In 1992 the presidential race came down to three main candidates: the Republican incumbent, President George H.W. Bush, Democrat Bill Clinton, and Independent Ross Perot. But they weren’t the only contenders for the office. Terence Alan Smith also campaigned—as “America’s first drag queen for president.”
Smith, under his drag name Joan Jett Blakk, ran as the nominee of the Queer Nation Party on a platform of universal health care, defunding police and the military, and increased funding for education.
“Smith championed policies that are mainstream today,” writes Whitney Skauge, director of the Oscar-contending short documentary The Beauty President, which recounts Smith’s 1992 bid. “Against a social and political environment of homophobia in the 1990s, it was a defiant act of bravery for Smith to be an openly gay Black man, dressed in full drag, running for the highest seat in government.”
Skauge became acquainted with Smith’s history-making candidacy through a play, Ms. Blakk, co-written by Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight). The work premiered in 2019 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater.
“Terence had done an interview for Steppenwolf and I watched that and just continued to fall in love with his charm and his story,” the director tells Deadline. “I felt a huge responsibility to make sure this story found as wide an audience as possible, because I felt like it was such an intersectional story that would connect with a lot of different people.”
Smith, 64, appears nonplussed about the renewed attention, now in film, and before that on stage.
“There can’t be too many people in the entire world who’ve ever sat and watched a play about them,” Smith says. “Usually when that happens, you’ve been dead for a long time. So, that was wild. I did this presidential thing 30 years ago. It still amazes me that it has a second life.” He adds with a laugh, “Drag queens never die.”
Part of the reward of doing the documentary, Smith says, is informing a new generation of LGBTQ people about an earlier era in American life.
“They weren’t around when we were in the streets with ACT UP and Queer Nation. And they certainly weren’t around for the old disco days,” Smith tells Deadline. “They have no idea what it was like.”
Smith kicked off his campaign on his 35th birthday, the minimum age for the presidency, per Article II of the Constitution. America in 1992 was approaching the height of the AIDS epidemic; the disease had devastated the gay community and fomented increasing homophobia. The L.A. Times reported in 1992, “Republican Presidential contender Patrick J. Buchanan, a walking hate crime, is using images of black gay men in a political ad to bludgeon President Bush, himself no friend of the gay and lesbian community.”
Smith, as Joan Jett Blakk, stepped into that turbulent environment, unapologetically “out.”
“The generation before us, they thought we were nuts,” Smith recalls. “They’re like, ‘You really should be quiet, because it’s much better.’ And we were like, ‘Nope, kick the door down.’ And so I did.”
The media initially treated Smith as a novelty, but reporters soon discovered a candidate prepared to address issues with passion and wit. He could more than hold his own in any debate.
“I’ve always loved politics, I really have,” Smith allows. “I will jump into a political discussion anywhere. People say, ‘Don’t talk about…’ No, I love it. And I had run for mayor of Chicago before that, in 1990. So, I had a little bit of practice, if you will.”
Skauge says it was important for her to emphasize what Smith stood for.
“That’s really what I was trying to nurture and honor in the edit, was the substance of that campaign,” she says. “Because I think it would be really easy to make a gimmicky film that is just about the drag and the performance, without really acknowledging that Terence is a very intelligent, political person. And that also deserves to be honored.”
The Beauty President is available to Academy Doc Branch voters through the Oscar screening portal. But the public can see it too—through the L.A. Times website. The film, the first in what the Times’ intends as a major platform for short documentaries, is a production of L.A. Times Studios, Breakwater Studios, and Hillman Grad Productions, the production company founded by Lena Waithe and Rishi Rajani.
“Terence Smith is an important, yet unsung hero in the LGBTQ movement during that pivotal time period,” Rajani and Waithe, the Emmy-winning actor, writer and producer, said in a statement to Deadline. “The film is a testament to the man whose shoulders many of us now stand on.”
Skauge shot the film in San Francisco, where Smith now lives. She collaborated on the look with cinematographer Haley Watson, fashioning what she saw as a proper frame for Smith.
“We really talked about wanting to create a stage for Terence,” Skauge explains. “I always knew I wanted a backdrop so there wasn’t any distraction. I wanted it just to be Terence… A lot of the references I sent Haley [in preparation] were very glam-centric… I just wanted to honor the fullness of Terence. I wanted to honor the drag side of him, but I also wanted to honor the political side of him. So, in terms of the visuals, it was really a balance of making it pristine and presentable, but having a bit of pop to it.”
The Beauty President clocks in at just under 10 minutes. The title refers to a mantra of Smith’s, that beauty surrounds us.
“There’s been two main reactions” to the film, Skauge says. “The first reaction is pretty much, ‘Why is this not in textbooks? Why don’t I know about this?’ And my answer to that is that there’s a lot of erasure when it comes to the accomplishments of Black people, queer people and specifically, Black queer people… The other response that we’ve gotten is, ‘It’s great, but I want more. Can you make it longer?’”
Skauge hints she’s considering ways to expand her focus on Smith.
“There’s certainly more to the story,” she notes, “so I’m poking a little bit to see what those avenues might be.”
Smith himself has more to say.
“I’ve just started writing my autobiography,” he says. “I have stories to tell, I guess. I’m still here, so I can tell them.”
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