THE QUEEN – Review by Leslie Combemale

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Before queer was cool, or even fully legal, first-time director Frank Simon created The Queen, a 1968 groundbreaking documentary chronicling one of the original and quintessential competitive drag events in history, the 1967 Miss All-American Camp Beauty Pageant. Featuring iconic queen Flawless Sabrina aka LGBTQ activist Jack Doroshow as narrator, and a must-see jaw-dropping bitch-fest scene courtesy of Crystal LaBeija, who was later indelibly captured in 1990’s Paris is Burning, this film is truly a priceless cinematic artifact of LGBTQ and film history.

Landing in perfect tandem to the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, a brand new 4K restoration of the original camera negative has been produced by Bret Wood of Kino Lorber, with the help of the Harry Ransom Center and the Outfest UCLA Legacy Project. It will have a staggered release in theaters all across North America.

The pageant took place at Town Hall in New York City, and was billed as “A Satirical happening: Ziegfeld’s psychedelic re-write of Hellzapoppin, the nation’s most beautiful female impersonators.” It is a film that offers an authentic peek into pre-Stonewall gay life, and though there are still cat fights, posturing, and ‘shade’ being thrown, viewers will also be struck by the bravery and determination of the subjects on camera.

Missing are many of the tools and techniques utilized in more recent drag shows. Don’t imagine, for example, the diverse options of makeup seen in RuPaul’s Drag Race, available in hues meant for every race and taste. These queens are using store-bought makeup, and gowns bought at a women’s formal clothing store. They are also faced with unaccepting laws and environments. Even with their accommodations, as Flawless Sabrina mentions, they have to stay at a hotel that is hip enough to have them there. The scenes of men of all ages in their hotel rooms sharing their experiences, talking about gender identity and sexual orientation, acceptance or rejection, is a freeze frame of what living in the 60s must have been like for LGBTQ folk, and it’s at once heartbreaking and fascinating. It was clearly in no way easy. They had to find their fun where they could. Performing onstage for judges like Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick allowed them to uniquely and freely express themselves, and we in 2019 are the luckier for it having been captured on film.

Cameras follow contestants, as well as the fearless empresaria that is Flawless Sabrina, guiding the queens in rehearsals, advising them about various aspects of the competition, and handling them with an iron, albeit rhinestone-laden fist. The conflict comes by way of Flawless Sabrina’s young, blonde protege Richard, or Miss Harlow, who is only just finding their way, but expects everything including the pageant crown to just land in their lap. There are definitely issues of racial bias and favoritism that rear their heads during the proceedings, culminating in a now-famous diatribe by Miss Crystal LaBeija near the film’s end. That she goes on to become the Founding House Mother of the drag family House of LaBeija in 1972, is a direct result of the prejudice that she felt denied her the crown during the ’67 pageant. Her first event “Crystal & Lottie LaBeija presents the first annual House of Labeija Ball at Up the Downstairs Case” is believed to be the birth date of house culture. The sense of belonging and safety created by these houses has since literally saved scores of lives of gay, gender nonconforming, and transgender youth rejected by their biological families. Many of these drag family trees sprouted from the happenings documented in The Queen.

As a time capsule in the form of cinema verite, even as these drag queens were choosing moment to moment between being real and serving us ‘realness,’ The Queen is a gift to all film aficionados. For ushering the way to Paris is Burning, Pose, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and indeed much of current drag culture, the throne will ever belong to The Queen.

5 out of 5 stars

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren for websites including LikeABossGirls.com, where she promotes women in film with her own column. She is in her third year as producer and moderator of the "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. Find all her interviews and reviews at cinemasiren.com.