I like to consider myself a pretty knowledgable gay. I read the books, saw the films and generally learned my herstory as an upcoming legendary child, but somehow Portrait of Jason managed to slip through my queer little fingers.
The 1967 cinema vérité documentary by Shirley Clarke paints a beguiling portrait of Jason Holliday — a black gay hustler, raconteur and aspiring cabaret star. Filmed for 12 straight hours in Clarke's penthouse apartment at the Hotel Chelsea on December 3, 1966, Holliday reminisced on the times he had, wrapping himself in the occasional feather boa and visibly becoming less sober as the night wears on.
Clarke and her crew members berate and harass Holliday in hopes of getting past this construct — this character Jason Holliday, née Aaron Payne.
The audience at the film's sneak preview included Tennessee Williams, Norman Mailer, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Arthur Miller and Andy Warhol. Ingmar Bergman called it "the most extraordinary film I've seen in my life."
If you've never heard of it either, well, it was more or less lost to time. A Kickstarter campaign helped to restore it to its original form for a re-release in 2013.
The documentary came to my attention thanks to director Stephen Winter's Jason & Shirley, an imagining of what happened when the cameras weren't rolling— starring Jack Waters and Sarah Schulman as Holliday and Clarke, respectively — premiering tonight at the BAM Film Festival.
What makes this documentary — which I still haven't seen in its entirety, B. T. Dubs —so remarkable is that this is 1967. Three years after the Civil Rights Act, two years before Stonewall, one year before Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Being black and/or gay now is a struggle, but here is this queen in the most tumultuous time of the 20th century — in the toughest goddamn city — just living. Her. Life.
Living her life on the margins of society — the best perspective from which to critique society:
From my baby gay days, I thought that there was no substantial documentation of the black gay experience in America between James Baldwin and Paris Is Burning. And while Giovanni's Room — the most blatantly gay of Baldwin's work — is perhaps the best thing that ever happened, it's still set in Europe with all white characters. Yet all this time, Jason Holliday was the bridge I sought between Baldwin and Pepper LaBeija — a shaman of truths with an armor of effete glamor to ward off the dirt and dust the world would heap upon him.
Les Fabian Brathwaite — hustler, raconteur, aspiring cabaret star.