGBT+ organization. There is strength in numbers. All our gains are the result of our collective efforts. Don’t accept the world as it is. Dream of what the world could be — and then join with others to help make it happen.
AFI Docs presents a hybrid in-person, virtual festival
2021 slate generous to LGBTQ, BIPOC directors
AFI DOCS 2021 kicks off Tuesday and will showcase a diverse collection of films like features on historical figures Pauli Murray and Anthony Bourdain, and shorts capturing an annual prom at an LGBTQ retirement home and the life of a Jewish, trans, South African artist.
The annual celebration of documentary filmmaking hosted by the American Film Institute will run June 22-27, with films available to view online as well as in-person screenings at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring.
The festival will feature more than 70 films from 23 countries, including four world premieres. In the lineup, 52% of films are directed by women, 40% by BIPOC directors and 18% by LGBTQ directors.
“We are living in the Golden Age of documentary film,” said Sarah Harris, AFI Festivals Director of Programming, in a press release. “At AFI DOCS, we are proud to celebrate excellence in the films of 2021 – connecting audiences across the nation, engaging them in lively conversation and inspiring them with both the unprecedented challenges and the breathtaking beauty of the world around us.”
Like in previous years, AFI DOCS will feature a variety of films on LGBTQ themes and figures. “Pray Away,” directed by Kristine Stolakis, dives into the harmful past and present of the “pray away the gay movement” through interviews with ex-leaders, survivors of conversion therapy and one active participant in the practice.
Stolakis’s uncle went through conversion therapy after coming out as trans in the ‘60s and she witnessed the “traumatic aftermath” and tremendous pain it caused him, she said.
“A lot of people think conversion therapy is a thing of the past. And that is not true,” she said in an interview. “We know conversion therapy continues on every major continent.”
“Pray Away” will be available to stream on Netflix in August. Ryan Murphy also serves as an executive producer.
“My Name is Pauli Murray” directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West follows the life of the queer writer, human rights lawyer, priest and poet Pauli Murray. Described in the film as ahead of their time, Murray accomplished many firsts: the first African American to earn a law degree at Yale and the first African-American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest.
Murray also drafted the basis of landmark legal arguments used in overturning Plessy v. Ferguson. They also co-wrote a law review used by Ruth Bader Ginsburg to convince the Supreme Court that the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection clause applies to women.
The Academy Award nominees Cohen and West discover Murray’s story when working on their 2018 documentary “RBG.”
“We want people to know about Pauli Murray,” West said. “We would like people to understand the impacts that Pauli had on our world, on the Civil Rights Movement, on the women’s movement.”
West and Cohen said they wanted to highlight Murray’s struggles with gender and sexuality in the early to mid-20th century, and the film features Murray’s inability to undergo hormone therapy and their romantic relationships with women.
“There was no understanding for what Pauli was going through,” West said. “Going to doctors and and basically being dismissed for raising the fact that Pauli felt like a man. And that was just something people couldn’t deal with. I think it’s been empowering and perhaps infuriating for the people to learn the way Pauli was treated.”
The short film “Coded” directed by Ryan White explores the life of gay illustrator J.C. Leyendecker, and the history of his subtle, coded advertisements in the 20th century.
Leyendecker lived a semi-out life in the roaring ‘20s but was forced to hide his identity after the Great Depression as society “moved backward,” the film outlines.
“I think there’s a beautiful character film here about this man who’s never been recognized for his art,” he said. “I also think there’s a real cautionary tale about how, no matter how much progress we’ve achieved, that that can always be dialed backward.”
“Scum Boy” is a short that follows the life of a South African, Jewish, transgender Gen-Z 3-D artist. Director Allison Swank met Scum Boy, Oliver Hunter Pohorille, when he was a teenager at a casting for a music video.
“I was inspired by my friendship with Scummy,” she said. “I started realizing like every conversation I was having with him I was learning new things. I just felt like it was time for him to share his message with the world and I can help with that.”
“Senior Prom,” directed by Luisa Conlon, is a short showcasing the annual “senior” prom at an LGBTQ retirement home in Los Angeles. The film also follows the story of specific LGBTQ elders and their experiences being LGBTQ in the 20th century.
“The most important thing with this film is I think it has an opportunity to create sort of an intergenerational environment, and that’s not happening,” Conlon said. “The film is very accessible. It has this reference point for young people, which is what’s supposed to be a very classic coming-of-age experience.”
Feature film “North By Current” directed by trans filmmaker Angelo Madsen Minax follows his own family as they process the aftermath of the inconclusive death of his young niece. Minax documents the trauma, addiction and complexity in the years that follow.
“Unforgivable (Imperdonable)” directed by Marlén Viñayo spotlights an 18th Street hitman serving time in an evangelical Salvadoran prison. He’s not only guilty of his crimes but of being gay in a conservative, religious environment.
“No Straight Lines” directed by Vivian Kleiman dives into the colorful history of queer comic artists and “Trade Center,” a short film directed by Adam Baron, highlights the stories of gay men who cruised for sex in the World Trade Center in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
The Charles Guggenheim Symposium is on Wednesday, June 23, and will honor celebrated filmmaker Dawn Porter. Her most recent project, “Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer” will be screened.
AFI will open on Tuesday, June 22 with the world premiere of “Naomi Osaka,” an intimate look inside the life of one of today’s most gifted athletes. The festival will close Sunday, June 22 with “Cusp,” a coming-of-age documentary about three teenage girls in a Texas small town as they come to understand adulthood, especially as young women. The centerpiece screening on Friday, June 25 is “Roadrunner,” which follows the life of chef and storyteller, Anthony Bourdain.
The complete AFI DOCS schedule and information on festival passes and individual tickets can be found at docs.afi.com.
Triumphant ‘In the Heights’ is the musical we need
An infectious celebration of community, driven by a Latin beat
As the long-awaited film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” hits the screen this weekend, it’s impossible not to reflect on the fate of the Hollywood musical.
Once one of the movie industry’s most popular genres, the musical has been an inseparable part of Hollywood history ever since sound first came to the silver screen in 1927, launching a “golden age” in which the genre ruled the box office for more than 30 years.
Then the ‘60s happened. A generation disillusioned and distrustful of the “American Dream” hungered for edgier material than the old-fashioned fare enjoyed by their parents. The old studio system was failing, and although it managed to score some hits with blockbuster adaptations of Broadway shows like “My Fair Lady” and “The Sound of Music,” by the end of the decade such movies felt incredibly tone-deaf in an American culture torn apart by turmoil. The country had lost its innocence, and despite occasional attempts to “reboot” the genre in the years ever since, the reign of the Hollywood musical was effectively over.
Until now, perhaps.
“In the Heights” arrives with a considerable amount of anticipation behind it. Adapted from the Tony-winning 2008 Broadway hit that brought Lin-Manuel Miranda into the limelight and paved the way for him to create “Hamilton” a few years later, it centers on a hard-working bodega owner named Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who serves as our guide for a sweeping musical portrait of Manhattan’s Washington Heights – an area mostly populated by Latin people of color from immigrant families – that follows the stories of several interconnected characters as they pursue their hopes and dreams. With songs by Miranda and a script by Quiara Alegría Hudes (who also wrote the book for the stage production), it showcases a diverse cast that also includes Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz, Gregory Diaz IV, Dascha Polanco, Jimmy Smits, Marc Anthony, and Olga Merediz, reprising her Broadway role as Abuela Claudia. Even Miranda himself shows up in the ensemble.
Needless to say, there was a lot of buzz around the film even before its release was postponed for a year due to COVID. If you’re wondering if it lives up to that buzz, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Onstage, “In the Heights” was an infectious celebration of community, driven by an irresistible Latin beat and infused with an uplifting message about following your dreams in the face of adversity. On film, as directed by John M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”), it more than meets the challenge of translating all that energy to the screen – and in the process, it accomplishes a whole lot more.
First and foremost, it delivers the almost euphoric refreshment that comes from seeing a major Hollywood film populated almost entirely by people of color. In today’s cultural environment, the power of this cannot be overstated.
Yet “In the Heights” does not let itself get weighed down by any perceived importance. Instead, it wins us over with good-natured approachability, personified by the endearing and charismatic Ramos in what deserves to be a star-making performance. He is joined by an ensemble of co-stars whose talents are quickly proven to be a match for his own.
Chu leans into the strength of his players, but he also recognizes that the real star of “In the Heights” is its music, and unlike many modern musicals, his movie fully embraces its songs as its entire reason for being. Miranda’s extensive score is delivered largely intact, affording the composer’s signature blend of showtunes and rap the spotlight it deserves. Even more importantly, Chu (aided by gifted collaborators like cinematographer Alice Brooks and choreographer Christopher Scott) uses it as a platform on which to build something truly audacious and wholly unexpected – a triumphant return to form for the Hollywood musical.
There have been new entries in the genre in the years since its decline, and a few of them, like Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret,” have even been great films. Still, these and other such successful one-offs have bent the formula to meet the prevailing cynicism of the postmodern age, merging reality with fantasy in a way that minimizes the need for jaded contemporary audiences to suspend their disbelief when a character bursts into song. They succeed not because they embrace the traditional conceits of the art form, but because they reinvent them – and often, with a palpable sense of irony.
The old musicals required no such tactics. Rather than distancing audiences from the escapism of the format, they encouraged people to revel in it. There was a kind of magic being projected on the screen, and everybody in the theater was not only willing, but eager to believe in it. Moviegoers today are no longer able to accept that kind of artificiality – or at least, that’s become the conventional wisdom in Hollywood, which seems to have forgotten how to make a musical that doesn’t feel like it’s actually apologizing for being a musical.
“In the Heights” never apologizes. Executed with breathtaking cinematic vision and a healthy dose of “magical realism” that does nothing to undercut its streetwise swagger, “In the Heights” comes closer than any film in recent memory to recapturing the elusive charm that made the musical genre the pinnacle of cinematic excellence for so many decades. Filled with one dazzling musical number after another, it pays homage to its heritage – a swimming pool sequence suggests the intricate spectacles conceived by Busby Berkeley, a sublime pas de deux on a fire escape evokes MGM’s masterful technicolor dreamscapes of the 1950s, the film’s location cinematography invites associations with “West Side Story” — while audaciously asserting itself as a product of its own time. And though it acknowledges the hardships faced by its characters in a modern world – gentrification, threat of deportation, economic struggle, bigotry – it counters those realities with a generous spirit of empathy and inclusion (and yes, that includes LGBTQ people, too) and manages to elicit the kind of un-ironic hope that shone like a beacon in those glorious musicals of old. It makes us want to believe in the magic.
Whether or not that’s enough to revive the Hollywood musical, only time will tell. In the meantime, “In the Heights” is exactly what we need after enduring the long isolation of a pandemic – and although it’s being simultaneously released on HBO Max, it’s also the perfect excuse to venture into a theater once more.
It deserves to be seen on the big screen, and you deserve to see it there.
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