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HBO’s LGBT History: The Laramie Project (2002)

Manuel is working his way through all the LGBT-themed HBO productions...

Last week we stopped by Fishers & Sons to single out the luminous work of Alan Ball & Michael C. Hall in Six Feet Under in the heartbreaking episode “A Private Life.” Continuing that episode’s “hate crime rocks a community” template, this week we’re looking at Moisés Kaufman’s film adaptation of his own documentary play, The Laramie Project. Intentionally episodic and fragmented, Kaufman’s film remains a fascinating document for the way it presents a community at odds with itself. [More...]

The film is not a shrill indictment of Laramie but a sad portrait of two callow young men who, as they are portrayed in the film, were capable of committing a mindless act of cruelty without even thinking about it much. - Roger Ebert

Produced by HBO, the film premiered to a warm reception at Sundance in 2002. Even as their TV Movie & Miniseries content was increasingly focused on historical dramas (that same year they’d release The Gathering Storm on the Churchill’s marriage, Path to War on the Vietnam War, Lumumba on the Republic of Congo’s independence, Live from Baghdad on media coverage of the first Gulf War, and of course, the WWII epic miniseries, Band of Brothers), the decision to commission an adaptation of Kaufman’s play speaks to HBO’s continued support of challenging LGBT content and the changing nature of filmmaking which Ebert elaborates on in his initial snapshot reaction to Kaufman’s film (bonus points if you can guess who Ebert might have been thinking when he notes that Sandra Bullock was part of Laramie’s cast).

The Laramie Project (2002)
(Watch on HBO Go & Amazon Prime)
Written & directed by: Moisés Kaufman
Starring: Nestor Carbonell, Christina Ricci, Laura Linney, Peter Fonda, Clea DuVall, Margo Martindale, Steve Buscemi, Janeane Garofalo, Frances Sternhagen, Joshua Jackson, Ben Foster, Bill Irwin, and many more!

On October 12, 1998 Matthew Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming, died from severe head injuries; this was close to a week after he was found tied to a pole in a field where he’d been beaten and left by two residents of Laramie. The story of how it all happened, how it was covered, and how it affected the small community of this Wyoming town became the center of Kaufman’s documentary play: he and his group, the Tectonic Theater Project, interviewed locals and turned those words into a powerful piece of theater. In adapting his own work, Kaufman enlisted a great cast who surely understood the power of first-person witness accounts (some angry, some harrowing, some near-unbelievably ignorant) in stitching together what has come to be seen as the epitome of hate crimes in the United States; Shepard’s murder became a political rallying cause, with the Hate Crimes Prevention Act (signed into law back in 2009 by Barack Obama) carrying his name. This incident continues to resonate, with the documentary Matthew Shepard is a Friend of Mine (which just had its LOGO premiere this past Monday) and the Matthew Shepard Foundation keeping the conversation about hate crime legislation alive.

And someone went up and said, “Come on guys, let’s show the world that Laramie is not that kind of a town.”
But it is this kind of a town. If it wasn’t this kind of a town, then why did this happen here?

I’ve had the chance to teach Losing Matt Shepard, Beth Loffreda’s account of the media firestorm that followed Shepard’s death, and I always used Kaufman’s film as a way to remind my students of the way first-person accounts can lead to conflicting views. Yet just as often, I was reminded that Kaufman’s film works best not when framed in terms of intellectual conversations about documentary politics, witness accounts or issues of “truth,” but as a visceral reminder of the pain, grief and anger that such tragic deaths inspire.

“They’re making him out as a martyr and I don’t think he was.”

In my favorite scene of the piece, Laura Linney plays Sherry Johnson, a Laramie resident who voices the very type of character assassination explanation that has become all too familiar for those of us following the heated race-based killings in the media these past few years. The blame here (for his death!) is placed on Matt himself, on what Sherry terms “his character”; “the kind of person he was.”

We saw this in “A Private Life” last week framed almost in exactly the same way: if Marcus had not been the way he was, he wouldn’t have been killed. Sherry’s wilful indifference towards Matt, and her steadfast refusal to understand why mourning a slain gay boy is decidedly different than mourning a patrolman killed in a car accident, is disturbing, especially in Linney’s hands. Her Sherry is endlessly baffled and seems half the time to realize her lack of conviction which only encourages her to double down on her assertions, evading the impassive look of her interviewer, speaking almost to herself:

“A hate crime is a hate crime. You murder someone you hate them.”

Amidst a contemporary political conversation that is forced to insist that #BlackLivesMatter only to be ignorantly countered with #AllLivesMatter (a generalization that refuses to acknowledge the very cultural prejudices this very type of hashtag activism hopes to reveal), I was drawn yet again to what is to Linney’s short scene precisely because it is so timely in all the wrong ways. (If it feels like I’m needlessly (or carelessly) conflating issues of race with issues of sexuality, one need only look at the other name that makes up the Hate Crimes Prevention Act: James Byrd Jr., an African-American man who was murdered in 1998 by three men, two of whom were known white supremacists.)

Kaufman’s film is equally astute about issues of religious bigotry (that’s a Fred Phelps sign Ricci is obscuring with her angelic costume), media politics (Dylan Baker is great during a pivotal press conference scene), and gay life in a small town (Bill Irwin’s short scene about the homecoming parade is exquisite). This mosaic of a piece is as touching as it is engaging and the most overtly political film about LGBT issues in HBO’s roster since the AIDS crisis double feature of Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt and And the Band Played On both produced a decade earlier.

Fun Awards Fact: Kaufman’s film aired on March 16, 2002, the same night that NBC aired The Matthew Shepard Story, a Canadian-American production directed by Roger Spottiswoode (who you’ll remember helmed And the Band Played On). At the Emmys, it was Kaufman’s film which got the fairer share of nominations (four in total including best TV Movie; despite none of its stars scoring nods it at least got a well-earned nomination for Best Casting) but it was Spottiswoode’s film which walked away with a trophy: after seven previous nominations, Stockard Channing picked up her first Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie for her work as Judy Shepard. She won her second one later that evening in the category of Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for her work on The West Wing.

Next Week: We encounter our first major trans storyline in an HBO production in Jane Anderson’s film adaptation of her own play, Normal. Surprisingly timely (even in 2015!), the film follows the gender transition of Ruth (previously Roy) Anderson (Tom Wilkinson) and the effects this has on her family, especially her wife (Jessica Lange). I gushed about Anderson’s If These Walls Could Talk 2 segment so I can’t wait to catch this one. Unfortunately, this is another film I had to hunt down on DVD (get on Amazon) since it’s unavailable to stream anywhere.

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Reader Comments (5)

Another great write-up, Manuel, but:

...what has come to be seen as the epitome of hate crimes in the United States...

Although the term "hate crime" originated about 30 years ago, it applies to past events in human history; in the US in particular there is a long tradition of such crimes, with the murder of Emmett Till 60 years ago next month arguably retaining the dubious distinction of "most notorious hate crime" in American history.

July 29, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Great cast. Well chosen and very well directed. They look like real citizens of that town.

July 29, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I have seen a production of the play, I have seen the Spottiswoode film, and I have seen the recent Matthew Shepard is a Friend of Mine, but I have not seen the HBO film of The Laramie Project. Or, at least I don't think I have. The Linney stuff sounds familiar, but she's always so good that I may just be mixing things up.

July 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

When I saw this play live, before the movie came out, it was Laura Linney's character that made me realize I needed to come out of the closet. I realized with a sinking feeling that if I was murdered in the same way Matthew Shepherd was murdered, the people I'd known all my life in my church would say exactly what she was saying. And it didn't even freak me out - I already knew it. Just actually watching it turned on a light bulb in my head - these people don't really love you.

Linney's take was devastating and perfect. I don't know if I adore the movie as a whole - some of the actors don't quite fit - but the play changed my life, and I'm thrilled to have this version, flaws and all.

July 30, 2015 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

Paul, your point is well-taken though with America's obscenely short-term memory (and the hate crime legislature call out), it's still true to say that Shepard remains, for many, the epitome of "hate crime" if only for the media furor over it, if not for it being the most notorious (because god that Till story is horrifying!)

Thanks for sharing. I've been finding a lot of stories like these being shared throughout the series and it's a constant reminder of the need for varied representation and for these types of stories.

July 30, 2015 | Registered CommenterManuel Betancourt

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