‘Wojnarowicz’ Chronicles an Artist’s Life and Death

A new documentary, provocatively subtitled 'F**k You F*ggot F**ker,' is love poem and encomium for the late David Wojnarowicz.

David Wojnarowicz was the kind of uncompromising artist I’ve never had the courage to be. But Chris McKim’s documentary Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker doesn’t shame cowardly citizens like me. The film distills the artist’s brief life by concentrating on the fuel that politicized the man and his art. McKim provides the cultural context that led to the 1980s queer battle cry, “Silence = Death.” But it’s Wojnarowicz’ enraged consciousness that’s most prominent and still palpable on screen, years after his death from AIDS in 1992. He was 37.  

One of Wojnarowicz’ downtown New York City contemporaries, Keith Haring, is mentioned in passing. Haring died of AIDS in 1990 at the age of 31. Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker doesn’t compare and contrast their artistic techniques or subject matter. Nor does he trivialize Haring’s death by adding him to a growing roster of AIDS’ deaths. The documentary is an elegy — both to one man and, by default, to thousands of others who died of AIDS — but an unsentimental one. Haring’s momentary inclusion in the film is there to remind the audience that his work, and his person, were approachable and mass marketable in a way that Wojnarowicz’ never was. 

This documentary isn’t going to act as a corrective. His drawing of two bare-chested men making out might make a nice refrigerator magnet, but his depiction of Jesus Christ shooting up heroin won’t be on the shelves of contemporary art museum stores any time soon. (Prove me wrong SFMOMA!) Wojnarowicz’ vision is messier than Haring’s — deliberately unclean rather than jocular. His humor is playful in the same way that a dead-end alley feels at 3 a.m. — dark, sticky, and tarred. A fitful collagist, he juxtaposes lewd, titillating imagery with pristine flowers, map cutouts, and dinosaurs. McKim shapes the film, literally, with Wojnarowicz’ voice. The artist also used a variety of mixed media, including tape recordings with his sonorous baritone.

The director retrieves his voice from an archive and it resonates across every frame, echoing in the mind as if it had been summoned up from Caliban’s underwater grotto. The recordings are Wojnarowicz’ diary entries and philosophical inquiries. They capture his psychological states of mind and the ongoing development of his artistic practice. McKim mixes in interviews with people who knew “David” but it’s the artist’s own voice that posthumously tells us his story. The effect is upsetting, in that it leaves us wanting more of him. We get to know his private thoughts, what torments him and what gives him pleasure, knowing all the while that those thoughts reached a definitive endpoint.

McKim adds in a second auditory character too, a supporting voice that complements Wojnarowicz’ justifiable anger and serious melancholy. The late photographer Peter Hujar leaves a series of spirited, silly messages on David’s answering machine. Hujar and Wojnarowicz were soul mates, the movie says, like Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. They appear in each other’s work and, artistically speaking, were as thick as thieves. Both men wouldn’t, and likely didn’t have the capacity to conform to conventional rules, whether it was for society in general or the established, entrenched New York art world. Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Haring — artists who ran in parallel circles — became celebrated, household names. Wojnarowicz isn’t claiming that either artist has been slighted since their deaths (Hujar died of AIDS in 1987). But the documentary does make a clear-eyed, energetic case for Wojnarowicz, in particular, to have a place at the table.   

Sara Driver focuses on the same milieu in her 2018 documentary Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat. You’ll recognize the same burnt out New York streets and buildings and the worn out voices of people who survived drug addiction, AIDS or their past lives as urban artists in a hostile place. Her approach completely diverges from McKim’s. Driver kept Basquiat himself out of her collaged narrative. She wanted his presence to be spectral, to appear only as a memory. 

McKim’s angry, moving portrait of Wojnarowicz forefronts a man whose identity politics feel timely now. In an era that demanded silence and invisibility from queer people, he was unapologetic about fighting publicly for equal rights. Toward the end of his life, he displayed qualities that, in retrospect, look heroic. Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker resurrects his ghost for all of us to admire, even if it’s from a wary distance. We come to regret his early death and for never having had the chance to know him.  

Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker is now playing at the Roxie Virtual Cinema

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