On April 27th, 1953 President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Executive Order #10450. This order enabled his administration to orchestrate a witch hunt seeking out anyone in the federal government who might be homosexual. These employees were either encouraged to resign or outright fired. They were also denied employment in other branches and sectors of the government. Homosexuals were deemed a “security risk” and denied clearance. They were often threatened with exposure and coerced to name names much like the Communist witch hunt of the McCarthy era. This persecution, known as the “lavender scare”, continued for over four decades until the Clinton administration ended the ban. In the years in between, tens of thousands of employees lost their jobs. Careers ended and lives were forever changed. However in the midst of the Cold War paranoia of the lavender scare, the seed was planted for the gay rights movement. What originally was intended as a moral crackdown helped spur a rebellion against oppression.
Director Josh Howard’s new documentary The Lavender Scare examines a dark time in the history of our government and our culture. The film was inspired by David K. Johnson’s non-fiction book by the same name. Talking heads include Johnson himself, other historians, former government employees who were victims of the bans, their family members and even their persecutors. Notable figures include Joan Cassidy, who served as a captain in the Navy Reserve, and Frank Kameny, an astronomer turned activist. Kameny is by far the most interesting subject in the film. Known as the grandfather of the gay rights movement, he was the first person to fight back against the ban and organized a protest outside the White House in 1965.
“It’s a story that’s both tragic and triumphant. It tells of the heartbreak of those who lost their jobs and their careers – and even their lives – as a result of the government’s brutal tactics. But it is uplifting as well. It shows how the policy of discrimination stirred a sense of outrage and activism among gay men and lesbians and helped ignite what was to become the gay rights movement.”
Director Josh Howard
Howard’s documentary is an interesting mix of first and second hand accounts, FBI files and other written documents as well as plenty of context about the era of the lavender scare. It’s narrated by Glenn Close and features the voices of Cynthia Nixon, Zachary Quinto, T.R. Knight and David Hyde Pierce.
I do wish there was a bit more information about the post WWII when the LGBT community moved to Washington D.C. in search of government work. There were some other bits of history I wanted to know more about (Kinsey Report findings, the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, etc.) but I felt like the documentary did a surface level look and not a deep dive. There was perhaps too much going on and it lost focus. However, this film serves as an important primer on a lesser known aspect of our government’s history. The Lavender Scare doesn’t leave us in despair but fills us with hope that this dark history is behind us and we can learn from it for a better future.
The Lavender Scare released in NY and Los Angeles this month in time for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Visit the official website to check out dates for future screenings. It will have it’s nationwide PBS premiere on June 18th.
Happy Pride Month! I’ve been on a major LGBTQ film kick this year and have been discovering and re-discovering some great movies. To celebrate Pride I thought I’d share with you my favorite LGBTQ films and what I love about each.
Call Me By Your Name (2017) – To say this film changed my life is an understatement. It awakened something in me that’s been dormant in my life. It led to an identity crisis that took me a few months to sort through. I’m a card carrying CMBYN fanatic. I have the Blu-Ray, the Andre Aciman’s original novel, James Ivory’s screenplay (and yes I’ve read both) and the Mania tee inspired by Ivory’s shirt he wore for the Oscars. I talk about this film all the time to anyone who will listen. I introduced it to my friend Vanessa who fell in love with it even more than I did (read the post about her experience here). CMBYN begs to be obsessed over. Set in one of the most beautiful places on earth with two dynamic actors Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer playing two of the most wonderful fictional characters Elio and Oliver, there is little not to love about this movie. There are so many wonderful scenes that it’s hard to choose a favorite but the moment two have in a little nook as Oliver helps Elio with his nosebleed is tender, sweet and sexy in a way that makes me want to fall out of my chair every time I watch it.
Maurice (1987) – Think CMBYN but released three decades earlier and set in the beginning of the century and you have Maurice. Directed and co-written by James Ivory, the story is based on E.M. Forester’s posthumous novel by the same name. It explores the story of Maurice (James Wilby), a young man at university who falls for fellow student Clive (Hugh Grant). When a fellow classmate goes to jail for indecency, homosexuality was illegal back then, Clive tries to go straight. Maurice then finds love with Clive’s groundsman Alec (Rupert Graves). You can see the parallels between Maurice and CMBYN down to the picnic scenes and train station farewells. Maurice has a much more satisfying ending though and lifted me up when CMBYN got me down.
Below Her Mouth (2016) – When I first watched this movie I wrote it off as an overly erotic lesbian drama. I’m glad I gave it a second shot because it quickly became one of my favorite LGBT movies and it rivals CMBYN for the #1 spot. Below Her Mouth is about a roofer Dallas (Erika Linder) and a fashion editor Jasmine (Natalie Krill) who develop an intense physical attraction for each other. The problem is Jasmine is engaged to a man. Linder and Krill have the best on screen chemistry I have ever witness in a movie EVER. It’s so palpable. They’re a perfect match. This film is nothing if not erotic. There are several graphic sex scenes and one could say not enough relationship building. But the sex comes from a female gaze and is more real than anything I’ve ever seen. The production team consisted of an all-female crew (a true rarity!) led by director April Mullen and producer Melissa Coghlan.
Carol (2015) – Set in the 1950s, Carol is based on Patricia Highsmith’s story The Price of Salt. I was worried because of the period that this would break me but lucky for me it didn’t. It stars Cate Blanchett as the title character Carol. On the outside she seems like the perfect rich housewife, but wipe off the veneer and you see a struggling woman in the middle of a divorce and dealing with a society that won’t accept her sexuality. One day Carol meets and falls in love with shop clerk (Rooney Mara) and the two set off on a road trip together. The story is so good at building up the sexual tension that when the two finally have their love scene it was such a welcome relief. The costumes and set design are fantastic. While the film holds the viewer at a distance emotionally, I still felt that this was a sweet love story and depicted the reality of being a lesbian in mid-Century New York City.
Moonlight (2016) – This coming-of-age film is beautiful and stark and relentless in its portrayal of the principal character Chiron in three different stages of his life. All three actors who played Chiron, Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders and Alex Hibbert brought so much to the role. I’m fascinated that although they didn’t work with each other their own interpretations of Chiron were consistent with each other. Moonlight is haunting and raw and its a story that needed to be told. It’s an example of why representation matters. The final scene when adult Chiron has a tender moment with the only man who ever touched him, Kevin (Andre Holland), is powerful. When I watched this for the first time it was at home and I replayed that final scene over and over and over again until I finally convinced myself to let it go. I also loved the scene when Mahershala Ali’s Juan explains the word f***** to child Chiron. It’s what earned Ali his Oscar that’s for sure.
Brokeback Mountain (2005) – Directed by one of my favorites, Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain stars Jake Gyllenhaal and the late great Heath Ledger as two ranchers who fall in love but have to hide their relationship and live on as straight men. The title has become synonymous with gay romance. I love the famous line “I wish I knew how to quit you.” And that sad final scene with Heath Ledger embracing the shirt on a hanger left me sobbing and gasping for air. I avoided LGBT films for a long time because this one shattered my heart into a million pieces.
Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) – This is a long film, told in two parts and clocks in at 3 hours. The story follows a teenager named Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) as she blossoms into womanhood and falls in love with the older Emma (Lea Seydoux), a sensual woman with a shock of blue hair. The story is about finding yourself and losing yourself and it is so relatable in many ways. It’s a problematic film, caught in the male gaze of director/producer Abdellatif Kechiche, who was said to have treated his cast and crew poorly. I question the lighting for the sex scenes between two women. If it wasn’t for Adele and Emma, two fascinating and dynamic characters, this film might have been a wash for me. Watch it for those two and the talented actresses who play them.
Princess Cyd (2017) – While the lesbian love story between Cyd (Jessie Pinnick) and Katie (Malic White) is just a sub-plot, it’s also the only interesting part of the whole movie. Cyd is a teenager whose family suffered a traumatic loss and when her father can’t deal with the aftermath she spends a summer at her aunt Miranda’s house. The two initially butt heads, Cyd an opinionated and free-spirited teen and Miranda, a famous author who needs to live a little, but soon come to learn from each other. Miranda’s story is depressing and hard to watch and on repeat views I found myself fast forwarding just to get to Cyd and Katie’s beautiful little love story. Malic White is a punk rock star turned actress and I love the on screen chemistry she has with Pinnick. Watch it once for the whole story and again just for Cyd and Katie. In fact I wouldn’t mind a sequel where these two are reunited.
All of these films are available on Netflix streaming or on DVD Netflix for rental.