Sunday, September 20, 2015

Antonio Fargas Celebrated As A Cinema Trailblazer For The Gay Community

 American media has gone from virtually zero onscreen support of the LGBT community to, by 2015, a population explosion of characters depicting gay lifestyles. We can better appreciate these cinematic breakthroughs by looking towards actors like Antonio Fargas, one of the first African-Americans to play standout roles as a drag queen on film. Fargas helped open the door to this trend with honest depictions that brought humanity and sensitivity to drag, while countering the simple ‘man in a dress’ spoofs that were then common. His performances were powerful enough to shine a realistic light on a community long deserving of honest representation in the media. It was no easy act getting transgendered characters into a major (not art house) motion picture, and the obstacles surmounted by the writers and actors is an often-overlooked achievement. There was resistance in allowing these roles, and even if movie audiences finally got the real deal, TV audiences did not when the scenes with gays were cut—like with Fargas’ role in “Car Wash”.

Such actions speak volumes about what the media was then willing to show about the LGBT community. It underscores the struggles among both gay and straight actors—like Fargas—who risked unpopularity despite such chance-taking bravery. Those early days were a time when the film’s creators and talent had to use subtleties to slip in any bits of real character, like in the classic, “Ben Hur”. These behind-the-scenes struggles went even deeper as gay talent found their own casting couches to deal with. Says Fargas, “Everybody understands the casting couch where producers were doing actresses, but they never talked about ones doing the boys, or the lesbian side. Nobody talked about the price that the young actors paid. ”With this in mind, he worked to make each rare onscreen moment in drag memorable, and worthy. His iconic portrayal of ‘Lindy’ the outspoken drag queen in the comedy, “Car Wash”, allowed Fargas to deliver one of the most tell-all moments in gay cinematic history: "I'm twice the man you'll ever be, and more woman than you'll ever get." The courage heard within such lines is a fine example of the integrity he has applied to every role he has undertaken, and with good reason—somebody had to. Even without his mother’s support, (she did not want him to do the role) he gave us one of the most standout figures in gay cinematic history.

Fargas reflects on the some of the things that gave him the courage to take on such unpopular roles: “I grew up with a macho type Puerto Rican father who could not accept the fact that my brother was gay, and was angry because he couldn’t control the choices my brother had made. I remember feeling powerless to do something about it.” Once he took up acting, he chose the position of humanizing the underdogs with a special dedication. After launching his career at age 14 in Shirley Clark's “Cool World” he went on to make an indelible mark, with the linchpin of his career being his choice to represent people who didn’t get spoken for—the drug addicts, pimps, and the transgendered characters that he made legendary. He admits that while being unable to fully identify, or even understand their pain, he was determined to speak for them with dignity. After playing roles like the jailhouse transsexual ‘Vanessa’ in “Ambush Murders”, an inroad formed making Fargas renowned for street roles and humanized urban characters. “Car Wash” director Michael Shultz knew the kind of talent he was, as did director Robert Downey, Sr. when he cast him in “Putney Swope”, and again with Paul Mazursky, when he grabbed Fargas for “Next Stop Greenwich Village”– they all saw their ideal character in an actor who was willing to fill that gap. There were many gaps yet to come, like in Millie Jackson’s “Young Man, Older Woman”, with Fargas as the fianc√©’s mother—a predecessor to Tyler Perry’s character Madea.

Neither Fargas or the directors and writers could see the trendsetting moves that were taking place as they boldly exhibited lifestyles surrounded in misunderstanding. Fargas cites standing on the shoulders of James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Truman Capote, as brave visionaries—just as he prepares his own shoulders for this new generation breaking through the remaining barriers. He sees the changes taking place and acknowledges what a tough, yet rewarding task it was and still is. As for the progress made by his inadvertent pioneering efforts, Fargas states, “I can smile as I see it has gotten better for the gay and transgendered community. We have to take our hats off to the ones who got spit on, beaten, arrested. African-Americans and those with alternative lifestyles who back then were not celebrated and had no voice.

Upon seeing accolades for films like Brokeback Mountain and other Academy Award nominated vehicles with gay storylines, it is easy to forget how challenging it used to be—not just for the creators but for the gay community itself. By looking back at the history of LBGT’s on film we find courageous actors willing to take the heat, and only then can one get a true picture of how far we have come. Fargas offers both the African American and gay communities even more motivation for where to go next: “It is a brighter day with still much to be done. There is still opposition to these things, but there is a spiritual answer to this and I know that we are closer to it. We can do it if we get a firm grip on our history and a good foothold on knowing that none of us are alone anymore.”

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