We Are the Radical Monarchs


The youth speak truth to power.

(2019) Documentary (PBS/POV/LadylikeAnayvette Martinez, Marilyn Hollinquest, Isa Noyola, Indelisa Carrillo, Laticia Erving, Rene Quinonez, De’Yani, Diana Martinez, Cheryl Dawson, Dulce Gareta, Stacey Milbank, Eduardo Garcia, Lupita Martinez, Alicia Garza. Directed by Linda Goldstein Knowlton

 

The San Francisco Bay Area has long been a hotbed of progressive ideas and thought, a region whose watchwords are “tolerance” and “acceptance.” When community organizer Anayvette Martinez’s daughter Lupita expressed interest in joining the Girl Scouts, Anayvette had reservations. She was concerned that her daughter was growing up in a world in which girls of color were marginalized and made to feel inadequate. Standards of beauty and success were (and are) almost all oriented towards the viewpoints of European descendants.

She wanted her daughter not to be an outsider, but at the very center of the organization, but she was certain that could never happen in the Scouts. So she and her close friend Marilyn Hollinquest – who like Anayvette is a single mom who identifies as lesbian – decided to form an organization in which young girls of color were shown that they were just as important, just as worthwhile as any other person. Thus, the Radical Brownies were formed.

The group eventually changed their name to Radical Monarchs (although not explicitly mentioned in the film, I would imagine that the GSA had some concerns with the group using the name “Brownies”) which is more meaningful; like the butterfly which is in their logo, the Radical Monarchs promote the beauty of color and symbolize the butterfly emerging from its cocoon.

The film follows the first Radical Monarchs troop from 2015 through 2018, documenting the formation of a second Bay Area troop and the financial challenges faced by both young mothers as they balance the needs of the organization with the needs of their full-time jobs and of course the needs of their children as well. If ever the term “supermom” was deserved, these two ladies deserve it.

The girls are taught the joys of activism and their meetings are almost like school classes in which various social subjects are taught, from the need for Black Lives Matter to body image to social justice. And yes, the girls get badges for completing the work in each module. The founders mention the inspiration of groups like the Black Panthers, the Brown Panthers and other radical groups (the uniforms of the girls include a brown beret and vest that is reminiscent of 60s radical chic) which of course will no doubt set alarm bells ringing among more conservative viewers.

Still, the young girls are very well-spoken and thoughtful. I don’t get the sense that they’re merely parroting the concepts that the troop leaders are trying to teach; one gets the impression that these girls have given it some thought and have brought their own life experiences into their way of thinking, as brief as those lives have been to that point. The girls are even brought in to address the Oakland city council regarding a bill that would protect renters and while it has a bit of the school project to it, the sincerity of the girls is nonetheless heart-warming.

In fact, Fox News has done some pieces on the group and no less a talking head than Sean Hannity professes that the youngsters are being “indoctrinated” which, for those looking for a lesson in semantics, should note that when a parent teaches their children the values of evangelical Christianity, the Second Amendment rights and conservative economic philosophy, that’s instilling their children with values. When a parent teaches their children the values of social justice, tolerance for those different than themselves and the importance of activism, it’s indoctrination. Words are important, aren’t they.

Several times during the film the founders remark that they have been swamped with requests to start troops all over  the country, but they don’t have the financial viability to do it yet (although they have since received a grant that will keep the group going at least through the end of 2020).

Knowlton seems to be overly-fawning at times and while at one point one of the young girls talks about whether white girls would be made welcome in the group, while it’s never explicitly said one way or the other there is a strong sense that they wouldn’t be, which seems to perpetuate a culture of exclusion and an us vs. them mentality. I get that groups like this are desperately needed for young girls of color to find an opportunity to develop, and bond with other girls and that there are plenty of similar groups that white girls are welcome to join. But the tough question that’s never asked is how do we ever learn tolerance of other views when we aren’t exposed to them? How do we learn to be inclusive of others if we’re going to keep our children segregated? I don’t know that is the intention of the leaders of the Radical Monarchs to create a divide but it’s a question that deserves to at least be addressed, and it simply isn’t.

Still, this is an inspiring group of young ladies who seem well-poised to be the activists and leaders of tomorrow. If you think that those protesting social injustice now are just going to go away, you may find it troubling (or comforting) to know that the next generation is already learning the ropes. The struggle continues, and will continue until girls like this get the respect, opportunity and equality that they deserve. That we all deserve.

The film is streaming on the PBS website for their documentary series POV up through August 19, 2020. You can click on the link below to view the film. Check with your local listings to see if the film will be broadcast again on your local PBS station.

REASONS TO SEE: Inspiring watching young girls of color being taught to stand up for themselves.
REASONS TO AVOID: Somewhat hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the topics discussed here are on the adult side, although the troop leaders discuss them with their young charges in a mature and safe manner.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Radical Monarchs were founded in December 2014 as an alternative to the Girl Scouts, with an emphasis on subjects of interest to the Black and Latinx communities.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: POV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: O Beautiful
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Grand Unified Theory of Howard Bloom

Fairytale (Favola)


An All-American housewife.

(2017) Comedy (Breaking GlassFilippo Timi, Lucia Mascino, Piera Degli Esposti, Luca Santagostino, Sergio Albelli. Directed by Sebastiano Mauri

 

The Fifties were a decade here in the United States that in many ways symbolizes a kinder, gentler era; everyone liked Ike, prosperity after the war was undeniable and so long as you were white and straight, you had a pretty decent life just about guaranteed. America was indeed, the beautiful back then.

Mrs. Fairytale (Timi) lives in a bright, modern home that is packed to the gills with kitsch and alcohol. Her husband (Santasostino) leaves for work every morning, leaving her to clean house, cook dinner, commiserate with fellow housewife Mrs. Emerald (Mascino) and adore her poodle Lady (pronounced “Lye-dee” in this Italian-language film) who happens to be stuffed. She also spends time fending off the Stuart triplets (Albelli), all of whom want to get into her panties by hook or by crook – the movie doesn’t hesitate to get into the darker side of the decade, including spousal abuse and alcoholism.

That’s not the only thing that’s off-kilter in this comedy, in which the view out of one set of windows is a New York-like skyline and out another set, a Southwestern desert. Mrs. Fairytale is played in drag by Timi, who also co-wrote the adaptation of his original play; the director is his husband, Mauri who is making his feature directing debut.

Many critics are hailing that the lead role in drag is played by a gay man, which makes for a better understanding of the drag queen culture. I will be honest; I’m not so sure the role is meant to be a drag queen; the oddball story involves invading UFOs who may or may not have changed Mrs. Fairytale’s sex from feminine to masculine. The role is not meant to be an object of fun, like so many drag roles in mainstream movies tend to be, but is meant to be a matter-of-fact depiction of a male actor in a female role. Of late we’ve seen some female actresses playing male characters; I don’t see why the favor shouldn’t be returned.

The movie keeps you off-balance from beginning to end in the most delightful way, all the while remaining true to its aesthetic, and what an aesthetic it is – the production design by Dmitri Capuani is absolutely pitch-perfect, setting the tone for the movie’s eccentric plot, while the set décor by Alessia Anfuso is to die for – I know a lot of devotees of Fifties kitsch culture will be jealous. The costumes by Fabio Zambernardi are positively sumptuous and will have those who love hunting for vintage dressing in thrift stores positively green with envy.

Not everybody is going to love this. It is admittedly willfully weird, but then again, who doesn’t need a little weirdness every now and again, particularly now when confusion is the new normal. If there’s an objection to be had about this delightful film, it’s that it is awfully stagey, even though I think that it intentional on the filmmakers’ part. Still, it feels sometimes like you’re waiting for the rest of the audience to react and that’s not a good thing when you’re watching this while cloistered at home. Fans of LGBTQ cinema should definitely seek this out, but anyone out for a good laugh in a bizarre kitschy atmosphere should love this too.

REASONS TO SEE: Willfully strange and imaginative. Wonderful production design.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not everyone will get this.
FAMILY VALUES: There are sexual situations and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is an adaptation of a play originally written by Timi.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Serial Mom
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Mule

I’m gonna make you love me


Brian Belovitch contemplates a life well-lived.

(2019) Documentary (Bernstein DocumentariesBrian Belovitch, Michael Musto, Nelson Sullivan, Andy Anderson, Tabboo, Gabriel Rotello, David Belovitch, Jim Belovitch, Gloria, Jeffrey Belovitch, Todd Belovitch, Sheila. Directed by Karen Bernstein

I’m gonna make you love me, which had its World Premiere a few days ago at DOC NYC (and will be playing there again shortly), covers the fascinating life of Brian Belovitch, a man whose life has taken him to a wildly diverse array of places and lives. He for many years came out as a transitioning woman and lived as an Army wife for several years, hosting Tupperware parties in Germany as Natalia.

Following the dissolution of that marriage, he returned to New York City as club performer Tish in the 80s, one of the most famous club and lounge performers of the time. He went through the rigors of local fame (and in New York that can be truly intoxicating) with the drug addiction that sometimes accompanies celebrity, which in turn led to an HIV-positive diagnosis and deep depression.

Brian came to the conclusion that life as a woman wasn’t really what he wanted and so for the second time in his life, he came out, re-transitioning back as a gay male. These days, he’s married to Jim, pushing 60 and for the first time in his life, truly comfortable in his own skin.

There is plenty of archival footage of Brian’s days as Tish, both performance video as well as home movies. Tish’s friendship with journalist/raconteur/rock star Michael Musto helped expand her notoriety but it seemed that her career was beginning to run out of gas, which was part of what seemed to lead to the depression that Brian suffered from.

We hear from several of Brian’s siblings – he had seven – and there is varying degrees of acceptance among them. I know from first-hand experience it’s not an easy thing always to accept that someone you knew as one gender has become another; it takes time to let go of the person that was and accept the person who is. Some, sadly, are never able to do it; as I said, it’s hard but not impossible unless you are bound and determined not to accept that person’s transition. Although Brian seemed fairly devoted to his mother, their relationship was certainly complicated; she wasn’t very supportive of him and there appeared to be some emotional abuse going on. Brian as a young teen frequently ran away from home.

Brian himself has one of those personalities that just fills a room whenever he’s in it. He is proudly – even defiantly – gay and there is no mistaking his sexuality for a moment. He is a great storyteller, and boy does he have a ton of stories to tell! Bernstein could have just sat him down in a chair, turned the camera on him for an hour and a half and she would have had an entertaining movie.

Where the movie fails is in continuity. People that are important to Brian – like his only friend as a teen, Paul whose mother Gloria he is still close to – fall out of the narrative. Brian alludes to Gloria “losing” him, but that’s not spelled out. Did he pass away? Or did they have a falling out? Something similar also happens with Natalia’s husband David; he just fizzles out of the story. It would have been nice for the filmmakers to spend a few moments just explaining what happened to these people who at one time were important to Brian’s life.

Other than that, the story is a fascinating one. Jim describes his relationship with Brian thusly; “I try to be a rudder for him. Brian is all sail” and that seems like an apt way to characterize him. Brian is larger than life and while Jim is much more laid-back, the affection between the two is without question. There’s more love between these two guys than in a lot of hetero relationships I’ve known. They are poster boys for why gay marriage is a necessary right, one which still remains under threat given the conservative nature of the Supreme Court these days.

But I digress. I wouldn’t say this is essential viewing; it’s basically the story of one guy and while it’s a fascinating story, it isn’t a story that will change your life except maybe to help you realize that it is never too late to change your life completely. Not every life we choose for ourselves is the one we were meant to lead; Brian Belovitch is living proof that the most important thing when it comes to choosing a life is that you choose the one that makes you happy.

REASONS TO SEE: This is a story about a very different journey.
REASONS TO AVOID: A lot of story lines are left dangling.
FAMILY VALUES: The thematic content is very adult; there is also some profanity, brief nudity and plenty of graphic sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Brian works today as a drug abuse counselor; Jim works as a botanist.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: XY Chelsea
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The All-Americans

Every Act of Life


The play’s the thing.

(2018) Documentary (The Orchard) Terrance McNally, Don Roos, Nathan Lane, Peter McNally, Christine Baranski, Chita Rivera, Richard Thomas, Angela Lansbury, F. Murray Abraham, John Slattery, Tyne Daly, Rita Moreno, John Kander, Anthony Heald, Lynn Ahrens, Jon Robin Baitz, Audra McDonald, John Benjamin Hickey, John Glover, Edie Falco. Directed by Jeff Kaufman

 

Terrance McNally is without question one of the most important playwrights of the late 20th century and on into the 21st century. Even now, pushing 80, he remains a vital creative force. He was one of the first Broadway writers to put openly gay characters in his plays; he was also among the first to come out himself.

This documentary is an attempt to capture the life of McNally, from his beginnings in Corpus Christi, Texas where he was hopelessly bullied, to Columbia University where he essentially majored in Broadway, Eventually he took an interest in writing stage plays instead of novels (which under his beloved English teacher in Corpus Christi Mrs. Maurine McElroy who encouraged him when both his alcoholic parents did not). He took up clandestine boyfriend Edward Albee whose career was just starting to take off at the time; McNally, on the other hand, was struggling especially when his first work was roundly panned by the critics.

Since then, McNally has written such gems as Frankie and Johnnie in the Claire de Lune, The Ritz, Master Class, Lips Together Teeth Apart, and the musical version of Kiss of the Spider Woman. He has won four Tony Awards and countless other honors. Jeff Kaufman rounds up a battalion of his friends to talk about the various facets of his personality and the highlights of his career. Broadway greats like Lan, Abraham, Lansbury, Roberts and Glover have all had their careers positively impacted by McNally and they are generous in their praise of the writer.

The film is a little bit over-fawning, rarely admitting to any warts or disfigurements, although they mention his bout with alcoholism which Lansbury apparently talked him down from. He has had a fairly large and diverse group of boyfriends, ending up with current husband Tom Kirdahy with whom he has a stable relationship so far as can be seen. Still, while some of the relationships get some coverage, others are almost mentioned in passing.

We hear about how generous he is, how insecure he is about his own work but we don’t really dive deep into the work itself. It feels at times we’re just getting a greatest hits version of his plays and the meaning of them and what they mean to others gets little interest from the filmmakers. I would have liked to see more analysis and less anecdotes but in the whole, this feels more like a group of friends gossiping rather than a truly academic study of McNally’s work. Frankly, this really will only appeal to those who live and breathe Broadway and kind of ignores everyone else.

REASONS TO GO: A very informative film for those unfamiliar with McNally. McNally’s gayness is emphasized, something a lot of films are afraid to do even now.
REASONS TO STAY: There are too many talking heads. There’s also a little bit too much hero-worship going on.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content as well as profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its world premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wrestling With Angels
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Life Feels Good

Front Cover


A handsome, stylish man.

A handsome, stylish man.

(2015) Drama (Strand) Jake Choi, James Chen, Jennifer Neala Page, Elizabeth Sung, Sonia Villani, Ming Lee, Li Jun Li, Rachel Lu, Wayne Chang, Kristen Hung, Scott Chan, Brian Knoebel, Ben Baur, Shenell Edmonds, Benjamin Thys, Tom Ligon, Fenton Li, Julia Sun, Josh Folan, Peter Benson, Hallie Cooper-Novack, Chris Kies, Morgan Wolk, Jack Ferver, John Cramer, Susan O’Connor. Directed by Ray Yeung

 

Culture can be a blessing and a millstone. Not all of us want to be defined by our ethnicity. That also goes for our sexuality, although that is becoming less of a stigma these days. The LGBTQ community has made some big strides in this country over the past few years but sometimes we forget that it isn’t the same situation everywhere.

Ryan (Choi) is a gay Asian man who works as a stylist in the fashion industry in Manhattan. He’s in demand and very good at what he does, but he is tired of being stereotyped for his sexuality and his culture. He wants a certain magazine cover but instead he’s assigned by his overbearing boss (Villani) to work with an emerging Chinese star named Ning (Chen) who is breaking out in the United States and who had specifically requested a Chinese stylist for his important photo shoot he’s getting ready for.

It is not a match made in heaven. Ning is all about his culture while Ryan is trying to distance himself from his Chinese heritage and embrace his American side. For Ning’s part, he is shocked at Ryan’s open homosexuality. It’s simply not an acceptable part of the culture in modern China. The relationship is rocky and nearly gets Ryan fired but eventually the two begin to find some common ground, particularly when Ryan’s parents get involved. And as the two begin to become friendly, an attraction develops as Ning reveals that he is in the closet. Can two people from two disparate cultures make it work?

This is a movie that has admirable ambitions. Not only does it examine a little-discussed subject in film – being gay and Asian – but from two different angles. Bringing the cultural differences into the mix adds a little bit of spice to the lo mein. One of the big positives here is that Yeung has his feet in both communities and brings his own experiences and perspective to the wok. That lends an air of authenticity to the film that money just can’t buy and is a perfect illustration of what is best about indie films.

The movie rests largely on the shoulders of Choi and Chen and the two work really well together. Their initial antagonism leading to romantic feelings feels a bit Hollywood-esque but the two manage to overcome the clichéd nature of the situation and make the relationship feel real. There’s also some great scenes with Ryan’s parents and grandmother.

In a sense although the romance is at the center of the film, it is really Ryan’s story; it measures his growth and revolves around his perspective. We see the events through his eyes, feel his frustrations and his passions. Ryan is so dedicated to assimilating into American culture that he refuses to have romances with Asian men, only Caucasians. It is this cultural denial – not uncommon among second generation immigrants – that I think is the most fascinating part of the story.

I would have liked the romantic part to have been a little more organic but even though it kind of follows a rom-com formula, this is far from typical. And yes, there are comedic elements here, particularly with cultural fish-out-of-water things but I wouldn’t necessarily characterize this as a comedy or even a dramedy. It tackles some serious issues and gives us insights that maybe we wouldn’t come up with on our own, and isn’t that really the best thing a movie can do for us?

REASONS TO GO: Cultural and sexual attitudes are taken on honestly. There’s legitimate chemistry between the leads.
REASONS TO STAY: The romance aspect seems a little cliché.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are complex; there is also brief mild profanity and some conversation that is a little suggestive.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leung also runs the Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/5/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brokeback Mountain
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Tenth Man