The Queen is at its best as a time capsule of the internal strife in the LGBTQ community, particularly the divide between white cis men and pretty much everyone else.
With Pride Month having drawn to a close and all the opportunistic rainbow-laden coffee cups safely in the trash bin, it’s a good time to give Frank Simon’s documentary The Queen another look, especially now with Kino Lorber’s re-release making it more widely available.
Before FX’s hot show “Pose” and even further before Paris Is Burning, the iconic doc that inspired it, The Queen was a little known portrait at the origins of ball culture in the drag community. The doc follows the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest and its MC and organizer Jack Doroshow, a 24-year-old gay, white man who performed as Flawless Sabrina, a mother-like character that mirrored Doroshow’s work in the community as something of a matron. He narrates much of the proceedings, giving the filmmakers and the audience an intimate look into what putting on an event like this was like at a time when even most other gay people were ashamed of drag queens and the exaltation thereof.
At first, the surprisingly short film is fascinating in a rather pedestrian sense. It’s a curio, plainly following around the group of young queens Doroshow has gathered from all over and the minutiae of planning this big event in New York City. Through the day to day, the audience becomes privy to these intimate, fly-on-the-wall conversations, eavesdropping on a subculture that at the time was considerably less penetrable than it is now. There’s something strange about seeing Doroshow struggle to find a venue “hip” enough to allow the contest to go on, given how every straight person and their mother is conversant in “RuPaul’s Drag Race” mythology nowadays.
There’s also the tragic sense that while drag culture has long since permeated the mainstream, the gay and trans practitioners of the craft who have made it what it is today are still marginalized. Along these lines, the film’s most captivating moments come well into the third act, after all the inside baseball bits about how the contest functions and the quietly heart-wrenching testimonials from contestants, like the one about a young man whose lifestyle precluded him from serving his country in Vietnam. The Queen is at its best as a time capsule of the internal strife in the LGBTQ community, particularly the divide between white cis men and pretty much everyone else.
The climax of the film comes when ballroom pioneer Crystal LaBeija is shafted in the competition in favor of Doroshow’s personal protégé. The ensuing read from the legend highlights a particular schism within drag culture that rages on today. Seeing the difference between the quaint, charming pageantry of Doroshow’s style of exhibition and the ornate, endlessly innovative and immersive world QTPOC like LaBeija would go on to forge is like the night and day chasm between pre-integration NBA and the current product. LaBeija’s breakout scene feels like a portent of things to come, almost a post-credits scene teaser at the future history of drag culture, a moment in time worth watching.