The Stroll, the opening documentary of the British Film Institute Flare Festival just blew the bloody doors off. Some things in LGBTQ+ film festivals are good, some things are important. They don’t always coincide. With this authentic yet deeply authoritative work by Kristen Lovell and Zackary Drucker they have achieved both. A threading of black and brown trans history, NYC gentrification, sex work, technology, and culture that is as well-sourced and logically tight as an academic work, as personal as poetry, as moving as an obituary, and as fierce as firefighting.
The Stroll refers to that space unique to the LGBTQ+ community’s history. If you were too young to get into a gay bar, too queer to be accepted at home, too non-conforming to get traditional paid work, and therefore too poor to get by, then there was The Stroll. That geographical space where the LGBTQ+ community, particularly the trans community of color, hustled off the boundaries of legality to make money through sex work.
In NYC from the 1970s to the early 2000s the Stroll was around 14th St to the waterfront, centered on the Meatpacking District. Yes, that place which is now all Stella McCartney, Sephora, high-stepping models, and pricey brunches. The erasure has been complete. The grit and the graffiti are gone, and by one estimate the thousands of trans women of colour who used to ply their trade, there are down to a handful of survivors. Trans women of colour have amongst the highest rate of murder, and some of the lowest access to HIV medication.
The stories are told through the first-person testimony of black and brown trans women survivors, historical footage from the 1970s gay rights marches (before the LGTBQ+ rainbow even had initials), and with some evocative narrative provided by spirited and jaunty animation. This is anything but dry, yet never loses itself in trivia. Everything has a purpose.
No punches are pulled. Trans activist Sylvia Rivera was a tireless campaigner for LGBTQ+ rights but was routinely booed at the gay rights marches because she stood apart from the politically useful image of the gay white man seeking heteronormative equality. Rivera was doing sex work in order to feed the homeless LGBTQ+ youth living in shacks on the piers while they were gaining the freedom to disco. RuPaul receives a dressing down for portraying the Stroll as a fun night out and glossing over the desperate precariousness that its inhabitants lived in.
Beyond the personal stories is an eye for the dynamics of cultural evolution. NYC Mayor Guiliani’s zero-tolerance policies followed by 9/11 sped up the transition from street solicitation to online procurement. The swathe of deaths from AIDS amongst gay men who owned plots of land in the meatpacking district allowed property developers to buy up space and gentrify. It is the combination of the stories of culture, community and commerce that make this an intellectually rewarding as well as an intimately compelling documentary. Hard truths beautifully told.
BFI Flare London's LGBTQ+ Film Festival runs Wed, 15 Mar 2023 – Sun, 26 Mar 2023
Review by ANDREW HEBDEN
Queerguru Contributing Editor ANDREW HEBDEN is a MEDIA & CULTURAL STUDIES graduate spending his career between London, Beijing, and NYC as an expert in media and social trends. As part of the expanding minimalist FIRE movement, he recently returned to the UK and lives in Soho. He devotes as much time as possible to the movies, theatre, and the gym. His favorite thing is to try something (anything) new every day.
Labels: 2023, Andrew Hebden, BFI Flare, Opening Nght, review, The Stroll, trans