"Portrait of Jason": Staying Up All Night with Your Gay, Black Best Friend

Very few documentaries give the sense of being right there in the room with the subject and the filmmakers quite like Shirley Clarke's 1967 Portrait of Jason. It's a simple concept: In a tastefully decorated room at the Chelsea Hotel, a bespectacled gay black man by the name of Jason Holliday talks about his life as a hustler and frustrated nightclub performer. He laughs at it all, constantly, and Jason's probably-mostly-true anecdotes of (among other things) hustling, police harassment, and gay bathhouses in the 1960s are historically fascinating, and potentially still shocking to some straight folks. The amount of time that passes is unspecified, but the press kit (available online and a great read by itself) reveals that it was a single, 12-hour overnight shoot. At feature length, Portrait of Jason replicates the sensation of an all-night conversation: The camera drifts in and out of focus like it's nodding off, and cuts to black as the film runs out but Jason keeps talking. Even when Jason's laughter inevitably morphs into tears of pain, a bottle of booze in his hand, and the unseen filmmakers getting verbally abusive ("Be honest, motherfucker, stop acting!"), Portrait of Jason never feels exploitative; Jason wants to be here, making his statement, as much as the filmmakers want him to make it.

 
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