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HBO Max’s Lupe Blazes a Trail Into the Search for Authenticity

Lupe airs on HBO Max February 26th at 8pm. Find her there.

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Photo Credit: HBO Max and HBO Latino

On Friday February 26th at 8pm, HBO Max and HBO Latino will premiere the darling of the film festival set, Lupe.

The film opens with a beautiful panorama of farmland in Cuba and a young boy calling out for his caretaker and older sister.  He is looking for her.

“Looking for her” becomes the theme of the film, and it also became the theme in the lives of many associated with this cinematic gem.

Rafael, the lead character, absorbs the toxic masculinity of his Cuban village, comfortable under the care of his sister Isabel (portrayed by Lucerys Medina).  Then one day, she is missing.

He believes that she and her friend Elsa have been taken to New York City and fallen victim to a ring of prostitution.  Rafael (portrayed by Rafael Albarrán) has embraced his machismo as a trained boxer and sets out to New York — “looking for her.”

His search for Isabel is merely the journey for him on a wholly other adventure in which he discovers that the “her” he is looking for, is the woman within himself.  Along the way, (adjusting pronouns) they find their sister’s companion Elsa (portrayed by Christine Rosario Lawrence) who helps them think back on their Cuban roots, a boxing student, Arun (portrayed by Kadeem Henry, who shows them that life in authenticity can come with bitter rejection and a transgender woman Lana (portrayed by Celia Harrison), who helps them envision and embrace the future.

The film is tender, poignant and ultimately affirming.  The scenes are simple, sometimes austere and often deeply beautiful.  Albarrán displays magnetism throughout, drawing us into the emergence of the inner life of Rafael to an external expression – often quietly with just the look in their eyes.

To quote the RuPaul franchise, “If you are only watching the surface production, you are only seeing half of the story” rings true to the full story behind the realization of the movie Lupe. While a transgender journey is portrayed on screen, another has played out behind the scenes.

The film was written, and directed by two while New Yorker cisgender men, André Phillips & Charles Vuolo.  Telling the story of a transgender woman.  What could go wrong?

As it turns out—nothing.  Even though the production work started six years ago, well before transgender artist voices were raised asking that their stories actually include them in the making, Phillips and Vuolo already knew what they did not know.  They did not know the transgender experience.

They were looking for “her”:  she who would take ownership of the transgender experience.

They found her in Celia Harrison.  They wrote a framework of the story, and turned to Celia to guide them on the real life experience that she knew to be trans.  Many of the scenes were left unscripted, with the intentions to have performers improvise from their own sensibilities.

They cast Rafael Albarrán, a gay Latino man, after his second audition.  Rafael was sensitive, vulnerable, and yet also brought a strong “street fight” charisma to the part.  They also turned to Celia to play his best friend, even though she was not a trained actor.  She was the transgender life blood muse of the script, and so was a natural to be the on screen conscience of the film itself.

Photo Credit: HBO Max and HBO Latino

Unbeknownst to anyone, Rafael the actor and Rafael the character were beating with the same heart, and a deeply similar journey.  He told me recently,

“I started my career as an actor in Puerto Rico when I was 12 years old, I started writing when I was 15. I went to school or journalism and literature, then went on to do my playwriting and acting. And I, I feel like my journey of my life kind of prepared for this project. But when I was not prepared for was to what I was about to discover of myself. And, again, when I did this six years ago I never thought that this was going to be the end goal of this journey, which just makes everything so beautiful. At the minute when we were on set, and I got the part and I got cast in it, I immediately understood the weight and responsibility that I had.  Six years ago I identified myself as a gay man. 

“Back then, transgender and trans theme movies were not at the level we have right now.  Since then we have shows like Pose, and shows like Orange is the New Black,  shows that came after we shot Lupe, after we did production shots of Lupe.  So back then, I was like, ‘This is huge.’  You know, like I was like this is huge responsibility. And I, honestly, as soon as I start doing research for the role. I start to realize how ignorant I was in the themes of trans and, and all the topics that embark the trans umbrella. You know we all get trapped in toxic masculinity.  The expectations of what being a man is.  And all of a sudden here I am going on a journey in a movie with the characters covered in their femininity and her femininity, and how it looks like, and how it feels like.”

“That exploration that was part of examining the script, I feel like I took a little bit of ownership on that, and I started making it a part of my own personal exploration. To the point that six years after the process started, I no longer consider myself, or refer to myself as a gay man.  I am a non-binary human – I have changed my pronouns. I am using he, she and they.  That process started and the discovery of myself through this character.“  

Looking for her 

Rafael and Celia came together as a collaborative and creative team on the set.  Rafael shared, “You might not be an actress. But you’re a great woman, and we’re about to pair and we were about to tell stories about great women together. And that bonding that happened right before going on set , really relaxed us. It really felt like if we had been friends forever. You know it drew a line of trust between us, and because of that trust — the directors trusted in us, kind of like taking the movie wherever we wanted   to.  They were brave as creators to give out the power in a way.  The direction of the movie could have gone in many many ways.  They just trusted us. I feel like there was a lot of trust around the process. It came down to all of us, all of us around this set—how important this story was. That we were telling.  I cannot wait for people to watch this.“ 

In 2017, the production team recruited and brought on an executive producer, Kerry Michelle O’Brien.  Kerry was well established and famous for her production work, and had only recently identified herself as trans. 

She told me, “Sharan reaches out to me, shows me this piece. And she says you know I would appreciate your input. Well, she calls me up 3 days later and calls me out on it.  Kerry, Where are your notes?  I said, you can have your notes when I stopped crying.  And it’s just, even in its rough cut state, we could see what an amazing piece of work the boys have done, Raphaels acting is just unbelievable. It just spoke volumes off the screen, and also the fact that I say I was a late transition I’ve been living in the closet for way too many years. And then to see someone coming out and be so bold, seeing that reflected on the screen. How could I not be involved in bringing across the finish line.” 

She shared her thoughts on the film’s impact,” amazing and beautiful to actually see a film in which we’re represented not a sociopath, or serial killer, or on the game, you know, we’re actually reflected as human beings, sort of just fumbling and stumbling along and trying to find our way. And try to be genuine.  That’s what we want to do. We just want to be loved and be genuine and to see that evolve in Raphael to Lupe’s characters is just beautiful. It’s just like, it’s just so many things there that sort of made me have hope and tenderness and thinking well I hope this encourages dialogue between people as to the fact that, you know, we’re not, you shouldn’t make a snap judgment about others.

“We are human beings we just want to be loved and we just want to be genuine, but different experiences are very sort of fantastic fabulous way. But we are still individuals that needs to be loved, And that just comes across so strongly in the film.”

Photo Credit: HBO Max and HBO Latino

The impact did not stop with Kerry in the post production room.  She carried it on into her own life, in her own quest for her own authenticity. 

“You know, even though I’ve got a deep voice and you know look a bit peculiar I’m still a woman in myself and that is my truth.  I, when I took this film on I hadn’t seen my children in the UK for quite a while. And through the publicity of the last week of this movie. I actually took it upon myself to actually become genuine with my family in the UK so I reached out to my children.

“Last weekend, I came out as transgender to them. I was able to use the film as a vehicle to say ‘hey you know your dad’s been making another movie, because I had critical acclaim in the past, and this is one that involves the LGBT community. And then I went on, by the way, I’m transgender, and it was such a beautiful moment to share that with my three children. We did a video we did a video call for first time in four years. They hadn’t actually seen me in that time. We sort of chatted, and it was quite a surprise. I wasn’t dressed, but they were very very accepting and the real beautiful point of that was my eldest took it upon herself to come out to me as bisexual at the same time.”

“So, you know nothing but good things are coming from discussions around this movie. That was the level of impact it was me– to finally admit to myself,  ‘I’m okay being the Kerry Michelle that I am, and I’m now ready to tell my family about it.”

Looking for her

As Rafael Albarrán sums up, “In the end, it is not just a story about Trans, about being a woman or a man – it is a story about authenticity.  And I feel like that is something each one of us struggles with on our journey. Regardless of our gender or sexual orientation, its about being authentic with you and empower yourself however that might look like.”

Courtesy of HBO Max and HBO Latino


Lupe airs on HBO Max February 26th at 8pm.  Find her there.

Rob Watson covers LGBTQ lives, culture, and politics as a contributor to the Los Angeles Blade and is the host of the Hollywood-based weekly radio podcast RATED LGBT RADIO.

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For better and for worse, Oscar makes history again

The biggest queer moment of the night was Ariana DeBose’s historic win as the first out woman to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress

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Jessica Chastain accepts the Oscar for Lead Actress (Screenshot/ABC)

HOLLYWOOD – By the time you read this, the biggest moment from this year’s Oscars will already be old news – but before we can move on to a discussion of what the wins and losses reveal about the state of LGBTQ+ representation, inclusion, and acceptance in the Hollywood film industry, we have to talk about it anyway.

When Will Smith stepped up onto that stage at the Dolby Theatre to physically assault Chris Rock – a professional comedian, doing the job he was hired to do in good faith that he would be safe from bodily harm while doing it – for making an admittedly cheap and not-very-funny joke, it was a moment of instant Oscar history that overshadowed everything else about the evening.

There’s been enough discussion about the incident that we don’t need to take up space for it here – tempting as it may be – other than to assert a firm belief that violence is never a good way to express one’s disapproval of a joke, especially during a live broadcast that is being seen by literally millions of people.

Smith, whether or not he deserved his win for Best Actor, succeeded only in making sure his achievement – which could have been a triumphant and historic moment for Black representation in Hollywood, not to mention an honorable cap for his own long and inspiring career – will be forever marred, and the palpably insincere non-apology that replaced what could otherwise have been his acceptance speech was only a textbook example of putting out fire with gasoline.

Yet that polarizing display also allows us a springboard into the much-more-important subject of queer visibility in the movies, thanks to another Smith-centered controversy (and there have been so many, really) from the early days of his career that sheds a lot of light on the homophobic attitudes of an industry almost as famous as playing to both sides of the fence as it is for the art it produces. 

Back in 1993, riding his success as a hip-hop artist-turned actor and springboarding from his “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” fame into a movie career, Smith appeared in the film adaptation of John Guare’s critically-acclaimed play “Six Degrees of Separation,” playing a young con artist who preys on a wealthy Manhattan couple (played by Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing), convincing them to give them money and even move into their home before they eventually discover the truth after coming home to find him in bed with a male hustler.

Unsurprisingly (it was 1993, after all), some of the play’s homosexual content was “softened” for the film version, but Smith was still called upon to perform in a scene depicting a kiss between himself and co-star Anthony Michael Hall. After initially agreeing, he abruptly changed his mind (due to advice from friend-and-mentor Denzel Washington, who warned him that kissing a man onscreen could negatively impact his future career) and refused to do the kiss, necessitating the use of camera trickery to accomplish the scene.

Decades later, Smith expressed regret at the choice, saying it was “immature” and that he should have gone ahead with the kiss – but the story nevertheless provides some insight about the pressure placed on actors in Hollywood to appear heterosexual for their audiences, no matter what.

Despite advancements, that pressure continues today – and Smith, whose unorthodox and publicly rocky marriage already has put him under an arguably unfair microscope, has also been alleged (most notoriously by trans actress Alexis Arquette, who made controversial comments about the couple shortly before her death in 2016) to be participating in a sham marriage in an effort to conceal both his own and his wife’s queer sexuality, may well have been feeling it when he was moved to assert his masculinity at the Academy Awards.

True or not, such rumors still have the potential for ruining careers in Hollywood; and while it may be a facile oversimplification to assume that homophobia was behind Smith’s ill-advised breach of decorum, it’s nevertheless a topic that goes straight to the heart of why the Academy, even in 2022, has such an abysmal track record for rewarding – or even including – openly queer actors on Oscar night.

Granted, things have improved, at least in terms of allowing queerness to be on display at the ceremony. On Sunday night, out Best Actress nominee Kristen Stewart attended with her fiancée, Dylan Miller, with the couple sharing a public kiss on the red carpet as they arrived for the festivities; the trio of female hosts – which included out woman of color Wanda Sikes alongside fellow comedians Amy Schumer and Regina Hall – called out Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill with a defiant joke during their opening presentation.

Jessica Chastain – who won Best Actress for playing unlikely LGBTQ ally and AIDS advocate Tammy Faye Baker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” – made an emotional speech decrying anti-LGBTQ legislation and advocating for all people to be “accepted for who we are, accepted for who we love, and to live a life without the fear of violence or terror.”

Numerous participants in the evening, whether male or female, queer or straight, took the opportunity to push gender boundaries with their couture for the evening (thanks for that, Timothée Chalamet). Elliot Page, joining Jennifer Garner and JK Simmons for a “Juno” reunion, became the first trans man to be a presenter at the Academy Awards. Finally, two beloved queer icons shared the stage for the evening’s finale, as Lady Gaga was joined by wheelchair-bound Liza Minnelli, frail but full of obvious joy at being there, to present the award for Best Picture.

The biggest queer moment of the night, of course, was also one of the first: Ariana DeBose’s historic win as the first out woman to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Accepting the award (for which she was considered by far the front-runner), De Bose proudly highlighted her queerness alongside her other intersecting identities, saying “You see an openly queer woman of color, an Afro-Latina, who found her strength and life through art. And that is, I think, what we’re here to celebrate.”

The evening’s other queer nominees did not fare so well. “Flee,” the Danish documentary about a gay Afghan refugee’s escape from his homeland as a teen, made history by scoring triple nominations as Best Documentary Feature, Best International Feature, and Best Animated Feature, but it went home empty-handed. Stewart – the only other openly queer acting nominee – lost to Chastain for Best Actress, and the divisive but queer-themed “Power of the Dog” lost its bid for Best Picture to “CODA,” as well as all of its multiple acting nominations – though its director, Jane Campion, already the first woman to be nominated twice for the Best Director Prize, became the third woman to actually win it.

Of course, the Oscar, like any other award, should be bestowed upon the most deserving nominee regardless of sexuality, gender, or any other “identity” status, and it seems unreasonable to expect all the queer nominees to win – though some might feel a little reparative favoritism wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing when it comes to balancing the scales. Even so, nobody has a chance to win if they’re not even nominated, and that’s where Oscar has repeatedly and persistently fallen short.

According to a recent report from Professor Russell Robinson, Faculty Director of Berkeley Law’s Center on Race, Sexuality & Culture, analysis of more than half a century of Academy Award acting nominations reveals that out of 68 nominations (and 14 wins) for performers playing LGBTQ roles, only two nominees – neither of whom went on to win – were LGBTQ-identified in real life.

While actors like Tom Hanks (“Philadelphia”), Sean Penn (“Milk”), Penélope Cruz (“Parallel Mothers” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”), and the late William Hurt (“Kiss of the Spider Woman”) garnered career-boosting acclaim along with their Oscars for playing queer characters, there are no equivalent success stories for queer actors playing straight roles – indeed, only eight openly queer performers have gotten a nomination for ANY role, queer or otherwise, in the entire history of the Oscars, and no transgender performers have ever received one at all.

While one might believe statistics like this are at least beginning to change, bear in mind that both of Benedict Cumberbatch’s two Oscar nods so far were for playing gay men, including this year’s “Power of the Dog” (the first was for playing real-life queer hero Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game”).

The topic of whether straight actors playing queer characters is appropriate at all is of course a hotly-debated one, with reasonable arguments – and queer voices in support of them – on both sides. We won’t attempt an in-depth examination of that issue here, but what is obvious even without the above statistics is that the Academy – or rather, looking at it from a wider scope, Hollywood itself – has a deeply-ingrained prejudice against queerness, regardless of how loudly it proclaims itself to be an ally.

Yes, progress has undeniably been achieved, especially within the last few years; the strong showing of films like “Moonlight,” “Call Me By Your Name,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and other LGBTQ-oriented titles on recent Oscar nights has gone neither unnoticed nor unappreciated.

Yet the Academy – as well as the industry it represents – has a pattern of responding to criticism over its inclusiveness in half-measures. It takes more than a hashtag to end sexual harassment of women in the workplace, no matter how many times it’s flashed on the screen during an awards show, and it takes more than a token nomination every few years to give an underrepresented population a fair place at the table, too.

This year’s ceremony was not without its missteps. The choice to bump awards from the broadcast for time while simultaneously devoting minutes to a James Bond tribute or a performance of a song (“We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from Disney’s “Encanto”) that wasn’t even nominated; accompanying the annual “In Memoriam” tribute to the year’s dearly departed with a choreographed dance and vocal performance; the insensitivity of rushing some winners (like “Drive My Car” director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, accepting when his film won for Best International Feature) to finish their speeches while letting others continue uninterrupted; these and other ill-considered decisions had already blemished the show before “the slap heard ‘round the world” ever happened.

Nevertheless, this Oscar show felt more authentic than many in recent memory. There was a raw, unpredictable quality to it, perhaps rooted in the Academy’s controversial choice to relegate several “lesser” awards to a pre-show presentation, that manifested itself in the uncomfortable response of the audience to the often sharp humor of hostesses Sikes, Schuman, and Hall – who mercilessly skewered Hollywood’s say-one-thing-do-another approach to sexism, racism, homophobia and more throughout the show, often with visible apprehension over how their jokes might land.

Nervousness notwithstanding, their presence and their comedic calling-out of industry hypocrisy, along with the willingness of the celebrities in the house to laugh about it, was an element that lifted the proceedings enough to make them not only bearable, but sometimes even enjoyable.

That doesn’t mean the Academy can rest on its laurels. While it’s become common for their awards show – and all the others, for that matter – to serve as a kind of celebrity roast, where jokes are made and laughed at about the industry’s hot-button issue of the day, the persistent problems in Hollywood can’t be corrected just by allowing its workers to blow off steam by making fun of them once a year.

The film industry thinks that by going along with self-mocking humor about its own misogyny, racism, and homophobia, it gets a pass to continue ignoring the growing demand from the public to eliminate those same toxic ingredients from its standard recipe.

Perhaps the Smith incident, based as it seems to have been in a show of masculine dominance, will prompt some soul-searching within the entertainment community over its own rampant hypocrisy. Let’s hope so, because if the Academy Awards are ever to be truly inclusive in their representation of every segment of our society, no matter who they are or who they love, that’s something that has to happen first in the movies their prizes are meant to honor.

We’ve come a long way, to be sure, but we’re not there yet.

******************

Jessica Chastain Accepts the Oscar for Lead Actress:

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First openly queer woman of color, Ariana DeBose wins an Oscar

It was DeBose’s first academy award nomination and Oscar. The awards ceremony was held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood

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Ariana DeBose in 'West Side Story' courtesy of Amblin Entertainment & 20th Century Studios

HOLLYWOOD – North Carolina native Ariana DeBose, who identifies as a Black-biracial queer Afro-Latina, won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress Sunday for her portrayal of Anita in Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of West Side Story.

The film was based on the 1957 Tony award-winning Broadway musical production directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Arthur Laurents.

DeBose in the category for Best Supporting Actress has previously won a Screen Actors Guild Award, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA. She was awarded the Oscar over her fellow nominees in the category including Aunjanue Ellis for King Richard, Kirsten Dunst for The Power of The Dog, Jessie Buckley for The Lost Daughter, and Dame Judi Dench for Belfast.

“Imagine this little girl in the back seat of a white Ford Focus. When you look into her eyes, you see an openly queer woman of color, an Afro Latina, who found her strength in life through art. And that’s what I believe we’re here to celebrate,” DeBose said in her acceptance speech.

“So to anybody who’s ever questioned your identity ever, ever, ever or you find yourself living in the gray spaces, I promise you this: There is indeed a place for us,” she added.

It was DeBose’s first academy award nomination and Oscar. The awards ceremony was held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood and were hosted by Out lesbian comedian Wanda Sykes, actors Regina Hall and Amy Schumer.

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The Associated Press: Oscars Special, editor’s picks

For the first time in two years, the Academy Awards are rolling out the red carpet at Hollywood’s’ Dolby Theatre

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Los Angeles Blade graphic

NEW YORK – As the entertainment, motion picture and film communities gather in Los Angeles for the 94th annual Oscars ceremony at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood Sunday evening, the editors of the Associated Press have curated the news agency’s top six stories prior to this evening’s gala.

Oscars set for return to normal, except all the changes

LOS ANGELES (AP) — For the first time in two years, the Academy Awards are rolling out the red carpet at Los Angeles’ Dolby Theatre for what the film academy hopes will be a…Read More

The Oscars are tonight. Here’s how to watch or stream live

The 94th Academy Awards are right around the corner with just enough time to squeeze in watches of some of the 10 best picture nominees before the lights go down in the Dolby…Read More

Oscar Predictions: Will ‘Power of the Dog’ reign supreme?

Ahead of the 94th Academy Awards, Associated Press Film Writers Lindsey Bahr and Jake Coyle share their predictions for a ceremony with much still up in the…Read More

List of nominees for the 94th Academy Awards

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Nominees for the 94th Academy Awards, which were announced Tuesday via a livestream. Winners will be announced on March 27 in Los Angeles. Best actor:…Read More

Oscars to celebrate ‘Godfather,’ ‘Bond’ anniversaries

LOS ANGELES (AP) — James Bond didn’t get an Oscar nomination this year, but that doesn’t mean that he won’t be part of the ceremony. It’s the 60th anniversary of the first…Read More

Oscars celebrate May, Jackson, Ullmann and Glover

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Elaine May was the last to arrive and the first to leave at the Governors Awards on Friday in Los Angeles. Her fellow honorees, Samuel L. Jackson, Liv…Read More

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