While we all wait for a time when movie theaters and playhouses can open again, we can at least revel in all the LGBTQ/LGBTQ-friendly fare on television. As it has been doing all spring, Netflix seems to be leading the way with queer content. On tap now are two fine documentaries, “Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado” and “Disclosure.”
“Mucho Mucho Amor,” which debuted at Sundance this year, is a spirited look at Walter Mercado, the flamboyant, easy-to-love Puerto Rican who became the world’s most famous astrologer. People would flock to their TV sets to watch him and get their horoscopes. After entertaining people for decades, though, he pretty much disappeared.
Directed by Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch, the documentary examines what happened to Mercado amid a relationship with a controlling agent. It also charts his comeback. Late in the film, Lin-Manuel Miranda visits Mercado and their meeting — they are longtime, enthusiastic fans of each other — is one of the highlights. This is a giddy, affectionate look at a man who marched to his own tune. Many people assume Mercado was gay, living with a devoted male assistant for decades, but Mercado never fully addressed his sexuality. Others claimed he was nonbinary, but he refused any labels and empowered many in the LGBTQ community. This is a heartfelt look at a beloved man who only wanted to please.
Also on Netflix is “Disclosure,” another film that debuted at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Looking at the history of transgender representation in television and film, it’s far and away one of the best documentaries of the year. It’s estimated that 80% of Americans do not know a person who identifies as transgender. As such, these individuals get their information from the media images they see. Laverne Cox, one of the producers, is one of the subjects as well, and speaks vividly about what she watched growing up in Alabama.
Among the other subjects interviewed are Mj Rodriguez, Chaz Bono, Alexandra Billings and filmmaker Lilly Wachowski of “Matrix” movies. Candis Cayne, who made history as the first transgender actress to play a recurring trans character on a television series in “Dirty Sexy Money,” jokes about the number of times characters she has played have died. She also remembers watching “Dressed to Kill” as a teenager and identifying with the glamour of the Angie Dickinson character, only to see her killed off by the villainous Michael Caine man-in-a-dress character.
As directed by Sam Feder, himself a trans man, “Disclosure” is fascinating and entertaining, a swell companion piece to the film, “The Celluloid Closet” and the recent Apple TV+ series,”Visible: Out On Television.” Many of the early representations of trans people were negative and others ridiculed their trans characters. Feder uses his film to trace where we are now in representation.
One of the early groundbreakers was “Paris is Burning,” which Rodriguez recalls watching, but didn’t realize its significance at the time. Other positive images have come in the Oscar-winning “A Fantastic Woman” and — of course — “Pose,” which has a high number of transgender artists in front of and behind the camera. The film also tackles the controversial issue of having cisgender actors playing transgender characters. Some, such as Hilary Swank and Jared Leto, have won Academy Awards for doing so, and that effect is discussed and debated. While trans representation is higher these days, it can improve. Some subjects remind us that transgender people, especially women, are being killed at a disturbingly high rate.
Both “Mucho Mucho Amor” and “Disclosure” are extremely satisfying. “Tiger King” is the documentary that seemed to capture America’s imagination earlier this year, but these two are much stronger works.
This weekend, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival returns a favorite from earlier this year. A screening of “Flawless,” about a new student at a cliquish Jewish school, will feature a talkback from its lead actress, Stav Strashko, who became the first transgender woman nominated for Israel’s most prestigious acting prize (the Ophir Award) for Best Actress. “Flawless” is a very good film, touching on issues such as self-esteem, beauty, and peer pressure.
The film and the talkback can be viewed on Sunday, July 26 at noon at www.ajff.org/inconversationwebinar/flawless.