What’s the first thing you think of when you think of drag? I’d wager a bet to say that 95% of readers would say RuPaul, known for the worldwide phenomenon that is RuPaul’s Drag Race, a competition reality show having just finished its 11th season (on top of four All-Stars seasons featuring past contestants given a second shot at winning). The show started in 2009 on Viacom’s LGBT-focused channel Logo, and with each season, the show grew in popularity, gaining cult status and moving forward to mainstream recognition, eventually jumping to the far more accessible channel VH1 for its 9th season. The art of female impersonation has reached such a level of popularity today that one might fail to think of the road it has taken to get to its place in today’s society. When looking to explore the world of queer and transgender history through the lens of drag, one might look to the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, which depicts the world of the New York City ball scene during the height of the AIDS crisis. However, if one wants to go back to the roots of modern drag, in its purest and most original form, one has to look to Frank Simon’s 1968 documentary The Queen, which has been lovingly restored by the good folks over at Kino Lorber.
Sabrina (known later in life as Flawless Sabrina or Mother Flawless Sabrina) is the leader of the National Academy, a drag organization that puts on shows and pageants for burgeoning drag queens around the country. The Queen documents the production of the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant, a national pageant at New York’s historic Town Hall theatre. Known as “The Mother,” Sabrina presides over the pageant but does not partake in it, though her protégé, a younger drag queen named Harlow, does. The pageant is a meticulous production of fierce fashion and tight guidelines led by a strict points system that could put the judging of Miss America to shame.
What The Queen does so perfectly is that it paints a picture of an American sub-culture that, at the time, was so heavily demonized and misunderstood, and presents it in an objective and sympathetic manner that doesn’t seek to sensationalize or condescend the art form on display. The film doesn’t seek to understand why this underground world of female impersonation exists but only looks to legitimize it by actually showing the queens as actual people, not just as the grandiose personalities that come alive onstage. This might not seem particularly rare nowadays, as anyone with an iPhone and editing software can make a documentary, but in a pre-AIDS, and even pre-Stonewall era, the mere thought of portraying queer people as anything less than sexual deviants, let alone human beings, was a revolution against the norms of society.
The Queen also doesn’t look to produce trauma porn from the stories of these people and the world they inhabit. Many of them have supportive families, many of them are not the only queer people within their families, and many are quite happy with their lives. Some were even turned away from the Vietnam War draft due to their homosexuality and protested that decision in a desire to serve their country, a country that had cast them aside and told them they were not worthy of rights. These are not the caricatures of queer people one might expect from something from this time period and it’s incredibly refreshing to see. These queens don’t exist to bolster straight women’s confidence, nor do they sit around spouting catchphrases for comedic purposes. This is not a film that exists to trivialize the experiences of queer people in the 1960s, nor does it seek to paint them as some sort of tragic figment of American society. Their existence is simply validated in a silent, uncompromising manner.
That doesn’t mean The Queen isn’t entertaining. In fact, it’s one of the most entertaining documentaries I have ever seen. Queer people, if I should say so myself, are some of the most loving, compassionate, and driven people that have ever existed, and the world is finally, if slowly, opening their eyes to the talents and beauty of our community. Even when it feels like the queens are being cruel to each other, their criticisms and reads come from a place of love and mutual respect for each other. Many of the performers shown in The Queen have talents worthy of Broadway, but find themselves stagnant in their craft due to the world’s hatred of their “kind.” Even in an industry as seemingly accepting of queer people as Broadway might seem to be, the struggle still persists today. It took until 2018 for Peppermint, a New York City drag queen and transgender woman (and runner-up of season 9 of RuPaul’s Drag Race), to become the first out transgender person to originate a principal role in a Broadway show in Head Over Heels, a milestone one might’ve thought to have been crossed long ago. The struggles presented in The Queen might seem like a by-product of days gone by, but the world still has yet to fully and authentically embrace the nuance of the queer experience, the way that The Queen does.
The ripples that The Queen made on the world are still being felt today, as well. Drag pageants are the institution to end all institutions, with pageants like Miss Gay USofA and Miss Continental showing off the cream of the crop of the pageant drag community, representing everything a “pageant queen” could strive for today. Even during RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars 3, young contestant Aja of Brooklyn, New York, during that season’s Snatch Game, a celebrity impersonation challenge parodying Match Game, impersonated Crystal LaBeija, a legendary drag queen featured prominently in The Queen, and founder of the House of LaBeija, one of the largest drag families in the New York ball scene still active today (Crystal’s daughter, Pepper, is featured heavily in Paris is Burning as the house mother, after Crystal’s death in 1982). This brought a lot of mainstream attention back to The Queen and the importance that knowing your queer history beyond just the basics of the Stonewall Riots and a few important celebrities.
And I think that’s where The Queen hits home the most. It paints a clear and vivid picture of the lives of out gay men during a time where it was sometimes a literal death sentence for doing so, but crafts it in an expertly structured and emotionally uplifting light. This is a film that doesn’t have an agenda to it, but seeks to tell a story at its core, which is what documentary filmmaking is all about. The confidence and grace of this community during a time of such social unrest is a testament to the strength and resilience of the queer community, something that no one, and I truly mean no one, can take away. Flawless Sabrina passed away at the age of 78 in 2017, but the effects of her work with drag queens and the queer community, during her time on screen in The Queen and off screen, doing major work in the queer liberation movement around the country, will be felt for generations to come. The Queen crafts something that’s so vivid and real that you simply wish you could reach out and give it a bear hug and let them know how loved they really are. It’s a brief, but beautiful experience to have.
The 4K restoration of The Queen opens in Los Angeles on July 26th, 2019 at Laemmle Glendale.
Final Score: 5 out of 5