September 19, 2001 -- "Shades of Gray" is an interesting documentary about a group of gay rights activists and their "simply equal" political struggle to gain categorical civil rights protection through the Lawrence, Kansas city government.
The film was shown as part of the Gladys Crane Mountain Plains Film Festival in Laramie, Wyo. Laramie, of course has become infamous because of the murder of a gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard near that city. There is a connection between the Shepard case and the 1995 civil rights struggle in Kansas, and the main connection is a Kansas minister named Fred Phelps.
Phelps, known for his pithy slogans like "God hates fags" is a central figure in the film. He and his followers are shown picketing Shepard's funeral. In an interview, Phelps reveals that he was a high-profile civil rights lawyer in Kansas, helping to secure liberties for blacks. Explaining his seemingly contradictory opposition to civil rights for gays, he said that the Bible does not condemn blacks but it does condemn gays. He comments on what he calls the pro-gay bias in the media and in Hollywood. Utterly unfazed by media criticism, he says, "I wish we could have a Matt Shepard funeral every week." The picketing of Shepard's funeral happened years after the Lawrence, Kansas gay rights issue was settled.
Another minister, who refused to be interviewed, is also opposed to the Lawrence ordinance which would add sexual orientation to the list of protected civil rights categories such as race, ethnicity, religion, etc. The Rev. Leo Barbie uses a less direct approach in his opposition to the ordinance. He claims that gays are not being discriminated against. He also produces scientific evidence against gays which his opponents say was falsified by a discredited researcher. The film uses footage from the city council hearings, interviews and some black and white re-enactments of previous events for dramatic effect.
One of the problems with the belief that gay sex is inherently sinful is that it inevitably follows that homosexuality must be a "chosen" behavior, rather than a intrinsic behavior. If it is intrinsic it is therefore created by God and God cannot be the author of sin. This is counter-intuitive for the gays in the film who say they don't chose to be gay, rather it is the way they were born. Indeed, as some have said, if it were simply a matter of choosing, many gays would have chosen to be straight, because that is a much easier path. Confronted by a homosexual who says that his sexual orientation is intrinsic, Barbie insists that cannot be true. The audience laughs at the vehemence of Barbie's assertion. One of the gay activists in the film, Lea Hopkins, jokes about a related question she is sometimes asked: whether or not she's a "practicing" homosexual. She's not practicing, she jokes, she's learned how to do it right.
Hopkins, a woman of fierce determination, talks about her modeling career, how she was a Playboy bunny for a while, and about her decision to become a mother. Even the self-assured Hopkins, however, is worried about losing her job or her home because of people's feelings about her. Other gays tell of their lifelong struggles to fit into Kansas society, about their depression, shattered relationships, suicidal depression, and one even talks about being beaten up by high school acquaintances. It is pretty clear there have been civil rights violations going on, contrary to Barbie's assertions.
This review is not based on the original 73 minute feature, it is based on a cut which is less than one hour long. According to co-producer David-Michael Allen, the shorter cut is being marketed for television. Allen, speaking at the film festival, said there was some discussion about whether or not part of the Fred Phelps interview concerning his past as a civil rights lawyer should be included in the shorter cut. Clearly, it was right to include the bit. It gives us a whole new perspective on Phelps as a sophisticated, educated person, and it gives the film a more balanced approach. It is by no means an objective movie, but it does take care to air both sides of this divisive issue.
The film was directed by Tim DePaepe, who also did some cinematography, with Edward P. Stencel. In addition, Stencel also produced the film. Music is by the Rainmakers. Although the screening I saw was a high-quality, big-screen video projection, Allen said "Shades of Gray" was originally shot on film. The film is still being marketed, but it appears unlikely to be distributed to theaters. More likely it is a candidate for public television or some cable channel. You might be able to see it on VHS or DVD at some future date. Until then, watch for it at film festivals. This film rates a B.
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