Connect with us


‘Uncle Frank’ is a coming-out tale full of heart

Alan Ball deftly avoids stereotypes, delivers compassionate film



Uncle Frank, gay news, Washington Blade
Paul Bettany stars as ‘Uncle Frank.’ (Photo courtesy of Amazon)

In recent years, the crop of films that emerges around “awards season” always includes at least one high-profile LGBTQ-themed movie clearly aiming for consideration. You know the type of film I mean: glossy and slick, they usually feature at least one or two “name” actors with prestige value, center around a particular “issue” connected to being LGBTQ, explore progressive ideas while still reinforcing “good old-fashioned” cultural values, and are almost always the kind of heartfelt, sentiment-driven feel-good fare that Hollywood has been so adept at producing for at least the last century.

This year, right on schedule, that movie is “Uncle Frank.”

This Amazon-produced comedic drama is the latest work from writer-director Alan Ball, the out gay film and television icon responsible for creating “Six Feet Under” and “True Blood” for HBO, as well as for penning 1999’s Oscar-winning “American Beauty.” Set in the early 1970s, it follows Beth Bledsoe (Sophia Lillis), a South Carolina teen who goes to New York to attend college at NYU, where her beloved Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany) is a respected literature professor. He’s delighted to see her, but when she shows up unexpectedly at his apartment during a party, it leads to an awkward surprise for them both – her discovery that he lives with his longtime male lover, Wally (Peter Macdissi). Beth is fine with the revelation that her “cool uncle” is gay; but soon afterwards, when an unexpected development at home puts them on the road back to South Carolina together, Frank must confront his fears of a less accepting response – and his memories of a traumatic past – in order to find the courage to come out to the rest of his family, once and for all.

Embracing a nostalgic, literary sensibility with palpable echoes of such southern-set coming-of-age novels as “To Kill a Mockingbird” (Harper Lee even gets name-dropped), “Uncle Frank” establishes itself from the beginning as a memory piece; we know right away we are in for a romanticized vision of the past, as seen through eyes that have gained the insight that comes with the distance of years. That allows room for a little forgivable sentimentality, which – because Ball is a superb writer – emerges through the warmth, humor, and humanity of the characters rather than in the kind of forced, cloying payoff moments that turn so many similar stories into unabashed tearjerkers.

It’s that same strong writing that elevates the movie above all the attendant tropes that come with the territory in these kinds of stories – and there are plenty, from a tragic backstory that could have been transplanted from an un-produced Tennessee Williams play, to a family of cartoonish southern stereotypes. These elements are part of the game that Ball plays so adeptly; he revels in sagas that find the extreme lying hidden within the mundane, and reveal the dynamics that shape relationships between people, especially families. And if the all-too-familiar story of a middle-aged gay man still closeted to his family is not quite as full of the outrageous twists to be found in the banal suburban hellscape of “American Beauty” or the vampire-infested bayous of “True Blood,” it still provides plenty of fodder for the writer to explore those themes with his customary intelligence and observational asceticism.

Of course, it helps a lot that he’s graced with a talented cast. The gallery of caricatures that make up the Bledsoe clan would not be infused with as much humanizing dimension if not for an ensemble of supporting players – led by the always-monumental Margo Martindale in what can safely be described as “the Margo Martindale role” capable of giving us likeable characters we can embrace, warts and all.

Still, there are higher stakes in “Uncle Frank” than the ones in Frank’s relationship with his family. Ball shrewdly centers much of his movie on the effects of his protagonist’s internalized homophobia – the lingering consequence of growing up in the closet – on his relationship with Wally. They are clearly a happy, loving couple; yet as the pressures build toward a confrontation back home, Frank pulls further and further away from his partner, trying to escape with alcohol and other substances, sparking domestic conflicts with projected resentments and a fear-based fight-or-flight mentality, and refusing to accept any offers of help and support. The movie doesn’t lean too hard on these themes – it’s ultimately meant to be uplifting, after all – but it doesn’t ignore them, either, and it’s a telling observation that we are never as deeply invested in the outcome of Frank’s coming out to his relatives as we are in the hope that these lingering demons from a painful past won’t sabotage his relationship with a partner who obviously loves him unconditionally.

Tying it all together, of course, is Beth, the fresh-out-of-the-nest fledgling who serves both as an observer and a catalyst in her uncle’s story. She’s the connecting thread between prodigal and family, obviously; but she is also the link between past and present. It is she whose experience shapes the narrative, finding meaning in Frank’s struggles and ensuring that his story is told with respect and compassion.

The actors in these key roles each do stellar work. Bettany’s performance in the title role is a career best, and not just because he is a straight actor who manages to portray a gay character without resorting to a single stereotypical mannerism; Lillis, known for starring in “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” and “It,” is here a revelation of simple, unaffected acting as Beth; and as Wally, Macdissi (Ball’s real-life partner, who is Lebanese) exudes such an air of warmth and authenticity that he easily overcomes the character’s potential for being seen as a kind of idealized vision of “magic” ethnicity. Together, the three have excellent, believable chemistry that goes a long way toward making Ball’s movie work.

“Uncle Frank” is the kind of solid, compassionate, accessible film that pleases, perhaps in spite of having the slick, sanitized feel that comes with being the product of a well-oiled, profit-fueled entertainment machine. In true Hollywood style, its conflicts play out a little too neatly and a little too easily; it allows its audience to walk away at the end feeling like the problems have all been solved; and by couching its observations about homophobia in the quaintness of a bygone era, it makes us feel better about how far we’ve come.

Some might question, of course, if that’s really enough, and if the world really needs another coming out story.

The answer is, sadly, of course it does. If the last few years have shown us anything, it is that intolerance, bigotry, and hatred of the “other” is still very much alive in our culture; we might not all need to see movies like “Uncle Frank” in order to gain a little empathy and enlightenment, but there are a lot of people out there who do.

After all, Hollywood has always been at its best when it gives its artists a chance to change hearts and minds – and when the artists are as gifted as Alan Ball, why should anyone quibble?

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


‘I Am Samuel’: A family portrait too real for Kenya?

Country banned LGBTQ-themed documentary



(Image courtesy of 'We Are Not The Machine')

If there has been one thing missing in LGBTQ storytelling for a while it has been the framing of LGBTQ people as cogs in greater family mechanisms. The 2020 Kenyan film “I Am Samuel” not only fills this gap but also disrupts how stories of African people of marginalized sexual orientations have been told to the world. When Peter Murimi started chronicling this story over five years ago, he might have imagined that his locale would be primed to receive it as Kenya has a thriving human rights activist scene. This was not the case, and his intimate family portrait was banned from being screened in its proverbial motherland.

When you hear that a film has been banned you immediately think that it contains gratuitous displays of something or the other that go against the fabric of the country or humanity in general. In dictatorial states you might think the film to be excessively progressive. With the film in question, neither one of these things is the case. If anything, Murimi’s telling of Samuel’s story is in service of nationwide unification. While the principal characters are Sammy and Alex, whom he calls “the love of my life” in the first minute of dialogue in the film, the story really is about the strength and value of family ties with Sammy’s aging parents.

The Kenya Film Classification Board’s penchant for banning films it expects to sway people towards cultural enlightenment, what it would frame as corruption of morals, is nothing new at this point with regards to LGBTQ-centric films. This very board banned Wanuri Kahiu’s internationally acclaimed “Rafiki”, which was released in Cannes in 2018, due to its “homosexual themes.” The case built around “I Am Samuel”, however, is a different one since it shows Sammy’s gayness not as rebellion but as affirming his truth—something that his parents grow to not fault him for. In their justification of why Murimi’s film violates the Films and Stage Plays Act, the acting CEO Christopher Wambua pointedly stated that “additionally, the film tries to influence the viewer into believing that the older generation that was once against LGBTQ+ is slowly buying into the practice and accepting same-sex marriage as a normal the way of life.”

What is sad, yet not unsurprising, about Wambua’s statement is that it reminds us that homophobia is as inherited as colorism in Africa and across former colonies. Given the chance to see what elders growing into their acceptance of what they had been conditioned to believe is foreign, even if they knew better than to buy into that lie, it would appear that Kenya’s moralistic cultural gatekeepers refuse to engage in the decolonial project one of their own, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, continues to challenge the world toward. What Murimi offers in this family portrait is for Kenyans, Africans and all those conditioned to believe that hating one of their own is intrinsic to self-preservation, to view the protagonist’s life from the perspective of the aunt/uncle/cousin/sister/mother/father who is in fact their confidante. Murimi allows viewers to see a family thrown into turmoil by the revelation of someone’s truth, and to watch as each party grows to learn how to coexist with the other in an effort to rebuild the tangible love they once had, which is now just hidden behind shame and misunderstanding.

“I Am Samuel” isn’t without expressions romance, sexuality and attraction. When Sammy’s father professes that he was happy that he’d found his “sweetie” and he wants the same thing for his son, you feel both bashful and pitiful. Sammy’s parents, being aging subsistence farmers, are the Africans of anthropologic development reports the West feeds its colonialist appetite with, but Murimi gives them a chance at being multidimensional—being people who not only suffer their environment, but also have histories that don’t involve the hardships of their present. Similarly, this film does away with many of the hallmarks of “third world LGBTQ documentaries” in that it really is just about Sammy’s life and doesn’t try to paint a broad-stroke picture of how gay men live in Nairobi or rural Kenya.

The commitment that Sammy and Alex show to each other is also given its space without dramatization. Their personal hardships are mundane. What strikes the viewer, however, is that this documentary is not sanitized from the horrors that state-endorsed homophobia can bring to people’s lives. A case of mistaken identity resulting in unwarranted scars for one of their friends is a reminder that generalist understandings and portrayals of LGBTQ people are dangerous and can be life threatening.

“I Am Samuel” is a timely offering to the world of LGBTQ storytelling in that it’s a story of perseverance, acceptance, teaching, mundanity, destiny, faith and simple humanity. The film is by no means a finished story, Murimi doesn’t venture to envelope it in fancy facts or Aristotelian catharsis—we are left with where the family that we spend the good part of an hour getting to understand are at the point the screen fades to black. We are left hoping that the family unit is able to re-imagine its future. Where questions of offspring might otherwise be framed through surrogacy or adoption, we understand that these are socio-economic privileges that don’t immediately apply in this particular family. We are left hoping that the health of the elders improves and they get to celebrate many more harvests and muse over wedding photos and cake. “I Am Samuel” is the kind of African story that shelves being brave in favor of being seen as human by those closest to you and many families need it. Whether they are in Kenya, Botswana, Russia or the U.S., they need it.

“I Am Samuel” premiered across Africa on Oct. 14 on Afridocs’ website, and the producers invite you to stream it there for free!

Continue Reading

Arts & Entertainment

LGBTQ youth inspired to action by “Cured” documentary and country’s homophobic past

“Cured” documentary a revelation for LGBTQ youth



A new documentary’s archival footage of the country’s homophobic past opened the eyes of four young members of the LGBTQ+ community who were only dimly aware of the events the film describes.

“Cured,” which aired on PBS’ Independent Lens on October 11, was a revelation to the youth– who work with the D.C.-based Urban Health Media Project on multimedia health journalism. 

Some of the scenes that made an impression:

  • At a 1966 South Florida high school assembly on the evils of homosexuality, an official warns students that “if we catch you … the rest of your life will be a living hell.’’  
  • A gay psychiatrist, appearing on a 1972 American Psychiatric Association panel, is identified only as “Dr. Henry Anonymous.” He’s so afraid of reprisals that he must protect his identity by wearing a Halloween face mask and a fright wig and using a distortion mic.  
  • A series of sober, eminent psychiatrists – leaders of the profession – insist in forum after forum that homosexuality is a sickness.

For two decades, that assumption was reflected in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM),” the American psychiatric profession’s official compendium of mental and brain diseases and disorders.

“Cured” tells the story of how a relatively small number of courageous gay activists got the “gays are sick” notion struck from the manual –a pivotal moment in the gay liberation movement.

“Being gay and trans myself,’’ said Hermes Falcon, “this film meant a lot to me, because it exposed me to people that I didn’t even know were part of the movement.’’

Those people included Barbara Gittings and Frank Kameny, who in the mid-1960s – when most Americans still said they feared or hated homosexuals — organized some of the first public protests against employment discrimination against gays. One depicted in “Cured”took place outside the White House.

Another early activist was Dr. John Fryer, the psychiatrist who, it later turned out, was “Dr. Anonymous.’’

 Falcon, a college freshman, also noted the tension at the heart of the story told by “Cured”: “How working together makes a big difference, but also how one person can make a big change.’’

Falcon cited the example of Fryer, who testified at the APA convention in Dallas in 1972 that anti-gay bias was hurting psychiatrists, too. At that point, the DSM’s entry 302.0, which termed homosexuality “a mental disorder,” was two decades old. Within two years of Fryer’s testimony, it had been abolished.

Another young member of the LGBTQ+ community, Adrian Gibbons, an assistant video editor at UHMP and recent college graduate, also was struck by the example of Fryer, “a real person who was risking his job to stand up for himself and the LGBTQ community.’’ His example, Gibbons said, “inspires me to fight for myself and my community, no matter the risks.’’

Gibbons noted that some trailblazers faced a harsh backlash from colleagues or family members. But he said their sacrifice was worth it, considering that “their efforts brought justice to LGBTQ people who had been injured or abused in mental institutions, and saved countless people from being put through that same torture in the future.’’

Torture is probably not too strong a word; “Cured” shows how electroshock and even lobotomy were used as elements of “conversion therapy’’ to make gay people straight.   

The early activists’ sheer courage also inspired Dillon Livingston, a high school student. The film shows, he said, that “it is imperative to remain true to yourself, even if everyone around you does not like the things that make you who you are.’’ 

Even though they faced intense discrimination and disdain, he added, the gay rights pioneers “were proud about their sexuality.’’

The four young LGBTQ+ viewers agreed that “Cured”made them more appreciative of the efforts of those who went before them, and more eager to emulate their example in the future.

As Livingston put it, “I must speak more about the queer community to inform heterosexuals about the problem we face.’’ 

Jojo Brew, an aspiring filmmaker, agreed: “All those people in the sixties and seventies fought for our rights, so it’s only fair that we continue to fight for the next generation’s rights.’’ 

“Cured” airs locally at 9 p.m. Oct. 21 on WHUT. After its broadcast premiere Oct. 11, the film will be available to stream for free on the PBS app and website for 30 days. The documentary will be rebroadcast a few more times over the next three years and eventually released on streaming platforms.

Continue Reading


Amazon Prime doc tells story of Black, queer civil rights pioneer

RBG quoted Anna Pauline (Pauli) Murray before Supreme Court



AFI Docs, gay news, Washington Blade
Anna Pauline (Pauli) Murray (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

No one could have imagined the life of Anna Pauline (Pauli) Murray, the Black, queer, gender nonconforming civil rights pioneer who lived from 1910 to 1985.

Few people have done as much to make the world more just than Murray. Last year, Murray’s scholarship was used to help the ACLU successfully argue before the Supreme Court that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects LGBTQ+ people from being fired in the workplace because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. Yet, many people don’t know who Murray was.

“My Name is Pauli Murray,” a new documentary playing in select theaters and streaming on Amazon Prime, tells the story of Murray’s fascinating life. The engrossing film is co-directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, who directed “RBG,” the popular documentary on Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“RBG” is a good documentary. Yet, the 131-minutes-long “My Name is Pauli Murray” is even better.

Conveying the complexity of Murray’s life in a doc of that short length would fell many mortals. But West and Cohen are up to the task.

Using recordings of Murray’s voice; Murray’s letters, footage of everything from Murray with one of her dogs to Harlem in the 1930s along with interviews with Murray’s family and biographers, the film draws you into Murray’s world.

To say Murray was a Renaissance woman isn’t trite. Murray was a lawyer, poet, writer, activist and educator. That’s just the tip of the iceberg!

For decades, Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt were friends. Murray was a co-founder of the National Organization for Women. Gay writers James Baldwin and Langston Hughes were her writing buddies. Murray and Baldwin were the first Black writers to be invited to the distinguished MacDowell writing colony.

In her 60s, Murray left her tenured position teaching at Brandeis University to go to seminary. She became the first Black woman to be ordained a priest by the Episcopal Church.

It doesn’t stop there! A paper Murray wrote as a Howard Law School student was a key element of Thurgood Marshall’s strategy in overthrowing racial segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. Ruth Bader Ginsburg quoted Murray when she argued against sex discrimination before the Supreme Court.

While she was alive, Murray was closeted about much of her personal life. Murray had a decades-long relationship with Irene Barlow. But, because of the times in which she lived, Murray couldn’t be open about their relationship.

Murray felt that she was misgendered—like a man in a woman’s body. This, too, Murray kept secret.

In “My Name is Pauli Murray,” Murray’s family and biographers refer to Murray with the pronouns “she and her.” A non-binary activist refers to Murray as “they.”

Murray is having a much-deserved moment. In 2016, Yale University named one of its residential colleges after Murray. It was the first time a Yale college was named after a person of color or an (openly) LGBTQ+ person. In 1965, Murray was the first African American to graduate from Yale with a doctorate in judicial science.

In 2017, the National Park Service, part of the Department of the Interior, Murray’s family home in Durham, N.C., as a National Historic Landmark.

Watching, “My Name is Pauli Murray,” you’re bowled over by Murray’s resilience and achievements. Fifteen years before Rosa Parks, she protested racial segregation on buses.

“I’ve lived to see my lost causes found,” Murray says.

It’s hard to humanize an icon. But, the filmmakers don’t place Murray on Mount Olympus.

Even as a child, we learn, Murray wanted to wear pants. That was fine during the week, her Aunt Pauline said, but Murray would have to wear a dress to church on Sunday. Though, few understood Murray’s feelings, Aunt Pauline called Murray “my boy girl.”

Murray and Barlow never lived together. Yet, you get a sense of their intimacy from the letters they exchanged. They called each other “Linus” and “Charlie Brown” (characters in the Peanuts comic strip) and wrote of longing to “share” listening to Brahms’ Fourth Symphony and the New York Times crossroad puzzle.

“My Name is Pauli Murray” will leave you talking about Murray and how to honor her legacy. That would have made Murray happy.

Continue Reading

Follow Us @washblade

Sign Up for Blade eBlasts