1967, 16mm film on DVD, B&W, sound
Curated by Paul Dallas
"This is my chance to really feel myself, and say: 'I'm the bitch'…." These are Jason's first words in Clarke's searing documentary portrait, one of the most fascinating and problematic films of the 60s. Ostensibly a verité portrait of Jason Halliday, a black gay hustler and aspiring cabaret performer, its real subject is the dynamics of power and representation. Culled from a grueling 12-hour alcohol-fueled interview at the Chelsea Hotel, Portrait of Jason is both a platform for its subject and an interrogation. While his personality dominates the film, he is also rendered powerless and made to evoke the larger history of black performers and white audiences. Clarke and her long-time lover and collaborator Carl Lee (Jason's friend and object of desire,) are disembodied voices who taunt and coerce Jason throughout his epic monologue. As exhaustion builds and emotions are laid bare, we glimpse the complexity of Jason's identity and recognize the significance of performance as a survival tactic for marginalized communities. Dismissed by mainstream critics at the time, yet hailed by Ingmar Bergman as one of the most fascinating films he'd seen, Clarke's unflinching work remains both provocative and troubling.
Shirley Clarke was a pioneer of American independent cinema whose singular style infused documentary and narrative films with an avant-garde sensibility. Trained as a dancer and choreographer, she turned to film in the 1950s and quickly established herself with the short films Bridges-Go-Round (1959) and Skyscraper (1960). In 1962, she co-founded the Film-Makers Coop and also won an Academy Award for Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel with the World. Her first feature, The Connection (1961), was famously banned for indecency and only received theatrical distribution in 2012. The Cool World (1964) was filmed on location in Harlem, where she lived much of her life, and was followed by Portrait of Jason (1967).
Historian George Chauncey notes that in the 1920s, "Although Greenwich Village's gay enclave was the most famous in the city, even most white gay men thought gay life was livelier and more open in Harlem than in the Village." Its Prohibition-era gay-oriented clubs, mixing among black and white, straight and gay, featured queer performers such as Gladys Bentley. When Albert and David Maysles (Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens) decided to open a non-profit cinema, they chose Harlem specifically to serve a community without direct access to independent cinema. The Maysles Cinema—the only independent cinema north of Lincoln Center—is committed to creating a democratic space that provides educational outreach to the local community as well as pay-what-you-can screenings. It is located near the site of the gay club Lulu Belle, where, according to Chauncey, "thirty men were arrested for wearing drag" over a two-week period in 1928.