Moving Pictures
Dec 05, 2008, 03:58AM

Project Greenlight: After Milk

What other gay icons deserve the reverent Hollywood treatment?

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James Baldwin in 1958.

Milk is out right now and so far it's making bank—my guess is it won't be the next Brokeback but it will be successful. This begs the question: with two successful gay period movies under its belt, what should Hollywood do next?

I asked my friends—brainy, of various sexualities, all with lots of free time on their hands (mostly academics)—about what gay(ish) biopics they would greenlight if they were well-endowed L.A. producers.

First, a caveat. Not all of the seven people I asked agreed Hollywood is necessary for showcasing gays: maybe we should look for alternative spaces—online, indie theatres, etc.—to show gay films. I agree, to a point. Certainly alternative films are made and distributed in exciting ways. In a few weeks I plan to interview Homotopia, the directors of provocative queer films out of San Francisco, and YouTube showcases equally fascinating work (see Ryan Trecartin and Homewrecker Houseboy, for two random examples).

But it's crucial America realize that while Harvey Milk is an important figure in gay history, there are many unrecognized activists, artists, writers, designers and government officials with fascinating lives to tell. I prefer the following stories be known, not selfishly kept by overeducated people like me.

To start, my picks. A must-do biopic is one of James Baldwin. Baldwin is an under-taught intellectual, writer, activist and public civil rights advocate who led a fascinating life, traveled across Europe and Turkey, argued and worked with black leaders for equality. Don Cheadle will play him; Spike Lee will direct. It will win Oscars. On my list are other black luminaries, including writers Audre Lorde and Samuel Delany (who's life is so interesting he's claimed to have had sex with 10,000 men), and politician Barbara Jordan, a legislator and onetime presidential candidate.

Among my friends and lovers, Derek suggested a range of choices, from the traditional Gertrude Stein to the flamboyant Liberace (to which I'd add the controversial pick of Little Richard), and the more scandalous J. Edgar Hoover, whose sexuality is shrouded in rumor, to blues queen Ma Rainey. My friend Dante seconded Ma Rainey and raised him Ethel Waters, and added to my Lorde and Delany, contemporary writer E. Lynn Harris and canonic sci-fi novelist Octavia Butler.

Not everyone suggested gay pics. Miles suggested a "devilish" list not of gays and lesbians but of presumed "straights," as a way to demonstrate the fog of heterosexuality. He also specified "there be no sex scenes in the film but LOTS of looks." He suggests: Bill Cosby, black nationalist Huey Newton, Dolly Parton, Bill Gates, Raisin in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry, and—gasp!—Reagan/Bush 41/Cheney/Rumsfeld. Yep, I've now earned my FBI file and five pending lawsuits! Thanks, Miles!

Who knows if those will be popular, but art-and-fashion aficionado Madison Moore's have a good shot. Designers Gianni Versace and John Galliano will sell tickets, and maybe even gay artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres and photographer David LaChapelle will draw some crowds. His choice of French literature demigod Balzac has no market whatsoever, but Walt Whitman might just appeal to enough American English teachers to bring in a solid gross on opening weekend. Oh yes, his scandalous pick: Condoleezza Rice! (Don't sue the messenger!)

The subjects of historical movies tend to be male-centric, so my colleagues Dan and Adrienne added to our conversation trans-activist Syvlia Rivera, who challenged the gay rights movement on its exclusion of trans-folk before it was popular, and lesbian activist Barbara Gittings, connected to, among other associations, the important-but-oft-unrecognized Daughters of Bilitis. 

There's a lot of history out there, so if you didn't know a name on this list start Googling. Then write a script! No, Hollywood has never solved anything, but a little visibility never hurt anyone

  • What about Tennessee Williams? I can't recall a film, at least a big box-office one, about him.

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  • fun! i am at once intrigued and annoyed by this comment about "the fog of heterosexuality." i think the average movie goer/person aka. non academic will be like...um...what the fucks? overall, good list!!!

  • i apologize for not really having the space to get into that (maybe Miles will come on and comment?)...still i do think there could be really interesting (and perhaps popular) ways of retelling the stories of people like Bush that make them...oddly sexual

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  • Oh yes Tennessee could be great.

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  • I am the "Derek" in this post. I found it an interesting exercise. I tried to propose people who Hollywood might actually consider for a big movie, but some others came with other agendas...of course my list was the best.

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  • My intention was not to suggest making arty films, as sometimes I don't get those myself. Instead, I may have been going after precisely the WTF? response you mentioned. I think one of the deep problems facing queer activism is the illusory purity of straightness. I think this was part of the reasoning behind "coming out" -- to expose the everydayness of people with same-sex attractions. I think the surprising revelations (at least to me) around Bill Cosby's extramarital affairs (and now I'll add all that kissing and hugging between Magic Johnson and Isaiah Thomas back in the day) make for an interesting story. I think the kiss of death would be to market one of my picks as a gay film, but the whole point is that same-gender loving people don't do only that 24/7). And suppressed same-sex affection leads to some ugly places -- Eldgridge Cleaver, Karl Rove anybody? Forgive me for going on, but... I couldn't save black people from this fate, so I'm trying the "new blacks" (how I hate that easy comparison): Black people exist in mainstream media so that white racism can be discussed and neutralized. We, of course, do more in our day that consider white racism. But that's our role in mainstream stories. I would hate for the same thing to happen to gay people, or to homoeroticism more broadly. So, I suggest a popcorn muncher -- not an art house flic -- that includes the homo aspects as part of a story, rather than as a story by itself. We don't live like that (well, maybe some upper middle-class white gay men do). Regardless, I won't watch another movie like that.

  • Popcorn muncher is definitely the name of the game...and like Miles, I think the most effective point would be just including the homosexual part of the individuals life, not really highlighting it more than necessary. Like the Hoover film I want would not gloss over his private life (rumors at all), but it would of course go heavily into the start of the FBI. The idea would be to "depict" the whole person...

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  • yes, when i wrote "artful" I meant a mainstream movie that artfully maneuvered its way around to insinuate sexuality...And bringing up Bill Cosby's affairs is an interesting note; Mark Anthony Neal is doing some interesting work around R. Kelly and how his trapped in the closet opens up the discussion on not homosexuality but the other closet: the myth of the perfect black family (or entertainer! like Cosby and many popular black singers)

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