BLACK DIVAZ Film Review—Miss First Nation Drag Queen Pageant 2017

Black Divas

Want to feel like an insider, as though you’re backstage at an Australian Drag Queen performance and embraced by the LGBTQI culture?

Six finalists from across Australia met for five days of rehearsals and performances to see which one would be crowned Miss First Nation Drag Queen, 2017.  At the opening, the MCs explain, as they are filling the swag bags, that they want to give their Mob (a term used in aboriginal cultures to signify your family and close friends, or in this case your Sister Girls) an opportunity to get up on stage and be fabulous.

(Disclaimer-Drag Queens refer to themselves using the pronoun she when they are in character. While it is respectful to always ask for a person’s preferred pronoun rather than to assume it for this article when the performers were not in costume, the pronoun we used was he. An exception was made for Crystal Love, identifying as a trans-woman.)

BLACK DIVAZ

As the 60-minute film progresses, you meet each contestant – JoJo, Shaniqua, Nova Gina, Josie Baker, Crystal Love, Isla Fuk Yah -- and hear their personal stories leading up to the competition.  JoJo, who identifies as a gay male offstage, has never performed with any Black Sister Girls before.  Shaniqua and Nova Gina are a gay couple off stage. Josie Baker was named by her Sister Girls after the first black woman to appear in a motion picture and for her gypsy-like style.  Each created their on-stage persona, name, make-up and costumes based on details of their lives growing up as First Nation Australian.

BLACK DIVAZ Promotes LGBTQI Acceptance Within Aboriginal Culture

The goal of this documentary film is to promote pride and acceptance within the Aboriginal culture for LGBTQI people. This film is dedicated to those in the LGBTQI community that have lost their lives due to homophobia, trans hatred and traumas resulting in suicide within the Sister Girls and Brother Boys Mob.  With passion, skill and sometimes more than five hours of applying make-up, wigs, corsets and falsies, these girls transform themselves into glittery entertainers, dancing, lip-syncing, doing comedy acts with poise, feathers and sequins.  Through sharing their courageous performances, these Drag Queens hope to provide inspiration and create acceptance for others within their communities.

The director, Adrian Russell Wills, filmed this documentary to make you feel you are there with the camera on stage, in the dressing rooms, greeting the contestants as they arrived at the hotel, and at the judges’ tables.  The viewer gets to watch the make-up application, the contours being drawn, and the gluing of the brows. You see performers transform as they step into their costumes and fasten their high heels. The cameras are so close you might even perspire or wring your hands with anticipation on the final day. The scenes are edited to convey unrehearsed authenticity.

Crystal Love from the Tiwi Islands, north of Darwin, whose parents’ indigenous affiliation were the Alligator and the Buffalo, talked about how as a trans-woman, she relied heavily on the support of her friends and family including straight family members.  Treated harshly at times by her own people for being trans, she spoke about homophobia and trans hatred growing out of the modernizing of Aboriginal Peoples adopting Christianity and Catholicism. Crystal talked about both of her parents being alcoholics and her own struggle with alcohol. Back home her boyfriend won’t walk openly down the street holding her hand, yet on stage she struts proudly, wears pink false eyelashes and historically inspired gowns.

Isla Fuk Yah, who identifies offstage as a straight male, began struggling with anxiety during his late teen years and feels that by having the freedom to transform into his stage persona, she can help moderate some of the social anxiety he feels. His mother helped him into the hotel with his costumes and wigs.

Josie has performed as a drag queen for years and made a decision that, as a gay man, one could either cower or work being gay to their advantage. She also introduced her partner and admitted that without him, she’d be lost.

A warning in bold white type appeared against the black screen in the very beginning of the film.  It read, ABORGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDERS VIEWERS ARE ADVISED THAT THE FOLLOWING PROGRAM CONTAINS IMAGES OF PEOPLE THAT ARE DECEASED. Amid all the glitz, upbeat music, excitement and anticipation of the competition the reality of present-day Australia is that First Nation Drag Queens are members of two minorities and face double discrimination for being Aboriginal as well as being gay.  Before the credits scroll, photographs and a video of a young, deceased Aboriginal Drag Queen scroll by and the film is dedicated in her honor.

Identifying as an ally of the LGBTQI community, this writer was unfamiliar with the struggles of the Aboriginal LGBTQI community, although they mirror the prejudice and bias faced by people of color in the LGBTQ community in the United States. You, like this writer, may similarly feel compelled to search  the internet for definitions of unfamiliar terms and maps of the Australian states. At the end, this film leaves us feeling somber, but hopeful, and appreciative of the privilege it affords to observe closely and take a brief look at First Nation Drag Queens.

This film was first screened in the U.S. at the AMNH Mead Film Festival, October 2019.

The Margaret Mead Film Festival is a yearly event, held in the fall.  Bookmark the American Museum of Natural History website for early warnings on next year's festival.

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Photos by Joseph Mayers

Cast:

Adriana Andrews, Ben Graetz, Crystal Love, Shaun Kernaiea, John Ridgeway, Joseph Cardona, Dallas Webster, Daniel Cunningham, Roy David Page, Izaak Field, Cyril Johnson

Crew:

Produced by
David Cole ... executive producer
Gillian Moody ... producer
Michaela Perske ... producer

Music by
Paul Mac

Cinematography by
Sam Frederick
Simon Morris
Andre Sawenko

Film Editing by
Nikki Stevens

Production Management
Kiki Dillon ... production manager

Sound Department
Damian Jory ... re-recording mixer/sound designer

Editorial Department
Emily Selby ... post production supervisorMusic Department
Jemma Burns ... music supervisor
Margot Clark ... music supervisor

Other crew
Nick Martinelli ... production coordinator

Caryn Hoffmann
Caryn Hoffmann

About Caryn Hoffman

Ms. Hoffman has a degree in art and her life’s work has been environmentally and  politically focused. After community organizing on both coasts, she had a career as an educator in Southern California. Now, semi-retired, Ms. Hoffman leads an active, outdoor lifestyle, continues to advocate for the environment and travels. She is especially fond of art, film, cultural events and is an ardent, live music fan. She loves adventure travel including camping, hiking, kayaking, rafting and road biking.

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