In the season two premiere of FX’s Pose, Elektra Abundance (Dominique Jackson) gives her chosen family the briefest of history lessons when she explains that the ballroom scene was born when “Crystal LaBeija lost one too many titles to white girls.” The inaugural House of LaBeija Ball, the spark that lit the explosion of Black and Latinx LGBTQ creativity now known as New York City ball culture, was unfortunately not captured on camera. But the event that pushed Crystal LaBeija away from white-dominated drag pageants and inspired her to create her own space was.
When The Queen was released in 1968, police officers still routinely raided gay bars in cities across America, using an informal standard known in the community as the “three-article rule” as a pretense to harass, arrest, and assault people whose gender expression defied societal norms. A riot at the Stonewall Inn would finally stem the tide of cross-dressing and homosexuality arrests in NYC on June 28, 1969. But until Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera threw that first brick, underground drag pageants were held in semi-secrecy at gay-friendly venues in lower Manhattan.
The Queen documents one of these, the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Pageant. And “camp” is right, as the contestants who travel from all around the country to sashay across the stage are mostly classic Hollywood glamour girls whose outsized impressions of 1930s and ’40s movie stars are exactly what Susan Sontag had in mind when she wrote “Notes On Camp” in 1964. Told in the fly-on-the-wall cinema verité style that was in vogue (no pun intended) at the time, most of The Queen consists of footage of drag queens candidly discussing their lives—both love and otherwise—backstage as they’re getting ready for the pageant. Save for the stories of being rejected by the Army for being gay at the height of the Vietnam War, it’s remarkable how similar their conversations are to those had by RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants putting on their makeup in the workroom.
Most of these queens, and the men watching them in the crowd, are white. The pageant’s emcee, 24-year-old Flawless Sabrina, is white, as is the favorite to win, an inexperienced, very feminine young queen named Harlow who doesn’t even have a wig when she shows up at the Port Authority bus terminal from Philadelphia. Harlow genuinely appears to be a sweet, if self-centered, kid who doesn’t realize that her presence is stirring up tensions in the New York drag community. But she finds out, when after the pageant is over that year’s Miss Manhattan, Crystal LaBeija, accuses Flawless Sabrina of rigging the Miss All-America contest in favor of a white girl.
It’s by far the most compelling scene in the documentary: After being announced as third runner-up, Crystal LaBeija leaves the stage, then comes back in her street clothes after the winner has been announced, her cat-eye makeup still immaculate and her long black hair still teased into a flowing updo. “Do you think she deserved it?,” Crystal’s friend and backup asks the cameraman. (She has no time for this “not breaking the fourth wall” bullshit.) “She is not beautiful, has no qualifications, and is body-less!,” an infuriated Crystal adds. When they don’t get an answer, they head backstage, where Crystal gives the pageant organizers a piece of her mind.
This isn’t a case of a sore loser having a tantrum. Crystal doesn’t have a problem with Harlow personally; “you deserve to have the best in life, but you don’t deserve to win,” she tenderly tells the shellshocked young queen. No, her righteous outburst is the culmination of many years of frustration. At that time, it was practically unheard of for a queen of color to win a national drag competition, no matter how skillful her makeup or confident her walk. In fact, in 1967, drag balls had only recently stopped the practice of expecting queens of color to lighten their complexions with makeup. “I have a right to show my color, darling,” Crystal declares, the word “darling” dripping with as much venom as her gown recently dripped with jewels. “I am beautiful and I know I’m beautiful.” 52 years later, that’s still a radical statement.
The Queen was recently restored in 4K from the original negative by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. Kino Lorber’s limited theatrical release of the restoration begins in New York City on June 28, the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Inn uprising. You can check for a screening in a city near you on the film’s website.