Directed by #ShirleyClarke
Film review by Nathanial Eker
Exemplar of the cinéma verité movement, Portrait of Jason is acknowledged as a powerful reflection of 1960s American culture. The manner in which Jason speaks of people of colour, of homosexuals, and of class is incredibly telling; it’s a capsule of a less progressive time. There is beauty in his wicked wit, hyperbolic storytelling, and later sentimental breakdown, yet there also protrudes an underlying air of unease that accompanies the latter half of the film. I find it difficult to praise director Shirley Clarke and associate Carl Lee as, despite their successful creation of an encapsulation of the abhorrent historical attitudes towards minorities, they themselves ironically become an oppressive authority, exploiting Jason as a means to a creative end.
Jason Holliday, originally known as Aaron Payne is quite the character. Literally, as it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the man from the persona. As Clarke said in a 1983 interview; ‘Jason is not your average human being.’ He’s an African-American self-confessed conman, later identifying himself as homosexual, an element of his character that becomes vital as he discusses his upbringing towards the film’s end. Holliday remains the singular presence of the picture, alarmingly becoming increasingly intoxicated; by the final five minutes there is little more than a drop in his bottle. The only other forces are the disembodied voices Clarke and Lee, their prodding questions beginning innocently enough before the pair lean into more avant-garde tactics and insult the man with disturbing ferocity.
The amateurish quality of the film is synonymous with the documentary focused cinéma verité: it’s shot on a handheld camera, with a shoe string budget in black and white, and with numerous synching issues and production errors. This clumsy style is obviously indicative of the movement; to get away from the American studio system of happy endings and plot conveniences, and instead focus on real life; on the people out there trying to survive. The film’s cultural legacy is unmatched, and it says more about the treatment of black people, people of a lower class, and of homosexuals in its 105-minute runtime than any piece of recent media.
This importance should be in no way diminished, and the very fact that a black, gay man of low social status was given such a platform only two years before the Stonewall riots is significantly groundbreaking and frankly, a miracle. The content of the film is therefore exceptionally interesting and so engaging that it represents perhaps the fastest 105 minutes of my cinema viewing life.
However, assessing the film on its moral fibre, I find it problematic. There is something disconcerting about two upper class white artists provoking a minority with expletive insults into giving them their desired response. In the same 1983 interview, Clarke addresses these concerns, saying that ‘Jason ends up winning in that film.’ For me, the use of alcohol to provoke his final breakdown, paired with Lee’s incessant abuse diminishes the impact of the finale, and is morally reprehensible.
Obviously, techniques like this represent the very nature of experimental filmmaking and particularly the cinéma verité. However, I can’t shake the feeling that despite his witty jokes and often-inadvertent commentary on the state of the 1967 world, Jason isn’t victorious. Clarke and Lee are. Jason is a vehicle for the creation of a project, an experiment that Clarke openly admits was not initially planned to revolve around him. It arose from a ‘discussion of documentary and dramatic films and what was truly true’ to which it succeeds. However, I’d argue that the famous climax merely presents a depressed, very drunk man, sobbing in the way that many do when heavily intoxicated, not a brilliant encapsulation of reality. The notion of putting a man with obvious mental health issues (he talks of his multiple therapists, various pills, and severe alcohol issues) and provoking him in such a way that you make him weep on screen, ultimately damages the brilliance of his thoughtful insights.
Portrait of Jason does, however remain a stunning piece of cinema because of Jason. His unique persona(s) and flamboyant manner make him eminently likeable, and his assertions of the world craft a work of art as relevant today as it was in '67.