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"United we stand, divided they catch us one by one" #JoseSarria


Nelly Queen: The Life & Times of Jose Sarria" 

Directed by Joseph Castel. Produced by Mario J. Novoa and Danny De La Paz, in association with the International Court System. "United we stand, divided they catch us one by one", #JoseSarria

In 1961, Jose Sarria is the first openly gay man to run for public office in the United States, and he ran in heels. 

“Nelly Queen: The Life and Times of Jose Sarria” is the first feature documentary that focuses solely on activist Jose Sarria (1922-2013) and his milestone contributions to the LGBTQ movement.

At the intersection of politics and camp, Nelly Queen reveals an intimate portrait of a drag performer who, during the 1950s, brazenly stands up (in red heels) to corrupt San Francisco police, the vice and ABC agents; litigated anti-gay city ordinances; and starts the nation’s second largest gay nonprofit, The Imperial Courts. 

When San Francisco politicians threaten to shut down the gay bars in 1961, Sarria runs as an openly gay candidate for City Supervisor, 11 years before Harvey Milk. 

From 1955 to 1963, the legendary diva performs opera parodies at the Black Cat Café, a bohemian hangout for local artists, beatniks and gays in a section of North Beach.  From a stage made of four tables shoved together, Jose not only entertains his audiences with gay operatic story-lines, he galvanizes a disenfranchised community with such slogans as “United we stand, divided they’ll catch us one by one.”  

Jose inspires his patrons to stand up for their rights by teaching them how to defy and circumvent laws that deprive them of their basic rights. Whenever undercover officers enter the café to entrap patrons, Jose exposes them by having his closeted customers stand up and sing with him, “God, Save Us Nelly Queens,” a takeoff on Britain’s national anthem, as the vice shamefully retreat from the café. Jose represents the archetype hero, the Trickster or Fool — the one who embodies the court jester to instigate change. The Black Cat is his court, the stage his throne. 

“Nineteen-ninety is when I first read about Jose in John D’Emilio’s Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities while in Grad school at the University of Iowa,” said director Joseph Castel. “It was an epiphany, one of those out of body moments that people talk about. It was hard to wrap my head around that a Latino drag queen could be so courageous during the conservative fifties, the era of McCarthyism and the purging of homosexuals from the federal government. Clearly he must be insane, I thought.” 

Castel had just broken up with a fellow film classmate, the life of his life and his future looked bleak during the height of the AIDs epidemic, but Jose’s story inspires the grad student to come out of mourning. “I didn’t even know if Jose was alive, but if he was I knew I had to meet him.” After Castel moves to California, that same year, he meets the 68-year-old diva who becomes his mentor and friend. 

Castel begins to tape Jose’s cabaret performances, political theatrics, and informal interviews at the kitchen table beginning in 1992 until Jose’s death in 2013. Most of the Hi-8 tapes had to be restored after being ruined by moisture seeping into the cassettes. 

What the director discovers after numerous interviews, that despite becoming a local hero to the LGBT community, Jose’s unable to save his own love, Jimmy Moore, the Black Cat’s waiter from his own self-destruction. As Jose’s cabaret star rises, Jimmy sinks deeper into alcoholism. 

After The Black Cat closes in 1964, Jose starts one of the largest nonprofit LGBT organizations in the country, the International Court System, in which more than 70 chapters have raised millions of dollars for AIDs and other charities. As Jose grows older, he continues to perform and raise awareness for LGBT causes, especially for AIDs. In the mid-1990s, Jose becomes displaced from San Francisco due to soaring rents. Shortly before his death, Jose reveals that his only regret in life is that he was unable to save the love of his life despite helping so many others to love and accept themselves.

Nelly Queen is not just an LGBT history lesson; it’s a triumphant story of the human spirit, a hero’s journey about a man fighting unjust laws and uniting a fractured community. Nelly Queen reveals an intimate portrait of the Latino civil rights pioneer whose heroic drag has long been overlooked as a cornerstone of the gay rights movement.

Official selection 
#LGBT #Documentary