In 1958, Sheila Kuehl was a plucky brunette co-staring on the popular sitcom The Dobie Gillis Show. The sharp tongued comic foil to Dwayne Hickman as Gillis, Kuehl almost lost her acting career when her sorority discovered love letters she had written to her then girlfriend. Who knew that she would soon be at the epicenter of a cultural movement that would change the tide of public opinion in the state, and soon, the entire nation?
Political Animals is a fascinating look back at the legal journey aimed at achieving basic rights for the queer community in the state of California. Kuehl, the first out-of-the-closet lesbian politician to be elected to the California legislature, was later joined in the fight by three other women; Jackie Goldberg, Christine Kehoe, Sheila Kuehl, Carole Migden, Carole Migden. Beginning in the mid 1990s, these four carefully plotted a path to equality in the state legislature with a carefully measured path, tenacity, and a sagacious understanding of compassion and understanding.
“…a fascinating look back at the legal journey aimed at achieving basic rights for the queer community in the state of California.”
It seems absurd, downright offensive, to see footage of state representatives likening being gay to practicing bestiality. This did happen and the documentary shares this footage with us, taking viewers into the debates that raged within the state capital over the most incremental of changes to the law.
This archival footage is intercut with the four women, sometimes alone speaking to the camera, sometimes sitting around a table remembering the wars fought, reflecting on what they had done. Pioneers of activism the quartet recounts their early days, scandalously tearing their bras off and burning them in the 70s up to the present.
Writer/Director team Jonah Markowitz and Tracy Wares Written maintain a brilliant, logical through line that takes the time to express the problem, explain the solution, then let it unfold. Deftly balancing the stories of the four political animals against the evolving political theatre in the state, we follow their losses and their victories from the state level up to the moment that marriage equality is heard on the US Supreme Court level. We are also treated to masterful editing by Michael Hofacre that effortlessly cuts between past (the 1970s), past (the 1990s), and present with elegant skill that never loses focus.
“… a healthy dose of political chess that helps us to reflect on how far we have come.”
Full disclosure: Political Animals has a point of view that this reviewer agrees with. It looks at the rights of gays, lesbians, transgender, and bisexuals as basic human rights that are as valid as any other. As a film critic I have to evaluate on a detached level, if you will, looking at the work from a neutral stance, evaluating the merit of the work instead of how much I agree with the subject matter. While a bit dry, the film threads a coherent narrative built on the recollections of its subjects and archival footage. A good documentary is one that leaves you more enlightened on the subject than if you had skipped seeing the film. It opens your eyes to a world you were not aware of. I was enlightened; I was better for seeing it.
I hope that more people have a chance to see Political Animals if for no other reason than to understand that we are all fighting a fight. Sometimes it is an inner struggle, like Kuehl at the tender age of 18, being kicked out of a sorority, or maybe it’s on a much grander scale fighting for the on the state and national level. The key here is understanding. Political Animals delivers that with a healthy dose of political chess that helps us to reflect on how far we have come, and how much more work there is to do.
Political Animals (2016) Directed by Jonah Markowitz, Tracy Wares Written Jonah Markowitz, Tracy Wares Staring Jackie Goldberg, Christine Kehoe, Sheila Kuehl, Carole Migden, Carole Migden
Political Animals is Matinee (***) .
* Norm’s Rating System: Full Price (****), Matinee (***), VOD (**), Don’t Bother (*)
Political Animals is now available on VOD.