Southern Comfort (2000)

          While gays and lesbians have made tremendous strides in the
  past several decades, one segment under that umbrella continues
  to struggle for recognition and dignity: the transgendered community.
  Perhaps after seeing the fine documentary
SOUTHERN COMFORT,
  which netted the top prize at the Sundance Film Festival and by all
  rights should have been on the short list for the 2001 Oscars, but
  because of TV airings, it failed to meet the cut.

          The central character is Robert Eads, born a female named Barbara,
  who after marrying and giving birth to two children, opted to leave
  her husband and spend a decade in a lesbian relationship. Still longing
  for more and convinced she was a male trapped in a female body, Barbara
  underwent surgery to have her breasts removed and hormone therapy.
  Now called Robert, he became active with the "Southern Comfort"
  conference, an annual meeting of the transgendered held in Atlanta.
  As the film opens, Robert had recently received the ironic news that he
  was suffering from terminal ovarian and cervical cancer. As he put it,
  "a cruel joke that the last part of me that's female is killing me."
  Unfortunately, because of rampant prejudice in "Bubbaland" (rural
  Georgia), Robert was unable to receive treatment, with more than
  one doctor telling him that his presence in their waiting room would
  prove an embarrassment to other patients.

          Filmmaker Kate Davis recognized an extraordinary story in
  Robert's plight and spent the last year of his life filming him and
  his friends. Despite the cancer (or perhaps because of it), the very
  private Eads was willing to allow access to his world. He had so
  successfully blended into the community in which he lived that a
  member of the local chapter of the KKK had tried to recruit him!
  Additionally, Eads had entered into a relationship with a male-to-female
  transsexual named Lola Cola, and their sweetly touching love story
  forms the emotional hook for this fine film.

          Davis seemingly had carte blanche and her camera is omnipresent
  but never intrusive, captures both the mundane (i.e., Robert cooking for
  his "family of choice") and the sublime (e.g., unscripted moments of
  intimacy between Robert and Lola or Robert and his best friend, another
  female-to-male transsexual named Maxwell).

          Not that there weren't some concerns by those who participated,
  many of whom were not "out" in the relatively small communities in
  which they live. Robert's own biological family had limited participation:
  his parents refused to allow their faces to be shown while Robert's son
  isn't sure which gender to use to describe his parent, and comments
  that some of his friends suggested he tell people that his mother
  had died and introduce Robert as his stepfather, something he rejected.
  The toll it took on Robert, though, is summed up by his telling the
  filmmakers that "you lose friends, you lose family. But the hardest of
  all is family" because they form the bedrock of one's life.

          As Robert's health declines and the end draws closer, he struggles
  to survive to attend one more Southern Comfort Conference. There is
  a note of triumph as he and Lola attend "the cotillion of the trans
  community" and his valedictory speech is one of the most moving
  moments in the film.

          After the inevitable, the question is posed, "if nature delights
  in diversity, why don't human beings?" Kate Davis' exceptional
  documentary
SOUTHERN COMFORT may not exactly answer that,
  but it does shine a light on a corner of the world that turns out to be
  no different than that of the mainstream.


                  Rating:                      A-
                  MPAA Rating:            NONE (sexual themes)
                  Running time:            90 mins.
© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.