Filmed in 1967 and released in 1968, The Queen is reportedly the first cinematic documentation of a drag pageant. Using a cinéma vérité approach, filmmaker Frank Simon presents his story simply and succinctly. From conception to execution; including finding a hotel to house and protect the contestants, backstage antics, rehearsal, the pageant, and the aftermath. All in 68-minutes.
Shooting on color 16mm film stock, Simon captures a slice of New York life unknown to most at the time, and probably even now. Watching this gorgeous 4K restoration from Kino Lorber in 2019, The Queen is a surprising portrayal of queer culture that doesn’t feature blowback or threats from a heteronormative force. There’s an extended scene in a hotel room with the men in half-dress discuss coming out to their parents. One tells a story of acceptance; another explains that his mother doesn’t exactly approve, but doesn’t disown him either. If there are horror stories to be told, the men save them for another time. Drag is a celebration, why mire the proceedings?
Though the backstage prep takes up most of the documentaries brisk run time, the pageant — 1967’s Miss All-American Camp Beauty Pageant — is the reason to watch The Queen. All movies are documents of their times, but the pageant, with a variety of unvarnished accents, is a perfect time capsule. Thanks to television, radio, video, and generations moving from place to place, American English has become dulled and homogenized. Gone are the days of the accents and patois that made the far-flung corners of America seem as exotic as any foreign country. Then again, maybe these men also speak standard, dull American English in their everyday lives; it’s the drag that brings it out. If that’s the case, then we could certainly do with a lot more drag in our lives.
The Queen is a movie that presents and accepts. It doesn’t needlessly explain, psychoanalyze its subject, or provide the distance and condescension of an ethnographic survey. That’s what makes Simon’s doc palatable, even fifty years later. But it’s Crystal LaBeija, Miss Manhattan, who sells The Queen. Decrying racial bias following the presentation of the crown, LaBeija provides the movie’s signature line: “I am beautiful, and I know I’m beautiful.”
Simon is wise to keep his camera close to LaBeija, and he does. Ten years later, LeBeija would start the House of LeBeija, featured heavily in Paris is Burning, Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary about house and drag culture.
Directed by Frank Simon
Produced by Lewis M. Allen
Kino Lorber, Running time 68 minutes, Not rated, Opens July 26, 2019