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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Film Review: Breaking Through

Breaking Through is a documentary film about gay men and women in positions in the United States government, told through a series of interviews. The film opens with images from the news media related to the treatment of gay people, and some disturbing images captured in a church, in which the preacher encourages parents of gay children to “Give them a good punch.” But once the film gets going, it’s almost entirely footage from the interviews.

Those interviewed begin by giving brief personal accounts of growing up, relating early experiences in discovering who they were in a world that seemed to hate just that. It’s interesting because all of these people attained positions in government. And that’s really what sets this documentary apart from other documentaries regarding homosexuality. These men and women had the same issues as other gay people while growing up, and they talk about their childhood struggles, their fears, the taunting and abuse they suffered. But just by their current positions within the government, they should be an inspiration to gay youth who might be suffering now. These are folks who are mayors, senators, representatives, Supreme Court justices, secretaries of state and so on.

They then ease into talking about the idea of running for office, many saying they didn’t think it possible. Toni Atkins (California State Assembly Member), for example, says: “I’d never intended to run for office. I didn’t think it was possible. I just didn’t think America was about me.” And Bonnie Dumanis (District Attorney, San Diego) says, “I always thought being gay was going to be a barrier to whatever I chose, and I was certainly in the closet for a long, long time.”

There are a lot of people interviewed, which is both a strength and weakness of this film. It’s a strength in that it shows the large number of gay people who have achieved these positions, which is wonderful. But it’s a weakness, as the film doesn’t delve too far into any one particular story during the first half. During the second half of the film, several of the subjects interviewed receive more focus.

Some talk about how they were forced out of the closet by stories in the press. Barney Frank (U.S. Representative, MA) talks about how he tried to be privately gay and publicly not gay. Karla Drenner (State Representative, GA) tells an incredible anecdote about applying for high-level clearance and being asked if she were homosexual. Her answer is wonderful: “Not at this moment.” There are a lot of positive stories, such as that regarding Alex Wan (City Councilman, Atlanta), who was accepted by his family and who ran as an openly gay candidate, receiving overwhelming support from his community.

The score to this film at times is a distraction. Kate Brown (Secretary Of State, OR) tells an interesting anecdote about her first job, but the serious dramatic music overpowers rather than underscores what she’s saying.

As I indicated, the film is made up almost entirely of interviews. But there is some news footage approximately two thirds of the way through regarding Dick Armey calling Barney Frank “Barney Fag.” We’re treated to Armey’s explanation: “I mispronounced the name of my friend and colleague Barney Frank in a way that sounds like a slur.” And yes, the film gives us Barney Frank’s reaction: “Armey said that, he clearly meant to say it.” Frank makes a great point – that Armey had to answer to it, whereas ten years earlier he likely wouldn’t have had to. “The fact that he felt compelled to lie about it was an indication that we had made progress.”

The film really does ultimately have a positive message for gay youth, who should be inspired by the people interviewed in this film. And, as David Cicilline (U.S. Representative, RI) says: “It matters a lot for openly gay and lesbian candidates to run for office, because just running for office really does help to change people’s hearts and minds. It can help a community have conversations that they otherwise wouldn’t have.”

I would have liked more on their perspectives regarding specific recent anti-gay legislation, and how they handle it. And it would have been good to have a bit more news footage to break up the interviews (I wanted to know just where that opening footage in the church came from, and the film never returns to it). By the way, there are no interviews from those with opposing viewpoints, just a few shots of those morons with the signs about God hating gay people.

Breaking Through was directed by Cindy L. Abel.

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