Queer Film Fest 2020: ‘Screaming Queens’ and ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’

So far in this series, I’ve tried to match films that were thematically linked (or even just different versions of the same tale), but for today’s pairing, the only connection is that Hedwig and the Angry Inch features my favorite screaming queen. (It’s my blog. Sue me.)

But in watching them both again, I can actually tease out a few connections. They take a nonjudgmental look at sex work, recognizing it as the only kind of work many trans women could get, at least in those days (and often now, too). They’re both set in sad dive restaurants (Hedwig cleverly follows its star as she stalks her protégé on his arena tour of the U.S., performing in trashy Bilgewater restaurants down the street). Most importantly, they’re both about revolutionaries, the kinds of folk whose willingness to make noise is why we’ve come as far as we have. Not that Hedwig generally is out for anyone but for herself, at least until she reaches gnosis at the end, but in insisting on being seen and respected for her full humanity, she’s a sister to the early trans activists profiled in Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria.

Hedwig began life when star/writer John Cameron Mitchell developed the character on nightclub stages, then as a full-fledged musical in an off-Broadway run that opened in 1998. A year or so later, it came across my radar when I found the cast recording at a Fort Worth used record shop. I collect cast recordings so I snatched it up, but on first listen, I didn’t find it all that appealing. I wasn’t expecting a rock album, I’m sure. Then, in 2001, I was back in the DFW area, visiting my college best friend, who graciously let me pick all of the weekend entertainment — even after watching an alt-theater group’s staging of Vampire of Lesbians of Sodom in a crumbling, otherwise abandoned Montessori school on my first night there (for real, a ceiling had caved in in one room, but the staging itself was rock-solid). Hedwig was screening at the Angelika Film Center, and to her credit, she was all in — especially when the bouncing ball showed up in the sing-along “Wig in a Box” number.

I’m not sure where Hedwig would fall on the gender spectrum as we understand it in 2020 — trans, I suppose, because of the botched surgery that gave her band its name. Perhaps genderqueer is a better term. Seeing her story on film, though, was a huge step forward in my own understanding of the construct of gender.

For a more basic primer, Screaming Queens isn’t a bad place to start. It’s an Emmy-winning 2005 documentary that aired on Independent Lens, telling the story of a riot for queer rights in the Tenderloin area of San Francisco that predated the more famous Stonewall Uprising by three years. I wasn’t at all familiar with the Compton’s Cafeteria riots until they were featured in the 2019 Tales of the City reboot/sequel on Netflix. Digging around for more info led me to this doc, which is still streaming for free for Amazon Prime members.

It’s a straightforward (pardon the term) documentary by directors Victor Silverman and Susan Stryker that’s most successful when it utilizes a great store of archival material, including TV interviews with a range of trans women in the 1960s. The contemporary interviews aren’t generally as revelatory, though surviving protestors do paint a vivid portrait of pre-Stonewall life for the gender non-conforming.

Up next: La Cage aux Folles and The Birdcage

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