Wojnarowicz is a powerful docu-bio that looks to celebrate the life and radical ethos of its eponymous trailblazer.
At a time when queer art is more mainstream than ever, it’s a good exercise to look back and reflect on its radical roots. While it’s obviously indicative of some measure of positive progress that we now live in a time where major studios are able to release queer love stories like Love, Simon to mass audiences (to box office success, no less), it’s important to remember that much of queer art historically operated as a giant middle finger aimed at a heteronormative society, born of cultural rejection and the pain of the AIDS epidemic that swept the country in the 1980s.
As such, Chris McKim’s documentary, Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker lands like a jolt to the system, a powerful, invigorating reclamation of queer art’s radicalism that celebrates and eulogizes one of its key figures — David Wojnarowicz. He began as an underground street artist in New York City, before becoming a favorite of ’80s art collectors who were looking for the next big thing. Wary of having his art gentrified by establishment types looking to turn him into a mainstream commodity, Wojnarowicz kept his edge until the end, railing against a system that marginalized his identity as a gay man and left many of his friends and loved ones to die of AIDS through government inaction and institutionalized prejudice. Utilizing Wojnarowicz’s artwork, combined with footage from his underground film projects, McKim paints a bracing and intimate portrait of the artist in his prime: haunted by a traumatic childhood, living as a gay man in the ’80s, surrounded by the AIDS epidemic and a hostile government, using his voice to make his presence known.
The film’s subtitle retains the confrontational title of one of Wojnarowicz’s most famous works, reclaiming the slurs that had so often been hurled at him and turning them into a source of power often shied away from by straight audiences. Using explicit images of gay sex, found objects, self-portraits, and even insects, Wojnarowicz was no utopian creating a world he wanted to see, but was instead creating an ongoing work of self-reflection that embraced his own queerness, and, indeed, offered a “fuck you” to anyone who didn’t like it. It’s a perspective that has been somewhat lost in queer art as it’s has made its way into mainstream consciousness. And while that’s largely indicative of societal progress, there’s a certain rebelliousness that so commonly informed early queer identity that seems to be increasingly absent. It’s not just about being LGBTQ, but instead to knowingly and willfully fly in the face of heteronormative culture, to practice self-love and to refuse to blend in. So while much of the gay rights movement of the late ’90s and 2000s turned to embracing respectability above all, the fact is that queer identity has always been rooted in radicalism, existing defiantly outside the mainstream.
In his deeply felt collage film, produced by World of Wonder (the company behind contemporary queer cultural touchstone, RuPaul’s Drag Race), McKim rekindles the raging fires of a revolutionary mind, pointedly rejecting respectability politics, eschewing the “we’re just like you” mantra later embraced by the gay marriage movements (which positioned itself as the ultimate goal of gay civil rights) to declare “I’m here, I’m queer — fuck you.” Wojnarowicz is a bold, uncompromising look at a bold, uncompromising artist, a formally daring and endlessly fascinating documentary that not only preserves an essential piece of queer history, but pays tribute to an entire generation of artists without whom mainstream queer art wouldn’t exist.