Documentary Review: D.C. drag queens do good in “Queen of the Capital”

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“Queen of the Capital” is a softer, cuddlier version of the landmark drag queen documentary, “Paris is Burning.”

It’s a new film about the drag queen scene in Washington, D.C.

Where the 1990 film revealed New York’s drag queens as organizing themselves into “houses,” like high fashion “couture” labels, in Washington the men who dressed as women were, for decades, in The Academy or in “families.”

The queens in New York were generally young, mouthy and outspoken. In D.C., they’re mostly older, outlandishly dressed but mild of speech.

“Paris” had egos run amuck, hilarity and edge. Thirty years later the Washington scene has evolved into a sort of conservative cotillion, a community service organization almost.

“We’re the gay man’s Renaissance Faire,” one offers. No, he’s corrected. “We’re the gay Shriners…without the little cars!”

And that is both this film’s charm, and its chief shortcoming.

It’s informative, a gay drag history of Washington, a painstaking breakdown of the popularity contest that crowns the King and Queen of D.C. drag (at the Czar’s Ball, held in Richmond, Va.), an ad for the charities that this “court” raises money for and a portrait of one queen in particular, Daniel, aka Muffy Blake Stephyns.

It’s warm, sweet here and there. But this soft approach makes it a fairly joyless enterprise. Perhaps it was music rights that kept the filmmaker, veteran TV videographer/journalist Josh Davidsburg, from showing more performances, more audience interaction. You barely get an idea of the universal truth of drag that is kind of the point of it all.

Gay or straight, RuPaul or Monty Python, drag is fun.

So there’s a hint of Muffy’s drag “mother,” the drawling Shelby Jewel Stephyns, vamping “God Bless the U.S.A.” to the fans, and that’s pretty much it.

“I am a ‘Steel Magnolia’ woman in a “‘Designing Woman World!'”

The point here is the tradition being passed on, how drag “depends on the older generation instructing and passing along” the regimen, styles, beauty tips and mores “to the young.”

And that’s kind of “TV news segment” myopic. I didn’t realize Davidsburg was a TV journalist until the closing credits. But the film — with its heroine, Muffy — leans heavily into TV “feature story” elements such as the epilepsy Muffy battles and the service nature of the “court,” with snippets of performers talking about “not wanting to BE a woman, I just like to dress up like them” (echoing Eddie Izzard), or being in the military or growing up in a small town.

Muffy relates the Cub Scout/not-into sports childhood he experienced in Marceline, Missouri, and everything that mutes the impact and muzzles the entertainment value of “Queen of the Capital” is made clear right there.

Muffy doesn’t mention that Marceline was where Walt Disney grew up, the slice of Americana he was trying to recreate in his theme parks. Muffy doesn’t mention it and Davidsburg doesn’t appear to realize it.

There’s the theme for his movie. Drag has become mainstream “Americana” in the few decades since “Paris is Burning.”

And if you can’t find something fun in connecting conservative Walt to a guy who grew up wanting the biggest wigs in drag, or drag queens thriving in an age when every June, Walt Disney World becomes not just “the happiest place on Earth,” but thanks to Pride Month, the gayest, you’re going to miss everything else that’s fun about it as well.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating: Unrated

Cast: Muffy Blake Stephyns, Natasha Dennis Carrington, Ophelia Bottoms, Shelby Jewel Stephyns

Credits: Directed by Josh Davidsburg. A Lot 1 release.

Running time: 1:20

 

 

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