Gay Essential Review: The Queens at Merlinka Festival

Mark Saxenmeyer’s documentary The Queens accounts the history of the coveted Miss Continental crown, an acclaimed annual female impersonation pageantry in Chicago with winners including RuPaul’s Drag Race alumni, Naysha Lopez and Brooke Lynn Hytes. Founded by Jim Flint in 1980, the new year will welcome its 40th year as well as its 40th crown winner. While chronicling the history of the pageant itself, Saxenmeyer focuses on the most important part of the competition: the Queens. The film begins two months before the pageant, the time leading up to the pageant is used to divide the film into sections. Each part attempts to unpack the stories of its competitors, using both archive footage and footage closer to the time of the upcoming pageant.

The Queens

Months before the competition, and very early on in the documentary, and the discourse the film tackles is already riddled with complexity and is of great contrast to the glamorous and effortless facade built by the queens during pageants. One of the many thought-provoking topics the film highlights is of Miss Continental inhibiting drag queens who have transitioned from man to woman from entering the competition, Flint believes that folks who have transitioned are ‘no longer impersonating’, which is what the competition’s core lies within. He does not shy away from also expressing that this belief has been met with some resentment.

The film is unequivocal in tackling the reality and intensity of the competition, as well as the real lives of the competitors. Tiffany T. Hunter, one of the queens that the documentary heavily focuses on, shares that alongside the expected preparation for the pageant are the not so glamorous realities such as working at a gas station and cutting down on expenses to afford the costs of competing. Moreover, the film also briskly covers some of the queens’ battle with drugs, mental health, as well as the issue of illegal silicone injections.

Another important issue discussed in the film is the effect of the 1980s AIDS crisis, not only for those who battled it in the 80s but folks who are currently living with it, too. One of the queens that lost their battle to AIDS is shown on stage in a moving piece of archive footage, striving against the illness and declaring, ‘I’m not dying of AIDS, I’m, living with AIDS’.

The Queens showcases the pageant’s question and answer portion heavily through intercutting, making the contest’s ‘when was the last time you cried?’ question all the more engrossing. Like real pageants, this section of the film reveals such vulnerability within all the contestants amidst all their varying personalities and life experiences.

While clearly filmed on a tight budget, there is a clear love and empathy towards the subjects and the craft of female impersonation. Saxenmeyer makes a valiant attempt at encapsulating the rich, forty years of the competition’s history. While the number of testimonies included within the film is overwhelming at first, it becomes one of the key reasons for its success in engaging viewers within the story and the history. LGBT+ history and culture are not often chronicled in history books, let alone being recorded on film. The Queens is a great effort in changing this, preserving our history for future generations.

3 stars

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Graciela Mae

Graciela Mae

Filmmaker
Graciela Mae is a Filipina studying Film, Television and Digital Production at Royal Holloway, University of London. She has previously written for Screen Queens, Much Ado About Cinema, and The Skinny. When she’s not watching films, she’s probably attempting to make films herself (she swears she has other hobbies).
Graciela Mae
- 7 hours ago