Luchina Fisher’s feature documentary Mama Gloria, currently making its New York premiere at the virtual 11th annual Athena Film Festival at Barnard College until March 14th and receiving its international premiere as part of the UK-wide 35th BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival starting next week, tells the captivating life story of Chicago’s septuagenarian Black trans trailblazer and community leader, Gloria Allen.
Largely in her own words, illustrated with beautiful archive film and photographs, we hear of Allen’s childhood, moving from rural Kentucky to Chicago’s South Side in the 1950s, her tough high school years, the familial support she received for her early realization that she was trans, and going on to work as a nurse. Rich with detail we hear how Gloria was surprised to learn that her seamstress grandmother Mildred was making costumes for drag queens and thongs for male strippers, and Gloria’s recollections of being part of the city’s vibrant 1960s drag ball culture and the iconic film stars who inspired their looks. “The costumes and makeup were just flamboyant and beautiful”, Gloria tells a group of young LGBTQ+ theatre students, “RuPaul couldn’t light a match to us back then, he sure couldn’t!” Allen used her knowledge of that scene when she served as a consultant on DePaul Theatre School’s 2017 production of Oscar-winning Moonlight writer Tarell Alvin McCraney’s fantastic ballroom play Wig Out!
There are also some harrowing moments as Gloria recalls traumatic episodes in her life, such as being brutally attacked and raped by a gang of boys when she was at high school, and being part of an abusive longterm relationship that resulted in a shooting. Fisher clearly earned Allen’s trust, and Gloria is an incredibly open and engaging subject. We also get to know Allen through meeting her inner circle of friends and family, an intimate high school reunion, and through some of the young people she’s helped who she runs into on the street.
Deciding to share what she’d learned in life as a trans woman with the upcoming generations of homeless trans folks, in 2011 Mama Gloria launched twice weekly ‘Charm School’ classes at the city’s Center on Halstead, Chicago’s LGBTQ community center. Leading the classes for over three years, her aim was to pass on lessons her mother and grandmother had taught her; to teach her students self-confidence and to walk with their “heads up high”, wanting them to learn “how to be a lady”, “because if you act like a lady you’ll be treated like a lady”. Her classes inspired playwright Philip Dawkins’ heartwarming play Charm, which opened at the Steppenwolf Garage in 2015. That run was followed by numerous other productions around the country including one two years later by MCC at New York’s Lucille Lortel Theatre, which led to the experienced actress Sandra Caldwell, then 65, auditioning as openly trans for the first time in her career, and going on to play the character based on Gloria, Mama Darleena Andrews. Allen talks of her joy at being in New York for the opening of the production and the close bond she formed with Caldwell and other members of the cast.
One of the present day interviews that the film frequently cuts back to is a simple static shot with Allen beautifully lit in front of a plain black background. With a less engaging subject this setting might have proved a little dull and repetitive, but with Gloria Allen’s vibrant personality and fascinating life story it proves an ideal way to focus our attention on the woman and her words, her inner and outer beauty. It also contrasts well with the more fly-on-the-wall style footage of Allen going about her daily life in the LGBTQ senior housing where she now lives. Born in 1945, Gloria frequently mentions in the film she feels fortunate to have made it to her seventies when so many of her trans sisters were lost far too soon.
Filled with LGBTQ+ Chicago history, Mama Gloria is an empowering portrait of a resilient, wise, and infectiously joyful trans elder who has rightly been celebrated within her own community, but whose name should be familiar to all of us. I’m grateful that Luchina Fisher has captured the essence of Mama Gloria in a film to be treasured. As Shea Diamond sings in the powerful original song that plays over the end credits, we are in the Presence of a Legend.
By James Kleinmann
In the US, Mama Gloria is currently available to stream as part of the virtual 11th annual Athena Film Festival at Barnard College until March 14th and is part of the UK-wide 35th BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival March 17-28th.