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‘Wojnarowicz’ burns with a queer icon’s brilliant fury

Celebrating one of the most controversial artists of the ‘80s

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David Wojnarowicz, gay news, Washington Blade
Self portrait of David Wojnarowicz. (Courtesy the estate of Wojnarowicz)

If we want our heroes to be remembered, sometimes we have to tell their stories ourselves. That’s especially true in the LGBTQ community, whose entire history before the mid-20th century has already been all but erased by mainstream (read: hetero) culture, save for what can be conjectured from scraps of information in the public record or the personal remembrances of elders who were brave enough to write them down.

Today, queer Americans are lucky enough to live in an era with a much more inclusive attitude about history, and there is no shortage of information available about the people who have helped to make that situation a reality. Even so, it’s become an oft-lamented observation that many of us, particularly among the generations who came of age after the eighties, are sorely lacking in our knowledge of the history that got us here.

Thanks to an outstanding new documentary about an AIDS-era icon for whom art and activism were one and the same, it just got easier to educate yourself.

“Wojnarowicz: F*ck You F*ggot F**ker” (currently screening through Kino Lorber’s VOD Marquee platform) carries a title that might feel uncomfortable coming out of your mouth, but its subject would undoubtedly have approved. After all, it’s borrowed from one of his own artworks. Directed by Chris McKim, who as an executive producer who worked alongside RuPaul to create “Drag Race” is something of a queer icon himself, it profiles one of the most controversial and polarizing artists to come out of the New York art world of the eighties.

David Wojnarowicz came up in the same queer art movement that gave us Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, though his name never achieved an equal level of familiarity to theirs – not just because it was harder to pronounce (it’s “voy-nah-ROH-vitch,” for the record), but because the scalding anger and confrontational queerness of his work pushed far beyond the comfort level of all but the most radical glitterati. Raised in a household with an abusive father, he left home early to live on the streets of New York, surviving as a teen hustler in a city ravaged by some of the worst crime and economic blight in its history. He found expression across multiple mediums – photography, writing, filmmaking, painting, and more – and gained notoriety as an underground street artist, creating “guerilla” installations that expressed a rage more aligned with the percolating punk movement than the celebratory hedonism of the soon-to-be-waning sexual revolution.

Though he rose to prominence among the cloistered East Village arts scene of the early eighties, it was his response to the AIDS crisis that brought him greater fame; after being diagnosed with HIV in 1988, he “weaponized” his art against the indifference of an establishment – indeed, of an entire society – to the suffering and death taking place in plain sight, leading to a courtroom confrontation with the religious right (which he won) over NEA funding for an exhibition of his work. When he died from the disease in 1992, at the age of 37, his funeral became a protest, and his ashes were eventually scattered, as part of an “Ashes Action” by ACT UP in 1996, on the White House lawn.

In McKim’s comprehensive and immersive chronicle of Wojnarowicz’s short and thorny life, we are transported in all but body to the heady and tumultuous time and place in which he lived. Constructed as a cinematic collage, it sets aside the conceit of objective narration and instead carries us through the timeline of his life and career by putting us, as closely as possible, into his own mind. This would be an audacious and impossible task were it not for the treasure trove of archival material left behind by the artist himself, who obsessively recorded his thoughts and experiences not only through his work, but in written, audio, and film diaries he maintained throughout his career. It’s Wojnarowicz himself who tells his own story, supplemented by remembrances from those who knew him and illuminated by the visual eloquence of his work. We are even allowed a glimpse into some of his most intimate relationships, thanks to never-erased answering machine messages – particularly with fellow artist Peter Hujar, whose life story was inextricably interwoven with his own.

While the film relies extensively on material created and archived by Wojnarowski himself, McKim allows for the inclusion of other perspectives, too. Interpolated throughout is new interview material from the artist’s contemporaries, friends and associates whose memories not only reinforce his image as a passionate iconoclast but reveal a deeply human side that is not always apparent – or obvious, at least – in his work. Reminiscences from figures like Fran Lebowitz, Nan Goldin, and Gracie Mansion, as well as Wojnarowski’s surviving partner, Tom Rauffenbart, help to round out our picture of the man with glimpses from outside his own fiery mind. They also serve to illuminate the lightning-in-a-bottle environment of New York’s underground avant garde scene of the early eighties, a place and time where a dizzying array of soon-to-be legendary figures met, mingled, and melded in a social and artistic circle not unlike that of Paris in the pre-war twentieth century – and the skill with which Wojnarowicz moved between the worlds of the street and the gallery, his difficulty in balancing his disdain for the wealthy elite with his need to sell them his art, and his ability to keep all his personal connections so neatly and meticulously compartmentalized.

There’s another, almost accidental aspect to “Wojnarowicz” that lifts it out of the past, adding a layer of urgency in the here and now and drawing a direct line from the events of history to the world of today. The unmistakable echoes of the eighties political landscape – the glorification of capitalism, the conservative conflation of nationalism with patriotism, the bigotry of the religious right, and the ravages of a deadly and mysterious disease – are impossible not to notice from our seats in 2021; and while we may have achieved a respite from the dark days of Trump-ist MAGA-ism, only the most naïve among us would think the threats it posed have been quelled forever. This gives the words and work of Wojnarowicz a timely immediacy, and underscores the need to keep his ferocious, rebellious spirit alive.

Fortunately, McKim’s film is heavy with the almost corporeal substance of its subject. One can almost feel him in the room while watching it – his presence is immediate, something we experience first-hand, thanks both to the intensity and passion with which he recorded his own life and the skill with which McKim delivers him to us nearly three decades after his death. This was a man who was more than an artist; he was an incendiary rebel who saw his own body as a weapon against an establishment, and McKim honors that spirit by bringing him to tangible life before our eyes.

The resulting film packs a cumulative punch that leaves us feeling both humbled and inspired, while also enjoining us to take up the torch of its subject’s righteous rage.

Based on what it shows us, he would be proud.

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Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs screens ‘Eat With Me’

David Au’s directorial debut presented

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In celebration of Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, The Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs, DC Public Library, and the Mayor’s Office on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs host a screening of “Eat With Me” for May’s #DCQueerFlix on May 14, beginning at 6 p.m.

“Eat With Me,” David Au’s directorial debut, features the story of a mother and her gay son learning to reconnect while trying to keep their business afloat. The film offers a novel take on love, life, and food in the center of Los Angeles.

“Eat With Me” will be available on the Kanopy streaming service and is free for D.C. library patrons.

To register for this virtual event, visit the Eventbrite page.

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In diverse slate of winners, Oscar is the biggest loser

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Best Actor winner Anthony Hopkins (center) with co-star Olivia Colman in “The Father” (image courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)

We knew the Academy Awards were going to be different this year.

Forced by Covid to reimagine its traditional presentation format, the movie industry’s most prestigious awards show convened not at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre — at least, not for most of it — and opted instead to broadcast the ceremony from the relative intimacy of Los Angeles’ historic Union Station, where a small audience of nominees, presenters and guests gathered under “live set” safety protocols while other participants connected from various remote hook-ups across the world. Instead of auditorium seating, tables; instead of an orchestra, Questlove. In addition, show producers Steven Soderbergh, Jesse Collins, and Stacy Sher chose to shoot the event cinematically, employing the tricks and techniques of film to transform the evening from the stodgy affair so many of us love to hate into something resembling a movie. As promised during the week ahead of the broadcast, the show was going to tell a “story.”

It was a gamble that didn’t pay off.

Things started out promisingly enough, it must be said, with an opening tracking shot that followed host Regina King from the bright L.A. sunshine into the cool darkness of Union Station. The motion, the music, and most of all King’s commanding presence, gave us the sense that something big was about to happen. Then, early in her opening comments to the audience, King brought substance to the weight by commenting that “if things had gone differently in Minneapolis this week, I might’ve traded in my heels for marching boots” — reminding us (as if it were needed) of the national focus on Black justice that hung alongside Oscar’s long-lamented struggle with diversity like a shadow over the evening. The central theme of this Oscar “movie,” it seemed, had been firmly established.

For awhile, it seemed to be working. The evening’s first winners were Emerald Fennell for Best Original Screenplay, for “Promising Young Woman,” and Florian Zeller for Best Adapted Screenplay, for “The Father,” appearing to set a tone for the ceremony in which recognition would be spread around to all — something very much in tune with the presumed subplot of the “story” we were being told, in which Oscar would redeem itself from the #OscarsSoWhite associations of its past and prove itself to be a champion for fair and equal diversity, after all.

Soon after, Daniel Kaluuya took the award for Best Supporting Actor – no surprise there, as his performance as slain Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in “Judas and the Black Messiah” had won the equivalent prize from every other major film awards so far — firmly establishing the “redemption” theme by celebrating the powerful work of a Black actor in a true-life story that addressed the corruption and tragedy of systemic racism in America. A pair of awards for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (Best Makeup and Styling, Best Costume Design), as well as a win for the police-violence-themed “Two Distant Strangers” as Best Live-Action Short, reinforced it even further. Better still, a shout-out to trans acceptance from “Ma Rainey” stylist Mia Neal in her speech, and a plea from “Strangers” writer/director Travon Free for audiences not to be “indifferent to our pain” in his, lent a powerful sense of earnestness that made the whole thing feel authentic. Maybe this year, Oscar was finally getting it right.

Unfortunately, the Oscar “story,” in its effort to be inclusive, allowed all the winners to talk until they were done. In other words, Questlove did not start playing anyone off when they had used up their time, and the ambitious “movie” of the Oscars soon began lose any momentum it had built. This is not to say that the winners don’t deserve their time in the spotlight, or that some of the things that were said were not worthy of being heard; but anyone in show business should know the importance of keeping your audience interested, and the Academy Awards have such a long history of running ponderously overtime that it seems some kind of middle ground might have been reached.

There were other familiar complaints, too. The annual “in memoriam” segment inevitably left out some important names (Ann Reinking, Jessica Walter, “Glee” star Naya Rivera, and former Oscar nominee songwriter Adam Schlesinger, to name just a few), and there was an awkward segment in which Questlove played “Oscar trivia” with audience members, who were asked to identify movie songs that did NOT win the Academy Award. The latter situation was almost saved by nominee Glenn Close, who did an “impromptu” rendition of “Da Butt” that was as goofily charming as it was obviously pre-planned.

As the show wore on, the cinematic conceit chosen to revitalize the proceedings became mostly irrelevant in the face of Oscar’s usual baggage. Further, the absence of any performances of the year’s nominated songs, typically a favorite feature of fans at home, meant there was little respite from the dullness, which was made all the more apparent by the increasingly bored faces of the onscreen audience. The omission may have been due to the difficult logistics of additional Covid protocols, but surely pre-taped performances might have helped to perk things up. For the record, Best Original Song went to “Fight For You,” from “Judas and the Black Messiah.”

Along the way, there were noteworthy wins. The much-loved Pixar-Disney film “Soul” took the award for Best Animated Feature, as well as winning Best Original Score for composers Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Jon Batiste; the virally popular “My Octopus Teacher” won for Best Documentary Feature; David Fincher’s black-and-white old-Hollywood homage “Mank” took the prizes for Best Production Design and Best Cinematography, continuing the trend of spreading out the wealth among the front-running contenders; in presenting Best Film Editing to “The Sound of Metal,” still-hunky Hollywood curmudgeon Harrison Ford gave an amusing nod to “Blade Runner,” the revered 1982 sci-fi film in which he starred, by reading the scathingly negative studio notes from a pre-release screening; and Best Supporting Actress went to veteran performer Yuh-Jung Youn for her work in “Minari,” making her only the second woman of Asian heritage to win the award (the first was Miyoshi Umeki for 1957’s “Sayanora”) — and making Close, who was nominated for her role in “Hillbilly Elegy,” tied with Peter O’Toole as the actor with the most nods without a single win.

By the time we reached the presentation of the four top prizes, there was little left of whatever enthusiasm had been drummed up by the opening segment of the show. Chloe Zhao’s expected win as Best Director, for “Nomadland,” making her the first Asian-American woman (and only the second woman, period) to receive the award, was an appreciated high point for her enthusiastic gratitude alone, but at this point, things had become pretty much business as usual, despite the grand designs and cinematic flourishes of the producers.

Then, the big twist came. Best Picture, always the final award of the evening, was being announced before the Lead Acting awards. What was happening? Was the Oscar “movie” about to give us a surprise ending?

The winner, “Nomadland,” had been favored, and star Frances McDormand helped to make the moment a highlight with a “wolf” howl (dedicated to sound mixer Michael “Wolf” Snyder, who passed away last month) when she joined the film’s other producers at the podium, but surely neither of those things warranted switching the order. Perhaps a clue to what was really happening could be found in the choice of presenter – Hollywood icon Rita Moreno, still fabulous at 89, whose Best Supporting Actress win for 1961’s “West Side Story” happened to have made her the first Hispanic woman to win an Oscar. Was this reminder of diversity from the Academy’s past a sign that the “redemption” theme was about to pay off?

It suddenly became obvious. The Oscar “movie” was leading up to an emotional finale, a big and uplifting triumph that would not only be a celebration of diversity, but a tribute to a gifted young man whose talents had been taken away from us too soon. The story of Oscar’s redemption would culminate in the posthumous awarding of the Best Actor prize to Chadwick Boseman, whose nominated performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was the last work he completed before losing his private battle with colon cancer and passing away at 43 last August. That would definitely be a “wow” finish.

Best Actress came first, accompanied by some suspense due to being one of the few categories without a clear front-runner. McDormand took the statue for “Nomadland,” joining a small handful of other performers as a three-time-winner and preventing “Ma Rainey” star Viola Davis from becoming the first Black actress to win twice. Her speech was refreshingly short and humble, a tribute to the joy of “the work” which included a quote from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” (“My voice is in my sword”) – a play considered by actors worldwide to be “cursed,” which in retrospect casts an interesting light on what happened next.

To present the final award, last year’s Best Actor winner Joaquin Phoenix (looking exceptionally uncomfortable) came to the mike and, after a feeble joke about his reputation for method acting, read off the five nominees before opening the envelope to bring about the now much-anticipated denouement.

“And the Oscar goes to… Anthony Hopkins, ‘The Father.’”

It wasn’t quite “fade to black, roll credits” after that, but it might as well have been.

There was no uplifting finale, no redemption of the Academy as a reward for its show of diversity. There was only another in a long-running series of gaffes (remember the “La La Land” vs. “Moonlight” debacle from just a few years back?) that have made the Oscar show’s tendency to mess things up a running joke.

This one, however, was possibly the worst. In an arrogant attempt to shape a narrative out of real life events that hadn’t even happened yet, the Academy seems to have chosen to manipulate its audience into an emotional reaction — one that would have bolstered its own reputation and perhaps made up for some of its former perceived missteps — while exhibiting a cynical overconfidence in its own ability to predict the sentiments of its voters. As a result, its “wow” finish turned into an abrupt and uncomfortable faux pas, diminishing both Hopkins’ victory for a career-topping performance (which, at 83, makes him the oldest acting winner in Oscar history) and Boseman’s searingly powerful work by obscuring their accomplishments behind a colossal f*ck-up born of its own hubris.

It’s worth noting that a plan was (reportedly) in place in the supposedly “unlikely” event that Hopkins would win, in which “Father” co-star Colman – known for her disarming grace and humor in awards situations – would have accepted the award in his absence. As reported by The Guardian, Phoenix forgot to call her to the stage, resulting in the dull thud that was the end of the 93rd Academy Awards. Regardless, the Academy has only itself to blame. In its eagerness to tell the story it wanted to tell about itself, it appears to have forgotten that you have to know the ending first.

Ironically, when removed from all the drama, the list of winners does represent one of the most diverse and inclusive slates in Oscar history. It’s not enough, but it’s a start.

On that note, as a final observation, the LGBTQ community, despite recent strides in being acknowledged by Oscar, went largely unacknowledged at this year’s ceremony, with queer front-runners like “Two of Us” (a French contender for Best International Feature) and David France’s devastating “Welcome to Chechnya” (shortlisted for Best Documentary Feature) having been shut out of the nominations and no significant queer content among most of the nominated films. Apart from Neal’s aforementioned invocation of trans acceptance as part of a possible future in which the recognition of all women for their achievements would be “normal,” the only other time we came up was during Tyler Perry’s acceptance speech for the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

Perry, whose highly popular films are frequently criticized for embracing borderline homophobic and transphobic humor and perpetuating problematic tropes about gender and sexuality, gave a speech calling for people to “refuse to hate” anyone “because they are Mexican, or because they are Black or White, or LBGTQ” or “because they are a police officer” or “because they are Asian.” Apart from the conflation of being a police officer (a choice) with being an LGBTQ person or a person of color (not a choice), the fact that he mixed up the “B” and the “G” is a clear indicator that, while he may refuse to hate us, he’s not exactly a committed ally, either.

If the LGBTQ angle seems like a footnote to the story, that’s because it is. Once more, the queer community is left feeling like an uninvited guest by the Academy.

If Oscar wants its story to be about diversity, it’s clear that next year’s “story” needs some better writers.

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This year’s Oscars might be historic — but does anyone care?

Diverse nominees lacking LGBTQ representation

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Oscar, gay news, Washington Blade

It’s Oscar weekend. Are you excited?

Unless you’re actually one of the nominees, odds are pretty good that you’re not – but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is geared up to present its prestigious annual film awards for the 93rd time on Sunday night, really, really wants you to be. Why else, a week ahead of the Big Night, would they roll out the show’s producers for a press conference to drop hints that the upcoming broadcast would “look like a movie” and incorporate satellite hookups from “multiple locations?” It was a clear bid to drum up excitement.

More details came Monday, when a letter from that same trio – producer Steven Soderbergh (himself an Oscar winner for directing “Traffic” in 2000) and co-producers Jesse Collins and Stacey Sher – went out to the nominees. As it turns out, the ceremony will be held at LA’s historic Union Station (site of Saturday’s press conference), which will be treated “as an active movie set” in terms of COVID-related safety protocols, with “additional elements” of the show being incorporated live from Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre via satellite hook-up.

More interestingly, the letter revealed, “The first—and most obvious—point we want to get across with this year’s show is STORIES MATTER.” In keeping with that theme, nominees are requested to submit to a brief interview to “tell the story of your path to April 25,” as part of an effort to “highlight the connections between all of us who work in the movies and show that the process is uniquely intimate, collaborative, and fun.” The emphasis on “story” was further reflected by instructions about messaging in the speeches (“If you’re thanking someone, say their name, not their title… make it PERSONAL”) and a dress code described as “a fusion of Inspirational and Aspirational.” Whatever Soderbergh and crew have planned for the show, their letter leaves little doubt they intend to tightly manage the narrative it presents.

That’s not surprising, of course; Hollywood is in the business of creating narratives, and the one it takes most seriously is the one it creates about itself. Nevertheless, it’s particularly telling that the story it is working so hard to tell seems designed to brush its problem with inclusion comfortably into the background.

This year, the organization might well feel that when it comes to diversity, the nominations speak for themselves. For a year in which tremendous social upheaval has brought Black experience in America to the forefront of the public conversation, the Oscars have chosen an impressive number of Black-led films and Black artists among an overall slate that offers the most diverse lineup of nominees in its history. Women are also represented, thanks to the inclusion of Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman” among the Best Picture contenders and the first-ever two nominations for women – Fennell and Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”) – as Best Director. Additionally, Zhao, who is Chinese, is the first woman of color ever nominated in that category, Steven Yuen (“Minari”) became the first Asian-American to receive a Best Actor nod, and in the same category, Riz Ahmed (“The Sound of Metal”) became the first person of Pakistani descent to be nominated in any acting category.

In the midst of all this inclusion, however, the LGBTQ community – traditionally a stronghold for some of Oscar’s most ardent fans – has this year been largely left empty-handed, once again. Besides two Best Actress nods for women playing bisexual characters (Viola Davis and Andra Day, for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” respectively), there are no major nominations for films with significant LGBTQ content – though it’s worth noting that the aforementioned “Young Woman” features trans actress Laverne Cox in a prominent supporting role. While it’s not a problem for us to stand on the sidelines and cheer for the victories achieved by representatives of other marginalized communities, it’s becoming harder to ignore the nagging feeling that our willingness to forgive an institution that continues to disappoint and diminish us is really something akin to Stockholm Syndrome.

In any case, this year’s Academy Awards have the potential for making history. Nine of the 20 acting nominees are people of color, and at least two of them are considered frontrunners in their categories. Zhao could become the first woman of Asian descent to win the Best Director prize. And while the potential for those wins lends a kind of excitement to the proceedings, an inescapable feeling of “too little, too late” – coupled with a pandemic-induced awareness of the relative unimportance of awards like these in the greater scheme of things – makes it more difficult than ever, perhaps, to care.

With that in mind, here are the currently leading “official” predictions for the winners in the top six categories, based on a combination of Oscar history, industry buzz, review consensus, and plain old-fashioned gut instinct:

BEST PICTURE: “Nomadland” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7” are considered the front-runners, thanks to previous wins in the equivalent category at the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors’ Guild Awards, respectively. “Nomadland” is favored to win.

BEST DIRECTOR: Chloé Zhao, who has taken the directing prize at both the Globes and the BAFTAs, seems a sure bet for “Nomadland.”

BEST ACTOR: Chadwick Boseman, whose death in 2020 after a secret battle with colon cancer devastated fans and co-workers alike, would seem the inevitable winner for his performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” even without his already-racked-up wins at the Globes, Critics’ Choice, and SAG Awards. If he takes it – and it’s almost certain he will – it would make him only the second Best Actor winner to be awarded the prize posthumously (the first was Peter Finch, for 1976’s “Network”).

BEST ACTRESS: There are no clear front-runners here. With one high-profile win each under their belt Davis (SAGs), Day (Globes), Frances McDormand (BAFTAs for “Nomadland”) and Carey Mulligan (Critics’ Choice for “Promising Young Woman”) are all positioned as possible winners. However, with Davis already making history with this performance as Oscar’s most-nominated Black actress, the appeal of also making her the first to win in both Actress categories (her performance in 2016’s “Fences” earned her the Best Supporting prize) might just give her the edge.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Having won for his performance as slain Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in “Judas and the Black Messiah” at all the other major film awards, Daniel Kaluuya is the definition of a “shoo-in.”

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: As is often the case, this category might be the most wide-open. Buzz has favored both Yuh-Jung Youn (“Minari”) and Maria Bakalova (“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”), but her win at the BAFTA Awards puts Youn in place as the probable frontrunner. If she wins, she will be only the second Asian actress to win an Oscar, after Miyoshi Umeki (1957’s “Sayonara”).

You can find out the winners when the Oscars air on ABC, Sunday April 25 at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET. But don’t worry – if you don’t care enough to watch, you can always Google it afterward.

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