In 1979, Prince proudly proclaimed, "I Wanna Be Your Lover," tossing salacious lines like, "I wanna be your brother/I wanna be your mother and your sister too" into the mix. These teasing refrains came from a doe-eyed black man with a wild mane riding a winged horse on the back of the album jacket. Later on he would dance across the stage in a pair of black bikini briefs and soon-to-be trademark high-heeled boots.
Sexual boundaries have been explored in popular culture throughout recorded history, but Prince definitely had the brothers and sisters both wondering what was going on in his Dirty Mind. Flash forward to the multiplex where Chiwetel Ejiofor stalks across the screen in Julian Jarrold's Kinky Boots while belting out, "Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets."
Unfortunately, it now seems that all Lola (Ejiofor) wants is a new pair of shoes from Charlie Price (Joel Edgerton), whose inherited shoemaking factory is about to walk off into oblivion unless it finds a new niche market — like one that fills orders for "raw, tubular sex" that "can stand the weight of a man." Talk about putting a kink in the stuffy old model.
But that's what's missing from the recent gallery of movies about men in drag. Instead we've been served a parade of big mamas, sexless queens and rarely a single pair of truly Kinky Boots.
Following in the footsteps of comedian Flip Wilson, Eddie Murphy set the table in The Nutty Professor (and its sequel), taking on not just one but two roles — the pleasantly maternal Anna Pearl "Mama" Jensen Klump and Ida Mae "Granny" Jensen. As he did with each member of the Klump family, Murphy wanted to elicit laughs, but he based the humor on something familiar in the characters, drawing on more than stereotypes. He buried himself under layers of latex and granny gowns, but his comic take on the fairer sex romped only in the Freudian mind fields of critical analysis.
Big Momma's House and its recent iteration present big empty guffaws that rarely profess to any resemblance to real motherly figures. With the Klumps, there's an attempt to create a family, however dysfunctional it might be, but Martin Lawrence wears the guise of a woman like a Halloween costume. Big Momma is not even a role for him as a performer, much less his character.
On the Big Mama front, Tyler Perry and his distaff alter ego Madea engage the matriarchal figure within not only the context of family but also the larger community. Madea functions as a caretaker and down-home authority willing to dispense love and discipline in equal, though often extreme, measure.
In Diary of a Mad Black Woman and Tyler Perry's Madea's Family Reunion, Madea occupies a secure place alongside a proud lineage of female elders including Cicely Tyson and Maya Angelou without drawing undue attention to the man underneath wearing fake boobs and a wig.
The sexless queens tag I'm applying here is a bit of a misnomer because The Lady Chablis (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), Arsenio Hall's Extremely Ugly Girl (who woos Eddie Murphy's Prince Akeem in Coming to America) and Ejiofor as Lola/Simon in the aforementioned Boots all attempt to employ sensual feminine wiles. Yet each of them fails to (or never truly intended to) attract a partner for a meaningful relationship. The characters' objects of affection are already marked — by more appropriate female leads — men and the queens simply stoke the real romantic flames.
The most intriguing and successful example of this dynamic is Ejiofor's Lola. During a celebration in the shoe factory, Lola playfully dances with Lauren (Sarah-Jane Potts), an employee and confidante of Charlie's. Their budding feelings for one another have been hindered by the desperate work at hand and Charlie's scheming lover who is waiting for the factory to fail so they can sell it off and depart for a big-city future.
From the high ground of his glassed-in office, Charlie watches as the dance between Lola and Lauren becomes more erotically charged and his frustrated passions arise. A more complicated read could have Charlie questioning whom he is more attracted to, Lola or Lauren, but as it stands, his jealousy over Lauren would not be credible without this flirtatious push from Lola/Simon.
The most overtly sexual drag portrayal belongs to The Crying Game's Jaye Davidson, who as Dil has a fully realized past relationship with soldier-boy Jody (Forest Whitaker) and develops another with IRA operative Fergus (Steven Rea), the man responsible for Jody's death. Dil woos Fergus with a diva's torchy romanticism and the flirty promise of a physical union that is initially disrupted when Fergus discovers Dil's secret.
Yet writer/director Neil Jordan allows the story to embrace the notion that Dil and Fergus will consummate their relationship, since Dil proves more than capable of standing by her man.
Prince proved that it takes a "Sexy Dancer" to wear Kinky Boots. In "I Wanna Be Your Lover" he wanted "to turn you on, turn you out." Dil makes good on this promise, pinning first Jody, then Fergus — and by extension all of us — under a spiky stiletto heel. ©