Oct 09

“Freeheld”: A Slice of Lesbian Domestic Partner History

Now showing in larger markets and coming soon to others, Peter Sollett‘s Freeheld is based on the real lives of workplace-closeted Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore), a New Jersey police lieutenant, and her domestic partner, Stacie Andree (Ellen Page). When Hester was diagnosed with terminal cancer, they fought (over 10 years ago) for Andree’s right to Hester’s pension benefits. Prevented from achieving this were the county officials known as the “Freeholders.”

This true story, by the way, was previously featured in Cynthia Wade‘s 2007 award-winning documentary of the same title.

Although generally lacking in rave reviews, Rex Reed, New York Observer, is wholeheartedly behind the new film. “It’s a poignant, relevant and beautifully made film that must not be missed by anyone with a heart and a social conscience.”

Representing the other side, Manohla Dargis, New York Times, says it’s “a television movie of the week gone uninterestingly wrong.”

So, which extreme is it? Probably neither.

As Reed and others have emphasized, this is the role that prompted actor Page to come publicly and poignantly out of her own real-life closet. But with all the recent changes in LGBT rights in this country, how relevant is Freeheld today? Two more opinions that differ widely:

Steve Pond, The Wrap: “…(T)he recent Supreme Court decision didn’t make the film feel like a musty period piece — instead, it seemed to add resonance and immediacy, turning a small victory in one community into the harbinger of greater things to come.”

Justin Chang, Variety: “…(A)t times plays like a period piece, populated by cardboard bigots, flamboyant gay crusaders and other hoary relics of a less enlightened past. That may be cause for celebration, but it’s hardly a compliment….(A)n oppressively worthy and self-satisfied inspirational vehicle that views its story primarily as a series of teachable moments, all but congratulating viewers for their moral and ideological superiority to roughly half the people onscreen.”

The politics involved, per Odie Henderson, rogerebert.com:

In 2005, when ‘Freeheld’ takes place, New Jersey law allowed people in domestic partnerships to pass on their pensions to their significant others. The law also allowed counties to opt out of such activities. It’s unclear whether the politicians object to Hester because of ‘the sanctity of marriage’ or some compulsive need to not only demand a unanimous vote, but to never reverse any prior vote’s outcome. This latter point is repeated enough times to muddy the waters, especially when one freeholder wants to side with Hester, but doesn’t so as not to break the streak of unanimous votes.

Although Hester isn’t actually an activist for the broader issue of gay marriage, her case is taken up by Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell), who is. His performance is widely perceived as “over-the-top” (both The Wrap and Variety and probably others) and “stereotypical gay comic relief” (Hollywood Reporter).

Other noteworthy supporting characters include Michael Shannon as Hester’s sympathetic cop partner and Josh Charles as the only dissenting Freeholder.

The trailer sets up the basics:

Aug 12

“Blackbird”: Coming Out Young, Male, Black, and Christian

As reported by Neda Ulaby, NPR, the book Blackbird (1986) by Larry Duplechan changed at least one young life profoundly.

That same college student and up-and-coming filmmaker, Patrick-Ian Polkwent on to probably become best known for the creation of the TV series Noah’s Arc (2005-2006), about four black gay men in Los Angeles.

And now he has adapted Duplechan’s book for the screen, with the assistance of co-writer Rikki Beadle Blair. IMDB‘s description of Polk’s Blackbird: “A young singer struggles with his sexuality and the treatment of others while coming of age in a small Southern Baptist community.”

Jai Tiggett, Indiewire, elaborates on the plot:

Newcomer Julian Walker stars as Randy, a good-natured choirboy with a gorgeous voice and a host of personal issues – his little sister’s disappearance, the separation of his parents (played by Mo’Nique and Isaiah Washington), his strange and unsettling visions, and his repressed attraction to the same sex. Coming of age against a backdrop of blue skies, creeks, and pickup trucks and surrounded by a pack of misfit friends, he is the only one in his life who doesn’t seem to know (or accept) that he’s gay. As he and his classmates work on a controversial school production of Romeo & Juliet, all the problems in his life come to a head.

While any story like this runs the risk of stereotype, Randy’s confusion is fortunately balanced by a group of sympathetic straight friends (Nikki Jane, Torrey Laamar, Wanita Woodgett of Danity Kane fame) as well as other gay characters who are more sure of themselves. There’s Marshall (Kevin Allesee), his co-star in a local student film, and his wise-cracking friend Efram (played by standout Gary LeRoi Gray)…

A brief trailer:

The following conclusion from Tiggett has been echoed by other critics as well: “If there’s an issue with the film, it lies with story. With Randy facing so many challenges, there’s not enough space to fully explore them all. Closeted homosexuality, Christian proselytizing, child abduction, parental relationships, teen pregnancy, and more – are all tied up very quickly and perhaps, too easily, given the amount of conflict.”

Coming Out Young, Black, and Christian in Real Life

Although there is a trend toward more churches becoming gay-affirming, many LGBT young men still feel torn “between their identities and their faiths,” according to the Human Rights Campaign.

Some additional points from scholar Michael LaSala, who has studied the individual and family dynamics of urban African American gay youth (Rutgers news release):

Black parents often feel guilty when they learn their child is gay, and many African-American gay youths before coming out distance themselves from their parents…
Black parents may be less likely than whites to ‘mourn the loss of a normal life’ for their gay sons, perhaps understanding that a normal life was less of a sure thing, according to LaSala…
“I found that parents of African-American gay youth said, ‘You have everything going against you as a black man. This is one more strike against you.’ Conversely, parents of white gay youth stated, ‘You have everything going for you – and now this!’” LaSala said…
LaSala points to existing research that calls upon black men to be hypermasculine, a trait characterized by the absence of overt emotions and the appearance of vulnerability, as well as a readiness to have sex at any time. When gay blacks realize they don’t fit the stereotype, they often develop a sense of alienation, loneliness and anxiety, not knowing where they fit in.

Let’s hope, therefore, that Polk’s Blackbird finds its way to those many kids who are likely to identify with its important themes. Blackbird is available on DVD.

Jan 22

“Calling Dr. Laura” by Nicole Georges

In the brand new graphic memoir Calling Dr. Laura, author Nicole Georges finds out at the age of 23 that the father she thought was dead is actually alive. She calls well-known advisor Dr. Laura Schlessinger.

Although her title immediately drew me in, it also raised some fear: Does Dr. Laura, widely viewed as a foe of progressive ideology, figure too prominently in this young author’s book?

I mean, she’s right there. In the title. Calling Dr. Laura.

No need to worry, though. It turns out the title refers only to a cameo appearance.

Interestingly, therapy is involved in the author’s process of dealing with her troubling family dynamics. Furthermore, from the publisher’s book description:

Packed cover-to-cover with heartfelt and disarming black-and-white illustrations, Calling Dr. Laura tells the story of what happens to you when you are raised in a family of secrets, and what happens to your brain (and heart) when you learn the truth from an unlikely source. Part coming-of-age and part coming-out story, Calling Dr. Laura marks the arrival of an exciting and winning new voice in graphic literature.

Her father’s existence isn’t the only secret, you see. Another belongs to Georges, who too has been lying—about her sexuality.

In the trailer below, the author explains, among other things, why she chose Dr. Laura when she needed some special help:

Selected Reviews of Calling Dr. Laura

Arthur BradfordPortland Monthly: “It feels a bit like we are eavesdropping on a therapy session, but an interesting, well-edited one.”

From another graphic memoirist, Alison Bechdel: “Nicole Georges spins a riveting family mystery. There’s a powerful chemistry going on between her delicate drawings and the probing honesty of her investigations. ‘Calling Dr. Laura’ is disarming and haunting, hip and sweet, all at once.”

Author Eileen Myles: “Nicole J. Georges’ graphic memoir is simply an epic for our time. Anyone with a family, who loves dogs, who needs advice and wants to understand the inner workings of a complex and magical female artist must read ‘Calling Dr. Laura.’ I couldn’t put this memoir down for a couple of long great evenings, and I’m still shaken by her animating, wide and searching squares.”