Joshua Reviews Jeffrey Schwarz’s I Am Divine [SXSW 2013 Review]


Within the world of pop culture, there are icons and then there are the cult legends. While true-blue performers like Sinatra or Martin have become legends worldwide, one name has become just as synonymous with performing as any, but for the cult set. Harris Glenn Milstead, bka Divine, was not only the muse of legendary cult filmmaker John Waters, but for a generation of hippies, punks and dropouts, he became the voice of the seemingly voiceless by taking the mantle of the world’s most beautiful woman. And now, his story, and his transformation into the most iconic drag queen in history has become fodder for a new and insightful documentary.

I Am Divine tells the story of Glenn Milstead, and his transformation from an overweight, quite feminine, young man in Baltimore into the most anarchic and iconic drag queen of all time, in a film as loving and tender as Divine was aggressive and taboo pushing. Looking at Glenn’s life and Divine’s work, the film is touching, insightful and an ode to a man who took control of his sexuality, subverted it, and pushed boundaries (along with Waters as his directorial foil) as far as anyone from their generation.

The picture’s most striking attribute may be its central focus, but what will have people talking is its mixture of loving character study as well as a stimulating discussion on body image, gender and everything in between.

Divine herself is an interesting character, as is her real life counterpart, Glenn Milstead. Glenn, in his youth, was bullied, harassed and made fun of, but until he became Divine, his feelings stayed primarily bottled up. Once he donned the makeup however, Divine became a complex and divisive character, shattering conventions with a power rarely seen. Posited by Waters as “the most beautiful woman in the world,” the pair took on notions of body image, the idea of gender identity and the like, ultimately becoming the voice for those too stoned or cynical to think they had one. A revolutionary in drag, Divine was truly a legend and this is as loving a look into her life as any you’re bound to see.

It also proves that Divine is a voice the LGBT movement is missing today. In a world where bullying based on sexuality is at an all time high, and the LGBT rights movement is on the brink of changing the world, there is a lack of a central, almost militant, voice to really push boundaries and make change in the world. Divine may have had a niche central demographic, but through her work with Waters, she went from being an outsider even to outsiders, to something of a figurehead for an entire movement. There was an emotional depth to the split between her and her real life opposite Glenn, and that made the pair all the more likeable and influential. It’s a voice that is breathtaking to see and hear once more, and is missed today.

Director Jeffrey Schwarz, with interviews ranging from Rickie Lake to John Waters, creates a breathtaking and touching portrait of two people inside the same body. From the tough childhood of Glenn Milstead to the groundbreaking rise of Divine, I Am Divine is as touching an artistic portrait as you’re bound to see. Far more than a simple cinematic biography, this is one look into an artist and his life that you will not want to miss.

Joshua Brunsting

Josh is a critic, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, a wrestling nerd, a hip-hop head, a father, a cinephile and a man looking to make his stamp on the world, one word at a time.