Sarah Schulman reimagines queer history in “Jason and Shirley”

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Sarah Schulman is known for her novels (fiction and non-fiction), plays and activism (she was a member of both ACT Up and the Lesbian Avengers), but she’s also been active in film for several years. She co-founded the Mix experimental queer film festival with Jim Hubbard in 1987 and has been championing LGBTQ filmmakers since, and eventually writing her own screenplays for The Owls and Mommy is Coming and producing the documentary United in Anger: A History of ACT UP

Now in Jason and Shirley, playing Outfest this weekend, Sarah goes in front of the camera, playing Academy Award-winning filmmaker Shirley Clarke in a fictional re-imagining of Shirley’s 1967 movie Portrait of Jason, the first time a gay black man was ever the focus of a film. The man in question, Jason Holliday (portrayed by Jack Waters in Jason and Shirley), was a hustler whom Shirley invited to the Chelsea Hotel to star in his own movie. In the original (which was restored in 2013 and now available on Fandor), Shirley is never seen, but her voice is heard as she prompts her subject to share his life story with the cameras, providing him with alcohol and drugs in hopes he will loosen up and become honest instead of using humor or anger in defense.

Sarah as ShirleySarah Schulman in JASON AND SHIRLEY- Photo by Ricardo Nelson, courtesy of JaShirl LLC

Jason and Shirley (directed by Stephen Winter) is based on the true events of the 12-hour-shoot, and Sarah plays Shirley as a driven creator who will do anything she can to get Jason to open up about his family, his life as a male prostitute and his desires to create his own stage show. We spoke with Sarah about playing the role of a white woman director who was putting the focus on a gay black man for the first time in cinema, and how it was ultimately both revolutionary and problematic.

AfterEllen.com: How much of the dialogue was taken from the original?

Sarah Schulman: Nothing is from the film because in the film—okay, so she shot for 12 hours, but in her 90 minutes that is her final, you only see Jason. You never see her. So only she and [husband] Carl [Lee]—their voices are heard, but they’re completely absent. Stephen—I think one of the things he’s responding to, takes the control away from her and to look at the big picture. Therefore everything you see is different from what you see in his.

 

AE: So it’s an imagining of what she would say.

SS: Yeah, but it’s not realism, right—so it’s not really what she would say at that time, but it’s more like influenced by what we’ve come to collectively learn since then. You know, Shirley Clarke is amazing in so many ways. But one of the really incredible things is she was the very first person in cinema to realize that being a black gay man was a position of great meaning. And she was the first person to represent that experience. Even the black gay community had not spoken out, to white people at least, about what that meant. There was very little open gay black—there were blues singers, Bruce Nugent and the Harlem Renaissance, that was in the ’20s, but it was pretty much unknown to her. So she saw that this content had meaning. But you know, she was looking at it completely out of context, so not only did she not know what black gay people thought of themselves—that hadn’t been articulated—but I think what we have now, the whole discourse for white artists and what to think about when representing people of color, hadn’t started. It didn’t exist. 

 Shirley ClarkeThe New York Film Festival Visits Vanderbeek's Movie Drome

AE: She never thought “I’m not the person to tell this story.” She thought she was the person that should capture this.

SS: Right because the kind of way we’ve articulated our understanding of power dynamics now, that discussion was not being had among white people at the time. So what’s interesting about her is that she’s incredibly ahead of her time, but she’s way behind reality. She sees that a black gay man’s voice has meaning, but she doesn’t see her own racism. She thinks that she’s more advanced than she is. I’m sure that’s true for me as well. It’s sort of a condition of being a white artist, working with people of color as a subject.

 

AE: How do you prepare to play someone like that? 

SS: Well I did a lot of research. I read things that she said, I watched her other films, I watched video of her, I spoke to one of her students. She had this philosophy of what she called revolutionary cinema, which was the idea that cinema should be part of a larger ongoing political movement. It shouldn’t necessarily be disconnected, and I certainly understand that. I founded Mix, right, so it’s something I’ve clearly been practicing for 30 years.

So from her point of view, like I said, I do identify with that place. I consider myself to be an anti-racist white artist and therefore I know that there’s a lot of things that I’m not getting and a lot of mistakes that I’m making. So I do understand where she was at. The other thing is that, in the 1960s, she had four feature films about black men. She was not working with white men. She had been really disrespected by white Hollywood. She had been part of a movie that won an Oscar in 1963. It was a documentary on Robert Frost and then she tried to see what it would be like to have a Hollywood career and she was treated horribly. So it’s interesting because she has legitimacy. These black men are willing to collaborate with her, but she was not, she did not have respect from white men. She’s also occupying this other kind of space. It’s interesting how she’s not interested in women at all.

One of the things when we were figuring out what we were gonna do, Stephen suggested that maybe we should get a character who was like a female assistant to Shirley and I said absolutely not. She would be the only woman in the room. So we made that decision because it’s 1966–it’s before feminism, before gay liberation, before black power. It was before these movements and identity movements could really articulate themselves and people are sort of these individuals floating around and trying to see what they thought was a revolutionary period. But it wasn’t ideologically as articulated as we now have.