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AFI Docs presents a hybrid in-person, virtual festival

2021 slate generous to LGBTQ, BIPOC directors

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Julie Rodgers (left) and Amanda Hite (right) in ‘Pray Away.’ (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

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.” 

AFI Docs, gay news, Washington Blade
Pauli Murray in ‘My Name is Pauli Murray.’ (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

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.” 

The film will open in theaters this fall. 

J.C. Leyendecker in ‘Coded.’ (Photo courtesy of CODED / Imagine Documentaries, Delirio Films, Tripod & P&G Studios)

“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.”

Oliver Hunter Pohorille in ‘Scum Boy.’ (Photo courtesy of Allison Swank)

“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. 

Geovanny in ‘Unforgivable (Imperdonable).’ (Photo courtesy of Neil Brandvold).

“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.

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‘Bros’ bombs at weekend box office

Billy Eichner blames straight people for failing to show up

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The chemistry between Luke Macfarlane and Billy Eichner wasn’t enough to steam up the box office this weekend. (Photo courtesy Universal Studios)

The much-hyped new film “Bros,” touted as the first gay romantic comedy produced by a major Hollywood studio, bombed at the weekend box office, bringing in just $4.8 million, about half of the $8-10 million prediction for opening weekend.

The film, which stars Billy Eichner and Luke Macfarlane, finished in fourth place for the weekend; horror film “Smile” took the top spot with $22 million. Eichner quickly turned to Twitter to blame straight people for the poor showing.

“Even with glowing reviews, great Rotten Tomatoes scores, an A CinemaScore, etc., straight people, especially in certain parts of the country, just didn’t show up for ‘Bros,’” Eichner wrote. “And that’s disappointing but it is what it is.”

Not everyone agrees with Eichner’s assessment. Variety, in a Monday story, cited marketing problems and a lack of star power as likely culprits for the disappointing numbers.

“For the romantic comedy genre, star power is integral these days to getting people out of the house,” Variety’s Zach Sharf and William Earl wrote. “Paramount’s ‘The Lost City’ made it to the $105 million mark in the U.S. off the strength of pairing A-listers Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum.”

Additionally, the film’s marketing focused on the historic nature of the film, rather than its comedic appeal.

“’Bros’ marketing worked overtime to sell its importance as the first major LGBTQ studio comedy, but aggressively marketing a movie as a glass-ceiling breaker can make it feel like homework for viewers,” Sharf and Earl noted.

There have also been anecdotal reports of homophobic incidents at theaters linked to the film’s poster, which features a photo of Eichner and Macfarlane grabbing each other’s butts. 

“The goal was to make the funniest, laugh-out-loud movie as possible, that just happens to be about a gay couple,” Eichner, 44, told the Blade in an interview last week.

The studio released a statement that it remains hopeful positive reviews and word-of-mouth will give “Bros” a long theatrical run. The film cost about $22 million to make.

Eichner served as writer, producer, and co-star of the film, a romantic comedy about two commitment-phobic gay guys in a relationship. All of “Bros” writers, producers, and the lead and supporting actors identify as LGBTQ (with the exceptions of director Nicholas Stoller and producer Judd Apatow).  

Some observers worry that the poor showing by “Bros” could dissuade large studios from green-lighting LGBTQ-themed projects for mainstream release. 

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Celebrate Judy Garland’s centennial by watching her movies

The dazzling force of nature made 34 films

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‘Meet Me in St. Louis’ is one of Judy Garland’s iconic film roles.

When the world ends, aficionados will still be watching their favorite Judy Garland movies.

Queer icon Garland was born 100 years ago this year (on June 10, 1922).

Everyone knows how tragic much of Garland’s life was. MGM feeding her uppers and downers when she was a child. Bad luck with husbands. Getting fired from movies because of her addiction issues. Her death at age 47.

You can’t deny that Garland’s life was often a mess. Yet, it’s too easy to encase Garland into a box of victimhood.

Contrary to the misperception of her as a sad figure, Garland wasn’t a morbid person. She was a fabulous comedian and clown, John Fricke, author of “The Wonderful World of Oz: An Illustrated History of the American Classic,” told the Blade in 2019. Lucille Ball said Garland was the funniest woman in Hollywood, Fricke said. “‘She made me look like a mortician,’ Lucy said,” he added.

In the midst of the sentimentality and morbidity shrouding her legacy, you can readily forget Garland’s prodigious talent and productivity.

Garland was a consummate, multi-faceted, out-of-this-world talented performer. She (deservedly) received more awards than most performers would even dream of: two Grammy Awards for her album “Judy at Carnegie Hall,” a special Tony for her long-running concert at the Palace Theatre and a special Academy Juvenile Award. Garland was nominated for an Emmy for her TV series “The Judy Garland Show” and for Best Supporting Oscar for her performance in “Judgment at Nuremberg.”

Garland, a dazzling, force of nature on screen, made 34 films. There’s no better way to celebrate Garland’s centennial than to watch her movies.

Garland was renowned for connecting so intimately with audiences when she sang. She’s remembered for her legendary musicals — from “The Wizard of Oz” to “Meet Me in St. Louis” to “A Star is Born.”

But if you watch, or re-watch, her movies, you’ll see that Garland wasn’t just a singer who sang songs, and sometimes danced, in production numbers in movie musicals.

Garland was a talented actor. She wasn’t appearing on screen as herself – Judy Garland singing to her fans.

Whether she’s tearing at your heartstrings as Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” performing brilliant physical comedy with Gene Kelly in the “The Pirate,” breaking your heart with “The Man that Got Away” in “A Star is Born” or unrecognizable as Irene Hoffmann in “Judgment at Nuremberg,” Garland is acting. Her performance etches these characters onto your DNA.

Picking Garland’s best movies is like deciding which five of your 20 puppies should go on an outing. But, if you’re cast away on a desert island, take these Garland movies with you:

“Meet Me in St. Louis”: This luminous 1944 musical, directed by Vincente Minnelli, has it all: Garland in top form, the Trolley song, Margaret O’Brien, along with a stellar cast, and the best Christmas song ever.

“The Clock”: This 1945 movie, also directed by Minnelli, showcases Garland as a gifted dramatic actress. Shot in stunning black-and-white near the end of World-War II, the movie is the story, set in New York City, of a young woman (Garland) and a soldier on leave (Robert Walker) who fall in love.

“Easter Parade”: Sure, this 1948 picture, directed by Charles Walters, is thought of as a light musical by some. But, who cares? It’s in Technicolor, and Judy’s in peak form – dancing with Fred Astaire.

“A Star is Born”: If you don’t know the story of this 1954 film, directed by George Cukor, starring Garland and James Mason, you’re not a member of queer nation. There have been other versions of “A Star is Born,” some quite good, but this is still the best. Garland should have gotten an Oscar for this one.

“Judgment at Nuremberg”: This 1961 film, directed by Stanley Kramer, will never be a date night movie. It’s long (3 hours, 6 minutes), grim (about Nazi crimes) and Garland is only in it for about seven minutes. But the story is gripping and Garland’s performance is mesmerizing. When you watch her as Irene, you won’t be thinking that’s Judy Garland.

Happy centennial, Judy! 

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A fine ‘Bro’-mance

Eichner, Macfarlane performances essential to movie’s appeal

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Luke Macfarlane and Billy Eichner star in ‘Bros.’ (Photo courtesy of Universal Studios)

If you’re reading this, you probably already know that “Bros” is a history-making milestone for LGBTQ representation in the movies — the first gay romantic comedy produced by a major Hollywood studio, written by an openly gay man (Billy Eichner) who also stars in it – and that it was made with queer talent filling virtually every role, both on camera and off. The “Billy on the Street” writer/comedian/actor, true to his brand, has been loud-and-proud about his efforts to foster authenticity and inclusivity throughout the making of his film, and rightly so.

Still, now that his much-anticipated movie is finally out, we can finally stop talking about all that. After all, even when a movie scores as many points for LGBTQ representation as this one does, what really matters is whether or not it’s actually any good.

When Eichner was tapped to make his film for Universal, many may have assumed it would be a showcase for his signature comedic persona — acerbic but disarmingly funny, more than a touch manic, somehow confrontational, defiant, and self-deprecating all at the same time — that would also poke fun at a heteronormative genre beloved just as often by its queer fans for its camp value as for anything else. This expectation seemed all but confirmed when Eichner announced the casting of actor Luke Macfarlane – known for playing handsome hunks in the very romcoms his movie would presumably be sending up – as his love interest.

As it happens, those assumptions were not entirely wrong. “Bros” is unabashedly autobiographical in tone, presenting Eichner essentially as an alternative version of himself if he had been a queer history scholar and author instead of a poly-hyphenate show biz celebrity; his character, Bobby Lieber, has even got a podcast, allowing him to voice the kind of take-no-prisoners witticisms and shrewdly queer observations about life and culture for which both versions of himself have become famous. 

While at a launch event for a new dating app, Bobby meets Aaron (Macfarlane), who – as one of the crowd of shirtless gay scenesters he’s used to being ignored by, he assumes is shallow, not too bright, and not into him at all. It turns out he’s wrong on all counts, and the two men soon find themselves drawn into a relationship, despite some serious issues around commitment and the fact that they seem to have nothing in common.

All of this is a perfect match for Eichner’s comic sensibilities – he’s built his image on calling out society for the absurdity of its assumptions, the illogic of its priorities, the depth of its shallowness, and “Bros” gives him plenty of opportunity to do exactly that, as well as plenty of fodder for his usual zingers and pop-culture references. It’s very much the kind of savagely iconoclastic spoof we would expect from its creator, making fun of social conventions (both gay and straight) and lampooning everything from awards-show stunt fashion to celebrity athletes coming out of the closet to “Dear Evan Hansen” — but it’s not nearly as scattershot as it sometimes feels. There’s a method to Eichner’s madness, and it hinges on reminding us that we are all, from a certain perspective, utterly ridiculous.

If that were all that “Bros” accomplished, it would be enough, but it gives us so much more. Not content to simply settle into familiar territory, he sets his sights on rising to the level of the romance classics he boldly references throughout, from “When Harry Met Sally” to “You’ve Got Mail” to “Manhattan.” With the help of director and co-writer Nicholas Stoller, whose sure-handed cinematic sensibility allows the star’s broadly satirical strokes and flights of absurdist fancy to flourish while still remaining grounded, he succeeds.

In large part, this is because Eichner’s screenplay doesn’t fall into the trap of being governed by the same tropes and expectations it makes fun of. Instead, it undermines them to take us further; unlike many romances, this one goes past the feel-good “falling in love” stuff and explores what it’s like for two adult men to build a relationship that works. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that’s not an easy or comfortable process, especially for a generation that came of age under the lingering shadow of widespread homophobia, but “Bros” is willing to go there – and because of that, its seemingly mismatched and dysfunctional lead couple are infinitely more relatable.

That doesn’t mean Eichner and Stoller ever allow their movie to become a “bummer.” Things might get a little messy from time to time, but what relationship doesn’t? By choosing to give “Bros” the kind of maturity that’s able to weather the storm, they’ve built something deeper and more lasting – the kind of movie that’s worthy of setting a few milestones – without sacrificing any of the comedy. And despite the cynical pose that’s always been at the heart of Eichner’s persona, they’re not afraid to let it get a little sappy, too.

As for its two stars, Eichner and Macfarlane’s performances are essential elements in the movie’s winning appeal. It’s perhaps not too surprising that Eichner, who’s been able to show us hints of his wider range before, rises to the occasion for his debut as a leading man; it’s the kind of work with the potential to elevate him into a whole new echelon of talent. A greater revelation is Macfarlane, who dives way below the pretty surface of Aaron to deliver a braver and more vulnerable performance than anyone might have expected. Together, the two actors find an easy and affectionate chemistry that is not only believable but makes it easy for real-life couples to recognize themselves in their relationship. They front a superb cast that includes Monica Raymund, Dot-Marie Jones, Jim Rash, Guillermo Díaz, Amanda Bearse, Miss Lawrence, TS Madison, Bowen Yang, and Jai Rodriguez, not to mention a host of queer and queer-friendly celebrity cameos from Kristin Chenoweth, Harvey Fierstein, and Amy Schumer, among several others.

It would be easy to go into detail about the many things that make “Bros” stand out as a piece of “queer cinema” — the way it weaves educational tidbits about LGBTQ history into the story as a tongue-in-cheek primer for straight viewers, or the sex-positive attitude with which it boldly and playfully depicts gay love-making, or its assertion of the differences instead of the similarities between same-sex relationships and straight ones — but it’s better to let viewers discover these things for themselves, along with all the movie’s other pleasures. We don’t want to give any more away, though we will tell you to watch for a scene-stealing turn by Debra Messing, who seems to be having the time of her life.

Other than that, all you need to know is that “Bros” lives up to its hype to become one of the smartest, sexiest, and yes, sweetest comedies of the year so far – the kind of rom-com that’s good enough to recommend even for people who don’t like rom-coms. 

And yes, it sets a lot of LGBTQ milestones, but don’t see it because of that. See it because it’s good.

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