Rami Malek claims “we’re longing for stories like” the one he won an Oscar for. Are we?
On Sunday, Rami Malek won an Academy Award for portraying Freddy Mercury in the extremely popular Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. In his speech, Malek made the case for the film’s progressive depiction of minorities: “We made a film about a gay man, an immigrant, who lived his life just unapologetically himself. The fact that I’m celebrating him and this story with you tonight is proof that we’re longing for stories like this.” Many people might quibble with this as “proof.” I doubt a film simply about a flamboyant queer Parsi would have reached the same audience as one about the front man of the band that recorded some of the world’s most iconic rock songs, including the one the movie is named after. And I doubt Queen would have been as successful in the 1970s and 1980s if Mercury hadn’t changed his name from Farrokh Bulsar, remained in the closet, and hidden his AIDS diagnosis until just before his death in 1991. (This may seem “unapologetic” of him, but I’d argue it isn’t a good thing.)
Yes, many of us do long for these stories, and by “us,” I mean the people who don’t get to see their lives on screen very often—the gay and bi men, the Parsi immigrants, the people living with HIV. One of the many difficult aspects of being a hated minority is being constantly bombarded by media imagery that ignores, erases, or demonizes you. If you see the same filmic trope over and over, it can become hardened as a cognitive schema. You start believing the lies; the culture has gaslit you. I’m a gay man myself, and I’m a psychological anthropologist who focuses on gay men with HIV. I will never get used to my informants using the worst stereotypes about HIV or homosexuality to describe themselves. I will never get used to meeting gay men whose self-hatred hasn’t abated decades after coming out.
The vast majority of kids who end up identifying as LGB or T do not grow into their identities easily—quite the opposite. It’s hard to practice your identity without the coaching of your parents, siblings, neighbors, or friends. You feel around in the dark, you grasp at straws, and you look for people like you everywhere. If you don’t find one on your street, you’ll see them on in a movie or on TV. Each one of those rare images becomes more important and more powerful. It’s as if you’re building a massive LEGO structure and each piece arrives by mail once a week. Or maybe once a month.
This is why representation matters and why accurate representation matters. Minority activists have been pushing for more truthful representation since the 1960s, and this had led to robust discussions in the academy, of course, but also at TV networks, in film studios, and in the public sphere, whether dinner tables, bar stools, or Twitter.
But as far as we’ve come—and it’s a long way from Cruising to Moonlight—we can also go backward. Two of this year’s biggest winners at the Academy Awards were savaged by critics in the communities the filmmakers claim to represent fairly. Green Book, which won Best Picture, repeats the old trope of the white savior rescuing an imperiled black person. That’s a problematic schema to be hardened into collective cognition, especially for a film’s black audience. And Bohemian Rhapsody was lambasted for representing Mercury, not as “unapologetically himself” as Malek claimed, but as a pablum caricature.
I was never optimistic about Bohemian Rhapsody. The film had long been in gestation with various stars and directors, with some of them supposedly walking away because they wanted the film to be artier, edgier, gayer, truer. The surviving members of Queen wanted a film that appealed to the most people possible around the planet, an advertisement for the still-touring band and a focus-grouped hagiography of its lead singer. Mercury was a bisexual adventurer who delighted in leather culture, but in the movie his sexuality is simplified as gay and the queer sex is only implied through furtive glances. His partying is depicted as deviant, influenced by a duplicitous Gay Villain with the same name as an actual man who is conveniently dead. History is written by the survivors, and movies are made by capitalists. Aside from Big Pharma, most capitalists don’t know what to do with gay men with AIDS.
The third act of the film is focused on an increasingly sickly Mercury redeeming himself. The implication seems to be that AIDS has made Mercury a better person: he fires the villain from his entourage and courts a quiet, working class lover in events wholly imagined by screenwriters either unaware or uninterested in the lover’s memoir. Meanwhile, Mercury feels the need to reunite with his fractured band for the best of causes, Live Aid. The morning of the concert, our hero wakes up in his cat-packed mansion and coughs. It’s 1985 and a gay man is wheezing. The signifier is not floating around, out of reach: He has AIDS, so he is fragile, he is doomed. He pulls himself together, puts on his faded jeans and his muscle tank, hops in his shiny limo, and heads to Wembley Stadium, where he and his band perform a 20-minute set for a billion people around the world.
Queen’s Live Aid set is considered one of the greatest rock performances of all time, with Mercury’s operatic voice and iconic strut in peak performance. The recreation in the film is thrilling, even if it is used to imply that it was Freddy’s last, great gasp. The film ends with Wembley cheering and Queen exiting the stage in slow motion before we’re told that Mercury died of AIDS. Yes, he did—but six years later. We’re left with the simplistic morality tale that leaves out his long suffering, the public denial of his sexuality and illness, the context of Thatcher and Reagan.
No one should expect a feature film “based on a true story” to be perfectly accurate. History doesn’t have an efficient three-act structure, so characters need to be combined, events simplified, and timelines shortened. But the conceptual accuracy does matter, especially when representation matters so much. We may yearn for stories like Mercury’s, but which “we” should be considered carefully. Queen’s fans flocked to the film and seemed to delight in its glossy nostalgia, while enjoying or ignoring the reification of some of more harmful conceptualizations of gay men and people with AIDS. Meanwhile, LGBT people and other minorities who ache for images of people like themselves were not well served—neither by the film nor by Malek’s ignorant virtue signaling, seen by as many people as Live Aid.
A psychological and medical anthropologist, Theodore K. Gideonse teaches in the Program in Public Health at the University of California, Irvine. He is also a film critic, and before academia he was a journalist, an editor, a literary agent, and for a brief time, a judge for Guinness World Records.
Cite as: Gideonse, Theodore K. 2019. “Unapologetically Inaccurate.” Anthropology News website, March 1, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1105