While the drag queen presidential debate challenge on RuPaul’s Drag Race might seem a little far-fetched, like so much on the show it is actually a homage to real queer history. Following an earlier bid for mayor of Chicago as detailed in the film Drag in for Votes, in 1992 Joan Jett Blakk announced, “We’re going to put a drag queen in the White House” launching her campaign under the Queer Nation banner. Rightly pointing out, “If a bad actor can be elected president, why not a good drag queen!” It was a bid that recently inspired Tina Landau and Tarell Alvin McCraney play Ms. Blakk For President, which premiered at the Steppenwolf Theatre Upstairs in 2019.
In the new documentary short The Beauty President, which is world premiering at SXSW Online until Saturday March 20th, director and editor Whitney Skauge artfully weaves together a present day interview with the man behind the drag persona, Terence Alan Smith, and archive footage from the herstoric campaign trail. The charismatic Smith is an engaging storyteller, and there’s a comedy thriller aspect to his description of getting into drag at the Democratic National Convention, aided by Khamani Hagood’s gorgeous score, along with some fantastic footage from the convention floor with Joan in full drag bringing “queer issues to the campaign right here right now in a dress”; this segment is the highlight of the film.
“At some point I realized that I made a little dent in history”, Smith says as he reflects on coming out, the negligence of the US government towards those dying of AIDS which sparked his presidential run, and deciding that increased queer visibility could only help move things forward for the LGBTQ+ community. At one point we see Joan being interviewed on the street and asked about everyone looking at her and shaking their heads, her immediate response being, “They don’t know beauty when they see it. They should be shaking their heads at George Bush being President of America and not doing a damn thing about AIDS or healthcare.”
Blakk’s love-led campaign promise was “to be the beauty President”, saying that “everything was going to be beautiful”, and it wasn’t merely a stunt, she had considered answers to all the issues of the day and plans to abolish the police and switch the military’s budget with the funds devoted to education.
Although there is plenty of humour in the film, it is particularly moving and poignant as Smith talks about his experience of the AIDS crisis and how he keeps the memory of the many friends he lost alive.
Fittingly, given the title of the film, The Beauty President looks stunning, with the new Terence Alan Smith interview shot digitally by Haley Watson, then filtered and graded so it has the grain and richness of film, along with some new shots of Smith on 16mm, which gives a fluidity to the documentary as it moves between present day and 1992.
A sensitive, touching portrait of a fierce Black queen who made history, spreading some much-needed love and hope, while increasing queer visibility, and looking beautiful while doing it. A gem of film, which I’d love to see expanded into a feature.
By James Kleinmann
The Beauty President had its world premiere at SXSW Online 2021 and is available to watch until Saturday March 20th.