At the Black Star Festival in Philadelphia, not every piece of media is made by African Americans. In fact, the festival takes pride in this year’s submissions coming from sixteen countries as a way to celebrate not just the festival’s reach but the brilliance of the diaspora more generally. Black Star Fest represents not only a platform but what cinematographer Bradford Young would call a “cultural infrastructure.” That is, the festival is first and foremost typified by a certain appeal to black culture, black space and black interests. To that end, Alaska Is a Drag—the story of cash-strapped Leo and his twin sister, Tristen, being forced to live in Alaska with their alcoholic father, written and directed by Shaz Bennett—is a little jarring when it comes to the particular ratio of black culture, space and interests. Leo, Tristen and their father are the only black people in this small Alaskan town, and while it could be plausible, it’s hard to believe that there’d be even one other black family stuck in the Arctic following the industrial and incentivized ice rush north.
On its face, Leo (Martin Washington Jr.) and Tristen’s (Maya Washington [no relation]) isolation is driven home by this lack of blackness. Having run into trouble as a result of queerphobia and their father’s infidelity, the broken family has moved to Alaska. There, Leo gets a job at a fish cannery, and Tristen receives daily treatment for her cancer diagnosis. But the transition isn’t a bloodless one: Leo is continually reminded of his otherness by macho coworkers—led by an ex-bestie/romance named Kyle—who Leo brawls with on a daily basis.
These daily melees contribute to the film’s presentation of a hellishly white loop: they wake up; Leo works a hard job with terrible men then pummels those men when necessary; Leo picks Tristen up from the hospital at the same time every day; they go home to their trailer park where they watch hokey kung-fu movies and get wasted. Leo’s dream? To leave Alaska for Los Angeles and become an international drag superstar. Tristen’s? To not drop dead in Alaska.
Bennett renders this dream-killing monotony in minutes-long montages that often feature Leo slicing through large fish, creating a mechanical rhythm through bass and kick drum licks longing to be interrupted. That reprieve only comes in small, twinkling moments in the evenings when the twins reunite. As they walk home along a fairly beaten path among large, shadow-casting trees, they saunter down a runway only their minds' eyes can see. They strut, stunt and pose in glee under a beautifully CGI’d aurora borealis waving above them. It’s a bit of private gentility in a world all their own—a black victory in a small white space.
As refreshing as these scenes are, the truth is that only real community can counteract the tediousness of their isolation. And save for Leo’s boss, Diego (Jason Scott Lee)–who recruits him to join his boxing gym near the cannery–and a bartender, Jan, (played by Margaret Cho because why the hell not) at their local dive, the kids have no one. Even their father steals the tires off their trailer, physically stopping their plans from coming to fruition. Diego empathizes with Leo’s outsized personality, his otherness and his potential as an excellent fighter.
Diego’s invitation to the gym opens Leo up to a space in which he can be confident. Who knew all the sashays and death-dropping would result in superior foot speed and majestic bobbing and weaving? However, the gym also opens Leo up to more abuse: Diego naively allows Kyle and his crew into the gym, sparking another round of fighting. This latest battle catches the eye of new guy Declan (Matt Dallas), who becomes interested in Leo’s peculiarity in every space. From the cannery to the bar, to the gym, Declan seems to follow Leo, make awkward remarks and leave as fast as he comes–often suggesting that Leo drink with him for a bit.
Between Declan’s steely, boyish demeanor and Leo’s self-assured ease, the two have chemistry. But it’s the former’s vague intentions and preoccupation with the latter's difference that might give some audiences pause. Declan's interest in Leo feels purely aesthetic, often remarking on how “out there” Leo is–not just as a drag queen–but in how he carries himself. In a way, this could work to unsettle the notion that Declan could love Leo in a setting where there are more people like him. Simultaneously, Declan seems to be the only one who questions Leo as to why he’s still staying there. This brings up a complicated conversation about Leo’s mother but also serves to rig Leo out of the dullness of his life. We’re left to imagine if Leo could’ve ever done it on his own.
The climax of the film also takes place in another space where Leo hopes to find his truth: a drag contest held at Jan’s bar. This would be his coming out party of sorts for the whole town which also sort of contradicts the plot. We are meant to assume here that there is a growing drag community of which Leo isn't aware. I’ve spent considerable time on these other moments, but Alaska Is a Drag does—albeit scantily—build up to this moment: throughout the film, Leo prepares his wig, his dress and his nerves for the contest. And while the parameters of the contest are vague, it essentially culminates into a karaoke competition. When viewers do finally get there, it dawns on sharp audiences that the competition is rushed; we begin to realize that the drag aspect of the story wasn’t given any breadth or care.
In my personal experience, I’ve never seen nor heard of a drag contest where singing is the only display of talent. But perhaps that comes part and parcel with the themes of collective scarcity at play in the film’s envisioning of Alaska. There are cheeky moments—Jan herself going up to sing or the cancer patient with the hole in his throat in full drag. But, when you couple that singalong choice with no real counterpoint for Leo to compete against and the metallic, stiff vocal performances, the competition doesn’t feel necessary to the overall story.
This problem of climax splintered off into the most critical plot—the violent interactions between Leo and Kyle, as well. Kyle terrorizes Leo, Declan and Tristen, despite getting his can handed to him by all three. He’s hurt and angry, wanting to own Leo’s body and attention in abusive ways. In a charged moment at the gym—following their boxing match and the drag competition—Leo finally resolves to settle this tension with Kyle. The confrontation, which also serves as the film’s ending, drops the ball. The two tumble for a bit then lay back and remember their friendship. And then everything is OK: Kyle lets him go, and Leo subsequently leaves.
The film is centered on Leo, but the characters surrounding him are rigidly constructed and often parasitic. They’re all trying to get a piece of him. Tristen—who becomes irate when Leo takes time out for himself—Declan, Kyle, Diego, the twins’ father; virtually all of their motivations fold into Leo’s physical body and metaphysical aspirations. To be sure, any community may have members who latch their hopes onto another. But for every character from almost every age range to need Leo feels strange in a film where he’s meant to be isolated.
Also, Leo’s relationships with Tristen and Kyle are told through clumsy flashbacks that often feel like they’re filling screen time. We continuously return to a moment, early in Kyle and Leo’s friendship (before Kyle’s father forced them apart), where Kyle wistfully stares into Leo’s eyes while hanging out near a river. The scene, draped in the dew of teen romance, unlocks two significant problems within the film’s guts. The first is its repetitiveness, which borders on emotional manipulation; the second, broader issue is the way these flashbacks are meant to redeem Kyle without the film finding a way to hold him accountable for the daily abuse he’s put Leo through.
Bennett, through this anticlimax, could be making the argument that there will always be enduring love shared even in decayed friendships. And that even frayed, abusive love can be transformative. If the earlier fights are any indication, violence wasn’t necessarily getting through to Kyle, but there was no clear indication that Kyle would stop terrorizing him. The memories Bennett continuously referred to, at least one could imagine, are time capsules both men inherit but they never lead to any whirlwind change. Kyle could be tired of fighting, but there are no signs he’s thought about why he’s fighting in the first place. We don’t see any work or reflection on Kyle’s part, so the idea he’s earned redemption feels like a reach. He’s also granted that redemption from Leo in what feels like a few minutes of nostalgia. Kyle didn’t earn that show of love the film gave him, making Leo a much more acquiescent figure than initially portrayed.
So once again we return to this idea of sight, space and motivation. Bennett posits Leo’s dream to be an international superstar diva but drowns it in the action and newness of the boxing challenge. In doing so, she loses out on authentically representing the drag contest and making good on the promises the film seems to make about Leo’s deepest aspirations. Leo doesn’t muster the autonomy needed to chase his ambitions in LA until Declan interrogates him. There is an excellent movie hiding underneath the nostalgia-plays and identity-related weirdness. But character flaws combined with the film’s poorly executed ending hamper the heart of Alaska Is a Drag, which, in spite of it all, when seen at a particular angle, shines brightly as the Northern Lights.