PRIDE 2020

This 1968 Film Put Drag Queens In The Spotlight Before Stonewall

"The Queen" helped pave the way for "RuPaul's Drag Race" and more. As writer Matt Baume finds, however, the documentary omits many artists of color.

More than a half-century after its release, “The Queen” serves as a powerful time capsule of queer life as it existed before the 1969 Stonewall uprising. 

Frank Simon’s documentary follows the drag contestants of 1967’s Miss All-American Camp Beauty Pageant, capturing plenty of on- and offstage drama along the way. Though groundbreaking for its time, the film has been screened infrequently since its 1968 Cannes Film Festival debut and looked lost to history until last year, when a restored version hit theaters to mark LGBTQ Pride Month in June. 

In the latest installment of his “Culture Cruise” video series, writer and editor Matt Baume takes an in-depth look at “The Queen,” ruminating on how the film’s influence can be seen in 1990’s “Paris Is Burning” and, later, “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” among other benchmarks of queer culture. 

These days, the type of gender-nonconforming expression that existed in New York’s ball scene can be found across television, films and music. But at the time “The Queen” was produced, dressing in drag was a felony across much of America. That meant pageant contestants like Flawless Sabrina, Harlow and Crystal LaBeija could only embrace their art form in secret. 

As provocative as “The Queen” may be, Baume believes the documentary is just as telling in what it chooses to omit. Though the Miss All-American Camp Beauty Pageant drew contestants of all races, the film gives only scant attention to people of color. The presence of Andy Warhol as a pageant judge will excite art history buffs, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that he’s part of an all-white panel.

“As vital as it is to have ‘The Queen’ as documentation of this time, what I notice when I watch is just how much it misses,” Baume told HuffPost. “It’s tightly focused on the white performers, particularly the eventual winner, Harlow. But there’s much more happening onscreen with the performers of color, particularly Crystal LaBeija.”

“We only catch a glimpse of Crystal’s frustration at the very end,” he continued. “But it’s clear there was far more going on with the New York drag ball scene at the time ― and her speeches make a lot more sense when you know more about the racism that had been a part of the balls for many decades.” 

Baume launched “Culture Cruise” on YouTube in 2018. He’s used the video series as a witty and enlightening way to reexamine how LGBTQ characters were depicted on a litany of classic TV shows, including “Cheers” and “The Golden Girls.”

Based in Seattle, Baume is also the author of the 2015 book “Defining Marriage: Voices From a Forty-Year Labor of Love.” 

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