We are only a few weeks out from having growned the 11th queen on RuPaul’s Drag Race, and just a day after the premiere of Pose season 2. But this month, The Queen, the 1968 film that arguably made it possible for both of these projects as well as Paris Is Burning to happen, returns to theaters, newly restored.
Directed by Frank Simon but mostly the creation of drag queen, activist and queer icon Flawless Sabrina, The Queen was groundbreaking for its time. More than 40 years before Drag Race, it put the competitive side of drag, by the men who engaged in it, on screen. As a documentary, chronicling the final days of the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant — judges and other notable names that year included Andy Warhol, Edie Sedgwick, and Mario Montez — it showed gay men being themselves in a verite style of documentation and won attention along the way, screening during the prestigous Cannes Film Festival in France.
Having celebrated its 50-year anniversary last year, the cult classic, much in the same way of Drag Race, positioned its stars in groups, discussing issues that were impacting the LGBTQ+ community at the time. The queens discussed being gay in the military (in particular the draft) as well as whether or not they wanted to be women in segments that were clearly more for the audience than for one another. In ways, it laid a road map for Drag Race. But for many, the most exciting part is a now-infamous ending scene starring none other than Crystal LaBeija.
In it, after winning third-runner up, she storms offstage, and starts reading the camera, claiming the entire production was rigged. The clip has been referenced countless times now: Frank Ocean included in his visual, experimental album Endless, and likely was referring to in the track “Raf” when he said “Ima read his ass like LaBeija.” Drag Race contestant Aja channeled it in All Stars season 3 for her Snatch Game impression. And even Elektra Abundance Evangelista (well, now Ferocity) mentioned it in Tuesday night’s premiere of Pose season 2.
“We been underground for how long?” Blanca Evangelista, played by Mj Rodriguez asks.
“About 20 years,” Elektra responds. “Since Crystal LaBeija lost one too many titles to white girls!” And that one too many, according to oral history, was this ‘67 pageant. As the story goes, it was her last pageant in the system ran and populated mostly by white queens, and within a few years she had struck out on her own under the House of LaBeija with her friend Lottie LaBeija, founding the house-ballroom community as it stands today. In that way, without what happened in The Queen, the culture of ballroom and voguing would be completely different.
On June 28, the iconic film will begin screening at the IFC Center in New York with additional cities to follow. It has been updated via a new restoration from the original camera negative, giving new vibrancy to the previously previously dim-lit production. It is, as the New York Times once called it, the “mother of all drag documentaries,” and an absolute must see for WorldPride.