The closing night of the annual Outflix Film Festival opens with probably the most widely appealing movie in the festival. I Am Divine, from filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz, is an affectionate, engrossing documentary portrait of Divine — aka Glenn Milstead — the Baltimore drag queen who became a legend as filmmaker John Waters' muse in celluloid provocations such as Female Trouble, Polyester, and, most notoriously, Pink Flamingos, before both crossed over into something approaching the mainstream with the 1988 hit Hairspray.
"She was a midnight movie star. You could only see her after midnight, but it was worth staying up," Village Voice columnist Michael Musto says, and is he ever right.
Divine passed away in 1988, shortly after Hairspray and on the verge of making even further in-roads into pop culture writ-large, but his performances on film and stage accomplished so much — puncturing the decorum and verisimilitude of prior drag culture while also channeling the anger of his picked-on youth and transforming it into confrontational art that ultimately erupted into its own kind of joy. He was perhaps more of a punk rocker than Johnny Rotten.
I Am Divine juxtaposes Divine's in-costume performances with the dapper, soft-spoken interviews Divine gave in more conventional dress and uses interview material from family and friends (most affectingly, his once-estranged mother), collaborators, and acolytes. Waters appears frequently and his remembrances and observations — including first meeting the pre-drag Milstead trying to be a normal teenager: "No one believed it. He could never pass as normal," Waters says appreciatively — are suffused with humor and palpable love. A great watch. ■
I Am Divine screens at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, September 12th, at Ridgeway Cinema Grill. Individual tickets are $10.