Everyone deserves a seat at the political table. That was the philosophy of the subjects of “Political Animals,” an engrossing new documentary about the four pioneering women who became the first openly gay elected state politicians – Carole Migden, Sheila Kuehl, Jackie Goldberg, and Christine Kehoe. The chronological tale seemed to naturally unfold as it depicted the slow legislative march the LGBT community and these women had to take towards equality.
What made the documentary so engrossing was the format almost felt as if these four smart, dynamic women were sitting around a dinner table swapping war stories. Let’s be honest, who wouldn’t want to sit around a table and have a frank, intelligent conversation with four powerful, pioneering lesbians? Thankfully, the film is less concerned with the personal lives of its subjects and more concerned with their successes and challenges in the political work-space. While there have been great documentaries made about the social challenges and discrimination of members of the LGBT community, it was a smart choice to not go the easy route and sanctify any of the four women or victimize them by showing a harrowing or dramatized backstory. The closest we get to that are some impassioned floor speeches, particularly from Kuehl, a former actress turned crusader. By focusing on the facts and the opposition to the bills being proposed by these women, the film is sharper, more even-keeled, and, in a way, more shocking. It paints a vivid picture of the discrimination of a time that was only 20 years ago, but seems like something from a more archaic time.
For a film that exposes the homophobia and red tape of the legislative system, it oddly seemed to champion how legislation is the strongest path for the LGBT community to achieve the visibility and equality they deserved. These women’s steadfast trust in the system and hard work within the political system is how great strides were made, particularly in the domestic partnership act and the Student Safety & Violence Prevention Act. Focusing on the sluggish legislative system and the nuts and bolts of getting a bill passed was a bold move for directors Jonah Markowitz and Tracy Wares that paid off. Special attention should be given to editor and co-producer Michael Hofacre, who manages to make the long, arduous road of politics flow so effortlessly over film. There isn’t a trace of fat as the film hums along across its decades long span.
Just by nature of the fact that the first four openly LGBT elected state officials were lesbian women, the film is able to address the gender politics that exist even in the ranks of the LGBT community. In the 80s, women were the more active, political voices as they were already impassioned by 70s political activism for gender equality and women’s rights. Gay men, at the time, hadn’t been as politically persecuted and were less likely to get involved in protest or political change until the AIDS panic hit. It’s as if gay men and lesbian women were on parallel tracks. They don’t often intersect, but they move towards the same end goal, equality and representation.
Forgoing didactic speech or heart-tugging moments, “Political Animals” pulls off a rare feat. It not only enrages people against the closed minded nature of people in the political sector during the 90s and early millennium, but it also passionately advocates that politicians and legislatures are the key to change. It’s not about overthrowing the government, but about working within the rules and confines presented by our world to achieve great success. After the AB 25 Domestic Partners bill passed in 2001, it was easy for future bills to add on rights to domestic partnerships one by one by one. We champion the recent marriage equality act, but it’s right to focus on the long, painstaking road that got us to this point in time. We’ve got far to go, but thanks to women like Migden, Kuehl, Goldberg and Kehoe, we’re much further down the road.
Grade: (★★★ 1/2)