Slamdance 2021 review: ‘WORKHORSE QUEEN’ the good, the bad, and the drag.

WORKHORSE QUEEN

By day, Ed Popil worked as a telemarketer in Rochester, New York for 18 years. By night, he transformed into drag queen Mrs. Kasha Davis, a 1960’s era housewife trying to liberate herself from domestic toil through performing at night in secret –an homage to Ed’s mother. After seven years of auditioning to compete on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Ed Popil was finally cast onto the tv show and thrust into a full-time entertainment career at the late age of 44. Workhorse Queen explores the complexities of reality television’s impact on queer performance culture by focusing on the growing divide between members of a small-town drag community – those who have been on television, and those who have not.

I was 19 years old in my freshman year at college in New York City when I entered a multileveled club in borrowed pleather pants and hair I had dyed blonde (without stripping first) when I found my way to a restroom after dancing my little suburban grown heart out. While washing my hands someone was next to me checking their lipstick in the mirror and casually asked me for the time. I glanced over to tell them, and without skipping a beat I told them 12:16. They thanked me and exited the bathroom. I had encountered my first live drag performer and I could not wait to tell my friends how much cooler I now was for it. After that, I regularly attended drag brunch, drag bingo, had a standing table at Lucky Cheng’s, and have sung on stage at Don’t Tell Mama. When RuPaul’s Drag Race began, I thought, “Yes! Now the world can experience what I’ve been so enamored with as a theater kid for so long.” To me, drag was and still is art. As for many a performance artist, the craft requires sacrifice, thankless long hours, and money for costumes, makeup, and hair sometimes just for the chance to be seen but always for the chance to live out your dream. Drag is performance at a showstopping level. And while Drag Race has certainly widened the platform, that same platform only has room enough for a small number of girls (and guys).

Slamdance 2021 audiences get to peek behind the curtain of what drag is really like. In its world premiere, WORKHORSE QUEEN gives Mrs. Kasha Davis her own time to shine, with and without the glitter and fanfare. This doc is about Ed Popil, the man under the wig and magic. His story is one that will most likely ring true for many individuals trying to find out who they are, told they are too much, and yet not enough. There is such an intriguing dynamic in this doc. Family is front and center. Not just Ed Popil’s husband and kids but his drag family. Mrs. Kasha Davis and Ed are genuinely loving and kind; everything you want and need them to be. Ed exposes his childhood trauma at the hands and words of his father, the decaying relationship with the mother he idolized, and his alcohol addiction. When you’re a queen with a catchphrase, “There’s always time for a cocktail,” how does your career survive rehab? The doc isn’t shy about the inequities faced by performers with lower profiles both on social media and among fellow performers. Drag Race is a competition, life should not be. WORKHORSE QUEEN is triumphant in its honesty. There is so much deliciousness packed into its hour and 27-minute runtime. It’s raw, celebratory, passionate, and revelatory. It honors living your true authentic self and how one person impacts people’s lives in ways you never thought possible.

WORKHORSE QUEEN
Directed by Angela Washko
USA I 2021 I Documentary I 88 minutes
SLAMDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2021
Virtual Screening Information
Friday, Feb. 12
For Festival Passes, click here
Please Note: Audience caps may affect film accessibility

Review: ‘Higher Love’ is in your face and important.

“That’s what happens in America.” When jobs depart, drugs arrive. That’s what happens in America. Nani and Daryl have a tumultuous relationship and drugs are to blame. Daryl is desperately trying to save both Nani and his infant son. Higher Love gets deep inside Nani’s addiction and those around her. We watch them get high while they enable one another.

They live in Camden, NJ. I remember driving home for Thanksgiving in my mid-20s. It was approaching 2 am and I was having trouble staying awake on my way to CT. I was about to turn off the highway when on the radio DJ says, “Murder capital in the U.S.? Camden, NJ.” I swerved and took the next exit. Higher Love does a fantastic job of highlighting the systemic disintegration of American cities. The police literally sit idly by as crackhouses act like revolving doors. Rehab, as we learned from American Relapse, is an economic boom. It comes down to people willing to help themselves or help each other. Daryl is an awesome father. He takes care of his children and adores them, wholeheartedly.

Nani just cannot kick her addiction. She claims she wants to be part of her son’s life, but chooses drugs over and over. Daryl is just guilty in the ways he facilitates her habits. It’s heartbreaking to watch him have so much confidence in a woman who will most likely overdose. When he snaps at her you don’t blame him one ounce. He’s doing his best and she’s doing crack. The emotional hold she has on him is stronger than almost anything, except the love of his children.

Higher Love tells the stories of the lives and deaths of so many locals. But the tragedy is everywhere. Iman, one of Nani’s associates, gets his path highlighted, as well. He explains that with a phone call, one can procure whatever they need whenever they need. His story is like so many others, he has a family that loves him and they only want his rehab stints to stick. He is the highest motivated individual we come to know. We could not be rooting for him any harder. The most engrossing aspect of the intimate conversations with these addicts is the fact that they are actually incredibly self-aware. They understand they are ultimately responsible for their behavior. It’s a cycle of sadness, confusion, trauma, and sickness. How do we, as a society, fix this? What can the government and the people do together to help this ever-growing population? I’m not sure what the answer is, but with the problems exacerbated by a pandemic, 2020 might be the worst year on record for drug deaths.

The doc could probably benefit from a trim in time, even at a tight hour and 17 minutes. One beautifully impactful moment occurs when we are treated to a slam poem presented over quick cuts of the city and it’s residents. If that does not move you, nothing will. Higher Love is honest and important. It’s not just Nani’s story, or Daryl’s story, or Iman’s story. It’s the story of the forgotten, the oppressed, the ones we find easier to gloss over. Don’t sleep on this film.

WATCH THE 7X FESTIVAL WINNER NOW ON VOD

HIGHER LOVE was directed by first-time filmmaker Hasan Oswald, executive produced by Stephen Nemeth (Rhino Records), and produced by Oswald, Alexander Spiess, & Derek Rubin. Oswald used a Robert Rodriguez-inspired zero-budget strategy to make the film, selling his blood-plasma, racking up no interest credit card bills, and learning all things films on youtube tutorials in lieu of film school.