Whitney Skauge’s Documentary Work Acts as an Extension of their Social and Political Activism
From the get-go, Whitney Skauge’s mission as a documentary filmmaker has been to use their platform to advocate for diverse storytelling and create representation on both sides of the camera. Their debut short documentary, The Beauty President (2021), highlights the historic 1992 bid for the White House of Terence Smith’s drag persona Joan Jett Blakk as one of the first openly queer write-in candidates. The highly entertaining yet touching film is produced by the Academy Award-winning company Breakwater Studios (The Queen of Basketball) and executive produced by Lena Waithe and Rishi Rajani. The interview with Skauge was conducted over Zoom.
Where does your love for documentaries come from?
For me, what makes a documentary special is that it’s about real people, genuine experiences, and honoring those experiences through screens. As a Black queer person, someone who has historically not seen themselves represented on screen, I have an opportunity to provide a voice to people with real experiences, who can create more of a fabric to show society that the world we’re living in is right next to them. There is no need to make up some big, magical, fantastical world about queerness, the Black experience or living with disabilities. As a documentary maker, you can give a platform for real people to voice their own stories in their own worlds or in their own words. And by doing such, you’re actually increasing representation which is really powerful, especially for me, growing up in a rural part of America where I didn’t see a lot of other Black or queer people.
How do you find your subjects or stories? Do they come to you or are they suggested by other people?
Well, Google is your best friend if you’re a documentary filmmaker because it is really incredible what you can find on the internet. I did a short doc called The Beauty President which is about a black man named Terence Smith who ran for United States president in 1992 as his drag queen persona which, for me, being queer, Black and very much into politics, was great to bring all these threads together in this beautiful way. Interestingly enough, I came across Terrence’s story by simply doing a bit of reverse engineering on Google [laughs].
The film turned out to be a success and you ended up being inducted into the inaugural class of the GLAAD Equity in Media and Entertainment Initiative for Black LGBTQ+ filmmakers. How has that impacted you?
Well, the biggest thing I’ve gotten from that opportunity, aside from their very generous granting system, is the chance to be part of a community of other Black queer creators. It is a bit bittersweet that something like that has to exist, that we can’t just get on people’s radar because of our work or other things that don’t have to align with our identities. But at the same time, I do think it’s very important to relate to a community of people who look like you, who’ve had the same experiences and same struggles as you.
In terms of acceptance, do you feel we have evolved or are we still very stuck or perhaps going backwards? Where do you think we are today?
From my personal experience, being a Black queer American, it’s a process of two steps forward, three steps back and a couple of zigzags going up. For instance, I’m hurt by the amount of police brutality still happening and the extent political harm is increasing against our trans and drag brothers and sisters. It’s going to take a lot more than the people that are oppressed to stop oppression. Yet it does give me hope to see the younger generation be a lot more aggressive in their political identities, not sitting down with their hands tied behind their back. It’s really important to keep these conversations going about how we can change and where we are, in order to get where we want to go.