A few months back, I was driving out of New York, and Macklemore’s “Same Love” came on the radio. It was the rare Top 40 track with markedly gay-themed lyrics that had nothing to do with Lady Gaga. And it was rap. I’ll freely confess that music is my weak spot as a popular-media journalist, and I’ll admit that I jumped to some serious stereotyping conclusions when I heard the song. Though it didn’t have, from what I’ve gathered, Frank Ocean’s cool poetic stylings, I instantly assumed “Same Love” was by Ocean, because, ya know, he’s the most popular queer rapper. Perhaps the lyrics marked some hypothetical experiment—an instance of a (mostly) out artist using words like “if I was gay” to reimagine the experiences of growing up closeted (or questioning) through the eyes of a contrived straight person. Regardless of what this knee-jerk reading might say about my inability to discern one rapper’s musicality from another’s, it all felt, well, nice: Here was a queer artist with an explicitly gay-themed song that, while not even particularly catchy, was getting major play on a major radio station. Inevitably, I quickly learned that my Frank Ocean song wasn’t by Frank Ocean at all, but by a white, straight rapper who was ostensibly sticking up for me and his gay uncles. To crudely summarize a swirl of conflicted feelings, suddenly the song wasn’t so nice, and, definitely, wasn’t so cool.
These feelings came to a head during August’s MTV Video Music Awards, where Macklemore and sidekick Ryan Lewis took home two Moonmen for their well-intended, Kumbaya anthem, including one for Best Video with a Social Message. They capped off the night with a performance of their song, featuring the gay crooner of its chorus, Mary Lambert, and surprise guest Jennifer Hudson. Admittedly, seeing the motley crew of a white rapper, a plus-sized lesbian, and a black songstress take the stage to preach about equality can’t be all bad, but there was still something wildly off-putting about the entire spectacle. Specifically, it didn’t feel like something that was actually for my benefit. Black, gay rapper Le1f assumed the extreme post-show position, and gave vitriolic voice to skeptics’ thoughts by taking to Twitter, lambasting Macklemore, a man of straight, white privilege, for capitalizing on a song about gays. Le1f had other bones to pick too, claiming that Macklemore ripped off his material, but his rant came down to who gays want their advocates to be. While I largely agreed with Le1f, my partner didn’t, and he laid out his reasoning in terms a kindergartener could grasp: “When many of the Green People don’t like the Blue People, and won’t collectively change their minds, they need education from one of the Green People who sticks up for the Blue People.” That’s fair enough, but frankly, it’s not good enough for me. In the world I want to live in today, Le1f would be the advocate getting kudos for social messages, not a latter-day Eminem doing his best Blind Side Sandra Bullock, collecting back-pats for standing in front of the minorities he’s coddling.
If Macklemore’s so-called advocacy is of questionable healthiness, then the woeful Dallas Buyers Club is downright toxic. The film is based on the true story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a skirt-chasing Texas homophobe who, in 1985, was diagnosed with AIDS. On paper, the film appears to be a testament to the fact that AIDS has never discriminated—that it’s never been just a “gay disease.” And those opposed to the argument that Woodroof isn’t the best representative for a story like this will likely retort that this is only one story, Woodruff’s story, and doesn’t need to reflect the plight of all those afflicted. The thing is, just as the gay community has definitively taken ownership of the slur “faggot,” we’ve also staked a certain claim to the history of this “gay disease,” as it’s shaped so much of what constitutes our collective social identity. Last year, we were lucky enough to be gifted with David France’s How to Survive a Plague, a wrenching documentary about real gay men driven to self-medicate like Woodroof, and a film that, for a gay man like me who came of age post-crisis, stirred up tremendous respect for the fighters who literally changed how this plague was treated, medically and culturally. However, while France’s film managed to garner an Oscar nomination, it was probably seen by a tiny fraction of those who’ll catch the star-driven Dallas Buyers Club, the first popular, “prestigious,” awards-baity AIDS film since Philadelphia.
Netting a Best Actor trophy for Tom Hanks, Philadelphia came out in 1993. Now, here we are, a whopping 20 years later, with an Oscar contender that deals with the same gay-related issues, but positions a homophobic redneck as its flawed hero. No matter how you slice it, this is a dreadful product to be released into today’s culture, let alone the profile-boosting realm of year-end awards. To those offering the justification that this is simply “one story,” I’d clap back with the fact that it’s the only such story the industry has felt compelled to tell in years, presumably because its content won’t fully turn off the red states (or, if I may, the Green People). Therefore, the best advocate that millions of AIDS-infected gays are able to get in a popular, modern film is a man who finds them repulsive. This is profoundly regressive, as even Philadelphia’s ailing protagonist was reflective of the countless victims most commonly stricken with this illness. Another frequent defense of Dallas Buyers Club claims that it’s an exercise in redemption—a test to see if this bigoted hayseed can change his hateful ways when he’s forced to see how the other half lives (and dies). In addition to the scores of reviews I’ve read that hinge their endorsement of the film on McConaughey’s performance (which, when compared to his work in Magic Mike, is merely serviceable), I’ve probably read yet more that praise the fact that Woodroof isn’t fully, implausibly reformed by movie’s end. Some have even said that such is the best part of the film, which is a bit like saying the Surgeon General’s Warning is the best part of a pack of cigarettes. Poison is poison, and a scintilla of truthful acknowledgment is hardly cause for applause.
Besides, these same endorsers who are lauding this film for Woodroof’s supposedly realistic arc are failing to acknowledge the typical, Blind Side-y Macklemore-isms he engages in. In the movie’s most cringe-inducing scene, which all but warrants the subtitle, “The Help for Gay People,” Woodroof confronts the homophobia of an ex-buddy who shunned him after his diagnosis, forcing the guy to shake the hand of Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgender woman and fellow AIDS sufferer who’s basically Woodroof’s clichéd lapdog. This saccharine moment of contrived understanding is the sort that’s been plaguing audiences of color for ages—an act that seems benevolent on the surface, but is primarily used to boost the likability of the “normal,” Aryan lead. In terms of role and characterization, Rayon herself feels plucked from an era predating Will & Grace, proving, in this familiar dynamic, to be far more of a tragic, outsized stereotype than Greg Kinnear’s Simon in As Good As It Gets, even suffering—spoiler alert—a drug-induced death that further paints her as a pathetic deviant. And while Leto offers a fine performance (despite the weight loss, which, as per usual, has netted far more press than it deserves), he represents an entirely separate advocacy problem, which involves actors like he and James Franco taking jobs that make them merely adequate queer cheerleaders—straight males tackling gay turns in Alexander and Howl, and still remaining accessible to the hetero majority running the world.
It’s 2013, and I don’t want baby steps. I don’t want James Franco and Macklemore telling me it’s okay to be gay. I don’t want to see Jared Leto go frail and wear a dress for a role I could have seen when I was 12. And I sure as hell don’t want to see the first major movie about AIDS in 20 years to be about a goddamned queer-hating hick. I want to see Le1f, Frank Ocean, and others like them performing unapologetic songs and speaking for themselves at awards shows. I want to see more actors like Zachary Quinto and Neil Patrick Harris getting lauded for their “bravery” in roles that aren’t pandering to anyone. I want more from my art, I want better advocates, and more than anything, I want more people, and colleagues, to acknowledge the problem. One of the very few pieces I’ve read that truly takes Dallas Buyers Club to task is Peter Knegt’s IndieWire report on the film out of Toronto, an article that covered a lot of the issues discussed here. A chief point Knegt made is that Dallas Buyers Club being made by a “straight white dude” (Jean-Marc Vallée) isn’t really the problem. And yet, in a way, perhaps it is. As Knegt observes, plenty of filmmakers have effectively crafted works about demographics to which they don’t belong. But if this year is any indication, bracing truth and vitality seems to flow unencumbered when those of a given group are able to tell their own stories. This is the year of The Butler, 12 Years a Slave, Fruitvale Station, and Mother of George, films that, regardless of their end-stage successes, are the works of black people not settling for white people traditions. This is the sort of non-complacent progress I hope for—ya know, the Blue People not feeling content with the Green People hogging their soapbox.