Dear Jesse


             June in New York City is Gay Pride Month, commemorating the evening
     when a routine police raid on the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village was met
     with resistance from the patrons, sparking the modern gay right movement.
     (I've condensed a lot—if you want more info I refer you to the film
STONEWALL
     or check out the web; there are a lot of sites that provide more complete details,
     including eyewitness testimony). I point this out as a way of leading to the
     release of a terrific documentary called
DEAR JESSE which opened in 1998
     in NYC just in time for Gay Pride Weekend.

             Filmmaker Tim Kirkman addresses the film to the bigoted Senator Jesse
     Helms and in a voice-over explains. "For a long time, I though we had nothing
     in common, but I realize now I was wrong. You and I were both born in Monroe,
     North Carolina, and raised as Southern Baptists. We both attended Wingate
     College for one year each before transferring to other schools. We've also both
     worked in journalism and radio broadcasting. But I believe we have a more
     significant similarity — for most of your 24 years in the U.S. Senate, you've
     been obsessed with homosexual men; for most of my adult life, so have I."

             So begins this unique film, part road movie, part personal journey, all
     very fascinating. Kirkman has a background in graphic design as his eye for
     detail and skill at composing effect scenes with his camera attests. One of
     the reasons he made this film was that wherever he went, whenever he said
     he was from North Carolina, people immediately raised the name of Senator
     Helms. The film was made during the 1996 campaign when Helms'
     opponent was a black man; true to form the Senator was unafraid to play
     the race card as he had when he worked on Willis Smith's Senate campaign
     in 1950. From the 60s when he served on the Raleigh City Council and later
     worked as a television commentator, Helms made his name by attacking racial
     integration and homosexuals, among other topics. Since 1972, he has served
     in the U.S. Senate.

             In returning home what does Kirkman find? A large number of Helms
     supporters who make statements along the lines of "I don't always agree
     with what he says, but he's consistent and you know where he stands on the
     issues." The apathy is apparent; the acceptance of the status quo is appalling.

             Interspersed are more personal interviews. Kirkman speaking with a
     long-time friend and supporter of the Senator. Conversations with his cousin,
     an actress to whom he first disclosed his homosexuality. Ordinary gays and
     lesbians, singles and couples just living their lives. The only supporter of Helms
     who agreed to be filmed was newspaper editor Gene Price. Kirkman tries to visit
     the Jesse Helms Center in Wingate but is turned away because of the cameras.
     But in his research, he uncovers some interesting things; a student newspaper
     covering Helms' high school graduation that labels him "obnoxious". Yes it's
     funny and seems appropriate; but as the filmmaker compassionately points out,
     this was said about a teenager and it must have stung. Suddenly, Helms
     becomes a human being and not a monster. One of the most wonderful aspect
     of this film is its stance: while it is clear that Kirkman is no supporter of the
     Senator, he does not do a hatchet job on him; merely point out his shortcomings
     through interviews with non-supporters.

             While there is humor in the film, there is also much that is poignant and
     quite moving, including an interview with a single adoptive mother of a biracial
     HIV-positive boy who realizes that her church is not as welcoming as she thought.
     But the most touching segment is with Eloise Vaughn and Patsy Clarke, two
     women whose sons died of complications from AIDS and who banded together
     to form MAJIC — Mothers Against Jesse In Congress. Clarke, a longtime
     Republican, wrote to Helms after her son's death pleading for increased funding
     in AIDS research and received in reply a letter that effectively blamed her
     son's homosexuality for his death. One doesn't know whether to scream or
     cry. Ms. Clarke's reaction was to mobilize.

             This is also a personal journal of Kirkman's coming to terms with his
     homosexuality and that, too, is effective. Everything from a reunion with
     former classmates to his dealings with his family are covered. Kirkman had
     compartmentalized his life and while he was "out" to his family, they did
     not know of his boyfriend back in New York. One of the most emotional
     moments in the film comes when Kirkman receives some news that
     requires a quick return to New York City. That he had to face the matter
     alone is heartbreaking. Near the end of this documentary, the filmmaker
     and his father engage in a dialogue about Helms. While there was still
     some distance between them (his parents were then still grappling with
     what it meant to have a gay son), his father begins to come to an
     understanding.

             One might wish that Senator Helms might too. Given, however, the
     recent statements by Helms' fellow Republican and Senate Majority leader
     Trent Lott (in which he likened homosexuality to a disease like alcoholism or
     kleptomania), this remains a hot-button issue. This filmmaker has done a
     wonderful job of not bashing Helms in the same manner he chooses to attack
     others.
DEAR JESSE should be seen by everyone — as it eloquently reveals a
     South that is not represented by Helms and company and introduces
     a talented and unique voice in Kirkman.

     

                                             Rating:                 A-
© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.