What I'm Watching

in which I reflect on three documentaries

Lately, I am having a really hard time watching scripted things. I get frustrated and angry at the stupid choices that authors hoist upon their characters. Every scripted thing I watch feels like it just moves from plot point to plot point without any character development. Rarely are characters reflective or contemplative. They just keep plotting forward.

In this moment of intense turmoil and upheaval due to COVID-19, the uprisings for Black lives and against police brutality, and the growing far right fascists and mobsters, I need reflection. I need to learn from those who have held their community close, who have created radical art, who have stood up for their sovereignty. History is becoming my “entertainment”, what I turn on when my mind races, and I tell myself, “I want a distraction.”

I don’t really want distraction. I want to be grounded. I want to feel the roots of belonging and creativity and solidarity grow ever deeper. Where could I turn to find those roots? Who are my elders and ancestors and peers?

I decided to browse the documentary sections of all my streaming services—Kanopy, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Netflix, Tubi, Peacock (there’s too damn many…). So many of the documentaries prominently featured are either some sort of trauma porn (aka true crime, aka just more violence towards women), nature porn (can we get someone other than Oprah and David Attenborough narrating at some point please?), or nostalgia porn (I don’t need to reminisce about capitalist toys that are supposed to comfort my disillusionment with capitalism). I kept scrolling.

And I am so glad that I did. Tucked way down the list on Amazon Prime was Jewel’s Catch One. Jewel Thais-Williams is a gay Black woman in Los Angeles, and she ran the bar Catch One for 42 years until it closed in 2015. In 1998, Jewel went back to school and got her master’s degree in Chinese Medicine. She then opened a health clinic on the same block as Catch One. In both her role as bar owner and as medical practitioner, Jewel was (and is) a healer.

Watching the documentary, I was moved by how she just kept going and moving and finding new ways to bring who she was into community with others. Her clarity of who she is and what she is meant to do is awe inspiring, and it reminds me to keep on my path.

Thanks to watching Jewel’s Catch One, Amazon Prime recommended the documentary Ruminations. It is about Rumi Missabu, a flaming performance and visual artist. It chronicles Rumi’s life having moved to San Francisco in the 1960s, founding the Cockettes, divorcing himself from society, and reemerging as a queer performance icon as both part of Thrillpeddler’s revival of the Cockettes’ plays and as a maker of experimental theater.

Ruminations is pure magic. It made me long for more celebration and rumination on those who've come before and made it possible for me to be who I am in this moment. It is crucial to our survival as queer people to carry on the aesthetics and legacies of our ancestors in these corporeal bodies as a means to transmit and transmute their existence into the now and thus project them (and us) into the future.

I was born on Očhéthi Šakówiŋ land in what is known in the United States as Minnesota. When I was 18 and 19, I traveled to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation on a mission trip with my Catholic church to facilitate games with kids and to help paint houses. While there, I heard stories from Lakota elders about Wounded Knee and the ways in which the United States government never held up its agreements. I watched the sunset over White Clay Creek and attended my first pow wow. My understanding of and relationship to the history of this land separated from the history of the United States. They are not one in the same.

As I was scrolling through Kanopy, the streaming service for library card holders, I came across Standing Silent Nation. It follows Alex White Plume and his family as they grow the first hemp on soil contained within the borders of the United States since 1968. Over and again the DEA raids Alex White Plume’s crops and destroys and confiscates it. He takes them to court fighting for the US government to honor indigenous sovereignty. The courts side with the DEA and say congress should make stronger laws.

While Alex White Plume and his family as depicted in the documentary are not queer or trans identified, as a queer person I see in the story of Alex White Plume a story more queer and trans people should pay attention to because it is a story about autonomy and determination. As a pothead, I see even more clearly why the story of Alex White Plume affects me every single day as I light a joint because his fight against the government should also be my fight. As a white person growing up on Očhéthi Šakówiŋ land, I must listen to Alex White Plume’s story so that I can better advocate where and when I can for indigenous sovereignty. These are some of the lessons I as a white queer living on Ramaytush Ohlone land must learn.

All three of the documentaries ground me. They offer me insight and wisdom into how to move in this world and on this land and with the people I hold dear—queer and trans folx, indigenous folx, Black folx, poor folx, those who divorced themselves from society, and those who had government dishonor their autonomy or sovereignty. These films about Jewel Thais-Williams and Rumi Missabu and Alex White Plume connect me to comrades I did not know and remind me that I, too, come from a legacy of folx not just trying to survive amidst brutal and crushing capitalism but working to change the conditions for their people.

I used to call history “work”. It used to be something I scheduled into my days, so that on my “off” time I could check out with a video game or the latest Marvel movie or another episode of Game of Thrones. History wasn’t entertainment, and even though when I watched a documentary or read a book I loved learning, it felt like a nuisance to do it when I just wanted to be distracted, to dissociate.

Right now, distraction feels hollow. No. It feels parasitic, as if in the act of dissociation I am being drained of life. Diving into history, especially queer history and indigenous history that is still unfolding is nourishing. It entertains and delights even when our histories are at times arduous and painful because it reminds me:

I am not alone; neither are you.