The Queen (1968)

One of the reasons it was so easy to become an immediate fan of the competition reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race (admittedly as a late-comer) is that instantly felt familiar to me through the NYC ball culture documentary Paris is Burning. The runway categories, library reads, and aggressive voguing gyrations of the show felt like they were directly lifted from Paris is Burning’s most iconic moments – just smartly adapted to a modern reality competition show format. It turns out that was an incomplete picture of where Drag Race was pulling its inspiration from, as I recently discovered while watching the new digital restoration of the late-60s drag pageant documentary The Queen. Predating both Paris is Burning and, incredibly, the Stonewall riots, The Queen is a behind-the-scenes tour of a drag competition in 1960s New York City. It’s such an early glimpse of the scene that it was Rated X by the MPAA largely for its cohabitation of black and white contestants backstage before racial segregation was officially outlawed by The Supreme Court. It’s an invaluable artifact from a pageant drag tradition that hasn’t changed a lick over the last half-century even though the world has drastically changed around it. The trail back from Drag Race to Paris is Burning directly leads even further back here – a clear lineage of the exact kind of D.I.Y. spectacle & glamour in gender performance entertainment you can still see at your local drag bar this very weekend.

Of course, because it’s such an early snapshot of the pageant drag scene, the film is narrated with a kind of Drag 101 overview (not to mention outdated in its discussions of transgender identity politics). Mostly, though, it’s structured like a lost early season of Drag Race. At first, it feels as if there are way too many contestants for any one individual personality to shine through, but the major players and the obvious winner emerge over time in a slow-moving meltdown of hurt feelings, petty jealousies, and pure D.I.Y. glamour. Celebrity guests like Andy Warhol briefly appear to boost ratings. Life or Death wig emergencies heighten the backstage drama. Crystal LaBejia (whose infamous drag house would later feature prominently in Paris is Burning) reads a younger queen to filth for not having paid her dues. There’s even a controversy where the RuPaul-like figurehead of the pageant, Sabrina, is accused of rigging the results to crown her preferred queen in a sham of a competition. You could almost map out a Drag Race season’s worth of ficitional Reddit message board discussions of the competition and pass it off as critique of a recent era of the show. The only thing that’s noticeably out of date on the surface (as opposed to lurking in its era’s politics) is the types of drag represented onstage are much more limited in their variety – encompassed entirely by the Passing, glamorous concerns of the old pageant drag traditions that defined the artform for me growing up in the South. The exponential popularity of Paris is Burning & Drag Race has expanded the definition of what drag is (and the possibilities of what it can be) in recent years, but the competition format here indicates that the structure of its presentation has largely remained the same for a long time now.

The similarities between these three drag culture touchstones wouldn’t be so remarkable if there were more documents of the artform over time, so a lot of The Queen’s value as an artifact is how rare its backstage 1960s access truly is. Still, the film has its own artistic merits outside its place in a drag competition lineage, even if it’s more functional & matter-of-fact than it is avant-garde. Even in its new restoration it has the overly rich color & wildly out-of-focus drunkenness of an old Polaroid preserved in the back of a forgotten photo album, seeing the light of day for the first time in decades. Because the backstage spaces it crams into to document the drag show’s contestants are so cramped, it’s often shot from drastically low angles, incredibly close to its subjects’ faces. The audience often takes on the POV of a lost toddler who stumbled behind the scenes of a Vegas floor show. There’s plenty of beauty & glamor, but also cacophonous chatter & an overwhelming funhouse mirror effect in its closeups of half-dressed performers. You won’t find that kind of guerilla filmmaking excitement in the crisp, digital gaudiness of Drag Race, which has honed this drag competition format down to a machine-like precision. That tangible presence of humanity behind the camera overrides the sense that Sabrina is attempting to over-produce the narrative of her supposedly non-rigged competition à la RuPaul, and The Queen gradually takes on its own look & tone separate from its drag competition descendants to follow as a result. It’s both unique & traditionalist, warmly familiar & shockingly fresh – a vibrant relic from a drag lineage that’s proving to be eternal.

-Brandon Ledet

Hurricane Bianca (2016)

EPSON MFP image

three star

campstamp

It’s honestly not at all fair for me to make this comparison, since Bianca Del Rio (the drag persona of local boy-made-good Roy Haylock) was already a success long before she appeared on the show, but the campy drag queen comedy Hurricane Bianca feels like a sketch from RuPaul’s Drag Race stretched to a feature length film. The comedy sketches have never been the highlight of that show, which is more about fashion artistry & reality show competition than drag-themed SNL skits, but every now & then the right performer can make them worthwhile. Bianca Del Rio was already a fully developed talent by the time she arrived at (and won) Drag Race, so selling the comedy in the show’s aggressively corny bits was second nature to her. She actually might be the most over-qualified queen in the history of the show to helm a feature length broad comedy like Hurricane Bianca, which is even below such prestige-free ventures as SNL‘s Superstar & It’s Pat! movies in terms of production quality. Cameos & bit roles from Drag Race standouts like Willam, Alyssa Edwards, and RuPaul himself (out of drag, as a weatherman) only reinforce the film’s general expanded Drag Race sketch vibe and your enjoyment in (and patience with) Hurricane Bianca might depend largely on how much fun you have with that aspect of the show.

Presented as a storybook fairy tale (or, in the film’s terms, the tale of a fairy), Hurricane Bianca stars Haylock as a queer high school teacher from NYC who’s forced to find work in rural Texas to make do. Headed by an unusually hateful Rachel Dratch (applying her trademark SNL-style mugging to her role as a bigoted bully), the group of Conservative Texans this hopeless nerd science teacher/failed stand-up comedian interlopes reject him outright as a pariah (“There’s something queer about him. I just can’t put my finger on it.”) and our put-upon hero once again finds himself jobless. Then, in a plot straight out of an aborted Adam Sandler screenplay, the teacher gets re-hired at the same school as a woman, adopting his meant-to-be Bianca Del Rio persona almost 2/3rds into the runtime. Del Rio presents a dichotomy where drag equals confidence and the teacher transforms from a timid nerd to an instant queen bitch. Her Don Rickles insult-clown routine destroys the false superiority of Dratch’s evil bigot antagonist and the teen bullies who do such delightful things as take “Smear the queer” selfies with the one openly gay student in their school, whom they abuse daily. Strangely mirroring the third act of The Dressmaker, Hurricane Bianca gradually transforms into an absurd revenge fantasy in which drag queens have their day and the evil Texan Christians are put in their place by such cartoonish weapons as Bugs Bunny gags & surprise swarms of bees.

It’s difficult to say if Hurricane Bianca works as a starmaker for Del Rio, since it is such a for-fans-only proposition. The film is so cartoonishly silly & unapologetically queer that it’s bound to appeal to a very limited subset of camp-minded dorks, likely the exact crowd who would have followed Bianca’s career closely enough to hear about this very minor release in the first place. It very much feels like a SNL movie or a WWE Studios production in that way and, as a trash-gobbling dork myself, I would love nothing more than for Drag Race as a brand to keep making small scale movies that appeal only to its own insular audience (starting with Alyssa Edwards’s Ambrosia Salad character from this film, preferably). Within that limited scope framework, Hurricane Bianca is a resounding success. It provides Del Rio with a larger platform for her insult comedy, gives Haylock an excuse to appear out of drag to hopefully expand his familiarity, and actually has a surprisingly political bent to it between its sillier moments, especially in the way it spoofs the bigotry of Texan Christianity & attempts to provide hope for queer high school students who are continually bullied by their peers. I can’t say that if you aren’t already on board with Del Rio that you will be surprised & won over by what Hurricane Bianca provides. If you’re already a fan & you don’t often find yourself fast-forwarding through the sketch comedy bits on RuPaul’s Drag Race, however, you’ll likely have a gay ol’ time.

-Brandon Ledet

Drag Becomes Him (2015)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

One of my favorite aspects of the drag queen reality show competition RuPaul’s Drag Race is that the system works. A lot of viewers believe a (completely believable) conspiracy that the show’s winners are predetermined & cherry picked for success (yet another theory that supports my contention that drag & pro wrestling are essentially the same thing), but I don’t really care if that’s true. My favorite contestants on the show are generally the queens crowned America’s Next Drag Superstar (except maybe in the recent case of Kim Chi), which is good enough for me, no matter what mechanism produces that result. I was curious, then, when I discovered a documentary on Jinkx Monsoon, the winner of season 4, lurking on Amazon Prime, as they were my favorite contestant on their season of the show. Truth be told, Drag Becomes Him is an interesting doc whether or not you watch RuPaul’s Drag Race with any regularity. It’s essentially a portrait of an artist who happens to make it big in a crowded field of similar talents. Although ostensibly a vanity project, the film has very little vanity as it mostly shows drag performer Jinkx Monsoon in various stages of undress & overwhelming stress. It’s a low-key document of a significant time in the unglamorous life of a performer embedded in one of America’s most glamorous & most underappreciated art forms. And even as a standalone film divorced from Monsoon’s celebrity, Drag Becomes Him still commands an interesting, unique vision & narrative, a surprising feat for a film obviously crowdfunded & cheaply made.

Jinkx Monsoon states nakedly, both in a figurative & a literal sense, that they desire “to be known as an artist, not just a female impersonator”. A Seattle queen from a very artsy, performance-based scene (as opposed to the appearance-obsessed world of “pageant queens”), Monsoon has a kind of put-on, Old Hollywood demeanor that makes it difficult to differentiate between performer & character. A theater kid type who’s always “on”, Monsoon might be a bit much to have around as close friend, but they’re a joy to watch onscreen & seem to be very sweetly sincere in an art scene that seems prone to very jaded personalities. The film is structured around Jinkx explaining the basics of drag as an art form as they slowly apply makeup & accessories, making that awkward transition from looking like a Buffalo Bill-type psychopath while in half drag to becoming a larger than life persona. Simultaneously, a narrative emerges of both Monsoon’s personal life in a broken home & their professional career from performing at the age of 15 to cutting their teeth at local clubs to becoming an enterprise with several dedicated employees. Drag Becomes Him has the benefit of a wealth of footage from every stage of Monsoon’s career, but the way it juggles all of those narratives without seeming overburdened or reading like an A-B linear Wikipedia article points to a surprisingly adept team in terms of directing & editing. This is a small scale, low stakes documentary, but it’s one done exceedingly well.

One thing I did not expect form Drag Becomes Him was how wild Jinkx Monsoon would come across in their personal life. On RuPaul’s Drag Race they were kind of pigeonholed as a relatively tame personality in contrast with their competitors. Here, Jinkx does sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll as convincingly as any queen, getting stoned & partying in celebration in a newfound high point of their career (and deservedly so). The film has a completely different tone from Drag Race, skewing kinder & more gently sincere, but it does traffic in the same unapologetically gay headspace. The way it openly leers at masculine bodies is refreshing, since this kind of content can often be phonily de-sexed in order to put a wider audience at ease. Still, Monsoon’s life is far from one continuous, glamorous party and the film finds humor & fascination with the inconveniences of the logistics of drag: the indignity & discomfort of tucking, the machinations of taking a piss while buried under layers of clothing, typing while wearing cartoonishly long nails, etc. The only aspect of Monsoon’s life the film skips over is the narcolepsy revealed during their reign on television, which seems like a curious detail to avoid. Everything else is laid bare.

I don’t think you have to be a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race to enjoy Drag Becomes Him. The film carves out its own space entirely separate from the show’s very particular camp aesthetic. I was especially surprised by how it establishes a sort of digital pastel look all of its own that both serves its subject’s personality & helps distinguish the film as a work of art. I do think, however, that you’d be hard pressed to finish the doc without being at least somewhat a fan of Monsoon. They bare so much of their vulnerabilities as a real-life personality & their artistic sensibilities as a drag performer that it’s difficult to leave the film without feeling intimately connected. I entered Drag Becomes Him as a previous convert to all things Monsoon & I left as an even bigger, more dedicated fan. Jinkx is a talented artist & Drag Becomes Him makes a convincing, intimate case for how significant their art form can be.

-Brandon Ledet