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Review: ‘I Am Divine’

New Documentary Focuses On John Waters’ Outrageous Star

Credit: New Line Cinema

Above: Divine and Rikki Lake as mother and daughter in John Waters' surprise hit "Hairspray."

KPBS film critic Beth Accomando review the new documentary, "I Am Divine."

John Waters’ favorite star Divine is the subject of the new documentary “I Am Divine,” which had its San Diego premiere in May as FilmOut’s closing night film. Now it returns for an engagement at the Digital Gym Cinema (playing September 28 and 29, and October 1 and 2).

In the 1972 film “Pink Flamingos,” Harris Glen Milstead proclaimed his presence in a way that could not be denied. In a scene from the John Waters film, the character of Babs (played by Milstead in drag) declares a war on "assholeism" and stages a "live homicide" for the media. Decked out in a flamboyant red gown, Babs holds a press conference and proclaims herself "I am Divine." When asked about her politics, she says filth are her politics. When asked if she believed in God, she replies, "I am God."

“Pink Flamingos” was an assault on middle class values, and a key weapon in the cultural warfare was director John Waters’ 300 pound drag star Divine. Waters and the outrageously glamorous Divine brought bad taste to the level of art. They reveled in trashy obscenity, which infamously included eating dog poop. The new documentary “I Am Divine” celebrates Divine’s gleeful and absolutely defiant challenge to the establishment.

Trailer: I Am Divine

In an archive interview, Milstead states, "People like to laugh at sex, people like to laugh at dirty things and people like to be shocked I think. So that’s my job to get out there and shock them."

And shock them he did. As Divine he was, as one of the interviewees in the documentary states, a cinematic terrorist. But Divine and Waters engaged in a playful terrorism that scored point by making fun of the establishment, the status quo, and anything conventional. Their films ran into censorship trouble and were sometimes labeled obscene but it was a joyous kind of obscenity designed to shock but in a bitingly satirical way.

For the documentary, filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz assembles interviews, archive footage, and film clips to pay tribute to Divine. We see Milstead in interviews and considering what it meant to be Divine. The interviews with his colleagues and fans let us see both who Milstead was as an artist and the influence he had on people.

Sadly, Milstead passed away in 1988 at the age of 42 – just as Divine was finding more mainstream success with films like “Hairspray.” This documentary reminds us of Divine’s audacious and unique impact on both film and American culture. It's also a great way to celebrate the talented actor who gave us Divine.

You can read my interview with John Waters.

Companion viewing: "Pink Flamingos" "Female Trouble," "Hairspray," "Trouble in Mind"

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