A Revealing '60s 'Portrait,' Opening Eyes In Theaters Again Shirley Clarke's 1967 film Portrait of Jason has returned to theaters after a meticulous restoration. As a historian and a documentarian tell reporter Howie Movshovitz, it's as remarkable in many ways today as it ever was.
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A Revealing '60s 'Portrait,' Opening Eyes In Theaters Again

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A Revealing '60s 'Portrait,' Opening Eyes In Theaters Again

A Revealing '60s 'Portrait,' Opening Eyes In Theaters Again

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish. "Portrait of Jason" was a remarkable film when it came out in 1967. Its portrait of a black, gay man was a first. And the film also challenged the notion of what a documentary could be.

"Portrait of Jason" shocked audiences when it was first released. Now, a newly restored version is playing in theaters, and it is still surprising today. Howie Movshovitz, of Colorado Public Radio, has this report. A note: This story contains language that may offend some listeners.

HOWIE MOVSHOVITZ, BYLINE: He's got a round, affable face and large, round, black glasses; smartly dressed in a blazer and button-up shirt.



MOVSHOVITZ: He looks straight into the camera - talking, singing, smoking and drinking; just him for 90 minutes. George Chauncey, chair of the history department at Yale University and the author of the book "Gay New York," puts it succinctly.

GEORGE CHAUNCEY: I can't think of any other film that put a gay person in the center, and just allowed them to talk about their life - before Shirley Clarke's film.

JEFFREY FRIEDMAN: It's really impossible to imagine what it felt like 45 years ago when this film came out.

MOVSHOVITZ: Jeffrey Friedman co-directed the 1995 documentary "The Celluloid Closet."

FRIEDMAN: You know, we'd never seen anything like this. This was before reality television. This is before we were used to people baring their souls on national TV, and on the Internet.

MOVSHOVITZ: It was 10 years before the landmark documentary "Word is Out," which took the stories of 26 gay men and women to theater and television audiences nationwide. The makers of that movie had watched "Portrait of Jason."

FRIEDMAN: It's revolutionary as a film about gay people because it's a gay person standing in front of a camera and being who he is, without apology. And to me, that's a milestone in gay filmmaking and in gay history.

MOVSHOVITZ: It's important to remember that Jason is not just a gay man, says Yale's George Chauncey; but a gay, black man.

CHAUNCEY: He's beaten down by being poor, by living in a racist society, living in a homophobic society. And so much of what this film shows us is his exploration of what that life has been like, and how much he resisted the life he was consigned to - the indignities that he's had to experience, and the way he's dealt with them, and his strategies for coping with them.

MOVSHOVITZ: Like the way he coped when he worked as a houseboy for a patronizing, white woman.


: So she said, Jason, I never really much liked niggers - you know - and you're the first one I ever really cared for. (Laughing) And I said, oh, that's very sweet of you. I said, well, then I should have this position a long time. (Laughing)Oh, and I go back in the kitchen; I say, I wish she'd drop dead. (Laughing) And the next minute, Jason! You'll put on your white coat and away you go, you know.

MOVSHOVITZ: The film looks to be part confession, part drunken rant; but also part performance. In fact, Holliday performed in Greenwich Village before having his cabaret license yanked because of his arrests for homosexual activity. But Jeffrey Friedman, whose most recent film is a fictional account of "Deep Throat" star Linda Lovelace, says the performances in the film ring true.

FRIEDMAN: He's a storyteller. He's a raconteur. He's great at it. And I don't know any raconteurs that don't embellish their stories. But they all feel like they're coming from a place of real experience and truth.

MOVSHOVITZ: Beyond the personal story, there's the matter of the film itself. Friedman doesn't call it a documentary, in part because of the way filmmaker Shirley Clarke manipulates the images; and in part because of how Clarke and her friend Carl Lee, also a friend of Holiday's, manipulate their subject from behind the camera. But neither Friedman nor George Chauncey believe that's a bad thing.

CHAUNCEY: Both Shirley Clarke and especially, Carl Lee are really egging Jason on again and again, sometimes pretty ruthlessly. But part of the brilliance of this is the style of documentary it is. Heretofore, we just had voice-of-God documentaries, where some narrator is going to tell the story with some illustrative material; or fly-on-the-wall documentaries, where the filmmaker is there but not really making their presence known.

And part of the brilliance of this documentary and the honesty of this documentary, is that Shirley Clarke lets us hear the voices - her own voice, Carl Lee's voice - and the way they are shaping what Jason is doing here. And this, of course, is always happening in a documentary but normally, that's hidden. And so we are allowed to hear them - and we don't always like them.


MOVSHOVITZ: Still, filmmaker Jeffrey Friedman says that "Portrait of Jason" is both an important time capsule and a living work of art.

FRIEDMAN: Any film that pushes the boundaries of what a film is, matters. It's important. And it makes us look at all films in a new way, not just that film. After seeing "Portrait of Jason," I don't think one would ever look at an interview film in the same way.

MOVSHOVITZ: For historian George Chauncey, the film makes an entirely contemporary statement.

CHAUNCEY: We still live in a world of social inequality, unequal power in which there are lots of people who are having to put on a mask and perform in front of people who have power over them and who are incredibly angry about it. And this film gives us a searing portrait of that.


MOVSHOVITZ: Jason Holiday died in 1998. He left behind, in a way, the nightclub performance he'd always wanted to do.

For NPR News, I'm Howie Movshovitz.

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