As part of events for LGBT History Month and National Coming Out Week, the LGBT Campus Center, in collaboration with the MSC’s Institute for Justice Education and Transformation and other campus partners, recently hosted a film showing and discussion of Criminal Queers, a film about the trans/queer struggle against the prison industrial complex.
When describing how institutions, like the prison system and non-profit industrial complex, perpetuate intersecting forms of oppression, Joy, a “criminal queer” in Chris Vargas and Eric A. Stanley’s film says “…It’s like a braid.”
Hilariously improvised lines like these abound in Criminal Queers, keeping in fashion with the critical campiness of the film’s entire narrative. The film follows the exploits of a group of LGBTQ Bay Area friends looking for a way to bust their friend Lucy out of prison. Lucy was jailed for (as the homonormative jury foreman puts it) being “another young, African-American male, in a dress, [who] bombed a gay wedding.” Vargas and Stanley could have modeled Criminal Queers as a madcap gay prison escape story and left it at that. Instead, these two California-based scholar-activist-artists consciously constructed a quirky tale that raises awareness of state violence against queer and trans communities, educates the audience about new abolitionist movements, critiques supposedly “progressive” equal rights campaigns, and even includes a primer on the history of U.S. critical resistance work.
Helping Vargas and Stanley teach the audience a course on “Prison Industrial Complex 101” is none other than Angela Davis herself. Davis (who, in the 1960s, was one of the few female Black Panther Party leaders and was wanted by the FBI for domestic terrorism and murder) was once Stanley’s academic advisor. She happily agreed to appear in the film as Professor Davis, a mentor and guide for the young group of friends. In a heartwarmingly funny scene near the end of the film, the camera pans across a wooded path as the family runs along, ushered by Davis who looks on protectively from a sturdy tree trunk. I won’t give away too much of the outcome, but rest assured that if you are a hopeless romantic and sucker for sappy endings, Criminal Queers far from disappoints.
Vargas and Stanley called it a “homework film,” and indeed there are cultural references in almost every frame. Here’s a short reference list to familiarize yourself with, in order to fully enjoying the subtle nuances offered in Criminal Queers:
- If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance (Angela Davis)
- Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex
(Edited by Eric Stanley & Nat Smith)
- Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of Law (Dean Spade)
- Black Skin White Masks (Frantz Fanon)