The new restoration of The Queen, Frank Simon’s documentary which follows the contestants of the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant, is makings its way through major cities thanks to distributor Kino Lorber. The press materials promote this movie as a predecessor to Paris is Burning and RuPaul’s Drag Race. These comparisons, especially when it comes to the latter, are spot on. The Queen plays like a long lost episode of the popular reality-competition show in which drag queens compete to become “America’s next drag superstar,” and posits an alternate history in which late-sixties America could be as invested in the success of these queer performers as it is in 2019. Beyond that, the movie is a fascinating document of pre-Stonewall life for the the LGBTQ+ community, showing how the mainstream’s understanding of queer identity has, or has failed to, evolve in the last fifty years.
The comparisons to Drag Race are particularly apt because the movie, in broad terms, has the structure of an episode of reality television. We start out meeting the contestants as they prepare for the pageant. Specifically, we spend a lot of time with Jack a.k.a. Flawless Sabrina, the twenty-four year-old queen who is hosting the event and with Rachel Harlow, the even younger queen who comes to the national competition as a promising newcomer after winning the regional Philadelphia pageant on her very first try. We then see the competition unfold, as contestants are narrowed into finalists, and dramatic decisions are made as the winner is crowned. Finally, and most importantly, we get a now famous post-mortem (not unlike the “Untucked” episodes of Drag Race), in which Crystal Labeija (founder of the House of Labeija, whose members are prominently featured in Paris is Burning) confronts the judges, winner, and other contestants about what she deems to be an unfair crowning.
The pageant structure proves perfect for providing a glimpse into what life was like for queer men in the Pre-Stonewall sixties. From the moment it starts, The Queen announces itself as a movie about glances. It repeatedly captures the moment the contestants realize a camera is filming them, and we see them look straight at the lens, then choose to modify their physicality accordingly. Drag pageants are all about finding strength and self expression in being observed by others, and the movie understands this. Equally fascinating are the conversations the contestants have with each other during the pre-pageant section of the film. Quite some time is dedicated to them talking about getting drafted – how they got out of it, or how they were denied enlistment despite actually wanting to serve. There are also many conversations about whether or not the contestants want to have a sex change and live as women (in certain cities, the movie will screen with a restoration of the short Queens at Heart, which explores these questions even further).
Seeing the people in the movie grapple with these questions is a fascinating illustration of how our attitudes about sexuality and gender identity have changed in the last fifty years, while other parts of the movie show how much work is still to be done. A perfect example is the moment near the end when Crystal complaints to the judges about the crowning. Her argument is that she was the best looking queen among the finalists, and the competition was rigged for the eventual winner. The underlying tension here is that the winner is white and Crystal is not, which makes this a more legitimate complaint than the documentary is willing to recognize. Tellingly, we don’t spend time with Crystal before the competition, so we only see her as she complaints. To a viewer uneducated on the history of racial bias in ball and pageant culture, she probably comes off as a mean, sore loser.
Crystal’s rant is undoubtedly the most iconic moment in the film, and while intersectionality has become a more common term in recent years, her objections still feel prescient. If a document like The Queen shows us where we have and haven’t made progress, then it’s fair to wonder what our current reality shows will say about our attitudes in the future. Consider the complaints and controversies that have surrounded Drag Race, such as the backlash to RuPaul saying that it would be unfair to allow trans contestants on the show (trans contestants have appeared on Drag Race since). Even closer to Crystal’s situation are the complaints about the show’s trend toward crowning more white queens as it’s become more popular (only two out of the last seven winners haven’t been white). And these are just the conversations we are having now, who knows what attitudes will change as we continue to move toward progress. By letting us look into the past, The Queen might offer a window into a better future.
Conrado Falco is a New York-based playwright who loves movies. He publishes most of his film writing at CocoHitsNY, but the best way to keep up with him is to follow him on Twitter (@CocoHitsNewYork).