An open letter to the many fans of Bohemian Rhapsody from a concerned queer
The Freddie Mercury biopic isn't just inaccurate — its demonization of his sexuality is actively harmful
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
Look, I know a lot of you love Bohemian Rhapsody. Like really, really love it. You're turning it into such a massive megahit that it will soon become both the highest grossing music biopic of all time (surpassing the three-year record held by Straight Outta Compton) and the highest grossing film ever to feature an LGBTQ lead character (destroying the 22-year record of the much more charmingly problematic The Birdcage).
As a lifetime box office nerd who can't handle when bad movies hold esteemed records (Avatar is still the highest grossing film worldwide ever, people), I'm very annoyed. But as a queer person who fears the effect of inaccurate, unfair and markedly homophobic representations of LGBTQ people making their way this far into the mainstream, I find the whole thing to be very, very fright'ning. And while I understand if you're rolling your eyes thinking the last thing you need right now some angry gaysplaining about a movie that you thought seemed both totally harmless and thoroughly enjoyable, I'd really appreciate if you resist the urge to stop reading — and consider my concerns.
Honestly, I didn't really think it would come to this. When I first saw the film, I left it feeling naively confident that a mix of horrible reviews (outside Rami Malek's perfectly acceptable performance, at least) and discomfort with paying to see a movie that — for the most part — is directed by an alleged rapist (Esquire, we're waiting) would render Bohemian Rhapsody a box office disaster. But instead, an army of Queen fans seemed to make the film indestructible, and it grossed more in its first weekend ($51 million) than the combined entire runs of Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name. And audiences appear to be very pleased with what they saw: Bohemian Rhapsody received an "A" CinemaScore, and social media erupted with aggressive takedowns of film critics who didn't like it.
I'm not here to add to the pile of complaints about Bohemian Rhapsody's underwhelming filmmaking and cookie-cutter script. Film criticism is subjective anyway, and it's not like most Hollywood studio movies that make a ton of money are actually good. But how many Hollywood studio movies that make a ton of money are this gay? If you define a "ton" by $100 million and adjust for 2018 inflation (remember: I'm a box office nerd), the answer is only three: The Birdcage, In & Out and Philadelphia, all of which, notably, were directed by straight men and released in the 1990s. And despite Bohemian Rhapsody coming more than two decades later than any of those films and being partially directed by an openly gay man (even if that man is, unfortunately, Bryan Singer), it handles Freddie Mercury's sexuality and battle with HIV/AIDS so problematically that it makes Philadelphia look like it was directed by Gus Van Sant. And my biggest concern is the effect that will have on people who rarely, if ever, are exposed to this kind of representation.
Unlike many biopics about LGBTQ folks (I'm looking at you, The Imitation Game), that problem isn't "straight-washing." Mercury's sexuality is actually a considerable focus, as is his contracting HIV/AIDS. It's just that so much of what you see in Bohemian Rhapsody is not how things actually occurred in real life. As one example, the film shows Mercury being diagnosed with HIV just before the iconic 1985 Live Aid London show that Rhapsody uses as a finale. He tells the rest of the band immediately; they all hug it out, the diagnosis seemingly acting as a catalyst for them to perform like never before. But in real life, Mercury didn't know his HIV status until two years after Live Aid, and the band wasn't aware until two years after that. The idea that the film manipulates all these facts for cheap narrative gain is certainly infuriating in itself, but there's much more to it than that.
Take another example, which has the script portraying Mercury as having been a gay man, even though pretty much any account confirms he was bisexual (there is some debate about this, though I am firmly in the camp that one particular scene when he comes out to his ex-fiancée Mary Austin that confirms the film's stance that he was gay). This erasure is not only a betrayal of Mercury himself but also plays into this very conservative notion that sexuality is a spectrum-less dichotomy of straight and gay. Worse still, as Bohemian Rhapsody forges on in an effort to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, it makes clear which side of that dichotomy it feels is superior.
From the moment Mercury comes out as "gay," the film portrays him as deeply self-loathing, with all the straight people around him reinforcing it by saying things like, "Your life is going to be very difficult," and, "Be careful!" Meanwhile, the queer people in his life (with one exception I'll get to later) are all pure evil, taking Mercury away from his "straight family" and into a wild life of partying and sex (though since this film is rated PG-13 to appeal to the widest audience possible, we don't even really see any of it — but judging from this actual footage of Mercury's 1985 birthday party, it doesn't look like a bad time to me).
Chief among the evil queers (and, really, the only one who has even remote character development) is Paul Prenter, Mercury's manager who lures him away from the band and down a path of leather bars and benders. There's an entire article devoted to the myriad of historical inaccuracies the film conjures up in the name of making Prenter Bohemian Rhapsody's big bad wolf. In turn, this hands millions of people the impression that the deceased real-life person behind him (Prenter passed away from AIDS in 1991, the same year as Mercury) is deserving of this villainous legacy. All the straight people being portrayed, however, come out of the film looking like flawless saints (particularly the rest of the band, some of whom unsurprisingly played a role in the making of the film).
There's one particular sequence involving Paul Prenter's heavily fictionalized role in Mercury's descent that stands out as one of Bohemian Rhapsody's greatest crimes. Prenter and Mercury are at what appears to be a gay leather bar where every single patron has a vacant, satanic look on their face. As Queen classic "Another One Bites The Dust" plays, Prenter takes Mercury into a sex room, and then the film cuts to Mercury looking sickly in bed coughing as the song continues playing. (Get it? He's biting the dust!) With the subtlety of an episode of Riverdale, the film decides to suggest to the world that this is how Mercury contracted HIV, which a) is inaccurate, as it is not known how he did, and b) reinforces the dangerous and tired trope of AIDS being a "punishment" for gay promiscuity.
Shortly after this sequence, Mercury himself finds out his HIV status (which we've already noted is years off), just as he has finally made his way out of the apparent hellscape of associating with other queer people and back to where he belongs: surrounded exclusively by angelic straight people, who are ready to forgive him for fictionally abandoning them to pursue other aspirations and live life as a queer person. And this is when the film decides it's okay for Freddie to find love.
We might not actually know if Mercury found pride in his sexuality in real life, but since the film has no issue making everything else up, why not give him a scene where he really comes into his own as the queer icon that he was?- Peter Knegt
In real life, Freddie Mercury met a hairdresser named Jim Hutton at a London gay nightclub before settling into seven-year relationship with him that ended with Mercury's death. Bohemian Rhapsody decides instead that they met when Hutton was working as a hired hand at one of Mercury's fabulous house parties. At the end of the night, a drunk and lonely Mercury grabs Hutton's ass without consent. Hutton is annoyed by the advance, but he agrees to sit down and have a beer with Mercury. They have a flirtatious chat, but when Mercury suggests they should see each other again, Hutton walks out, telling him to "come find me when you like yourself."
Apparently this exchange was so memorable to Mercury that, years later, he decides to take out the phone book and go knock on the door of every Jim Hutton in London, a quest he undertakes on...the same day as the Live Aid concert! When he finally finds the right Jim, he basically immediately takes him to meet his family, coming out to them through suggesting him and Jim are lovers (they've spent maybe a total of two hours together at this point). And then he takes him to the concert, where his "straight family" awaits to wholeheartedly embrace Jim as a new member. Yes, straight people, this is how us gays find love: knock on doors for hours until we find the man we drunkenly sexually harassed at a party five years earlier and basically commit to a lifetime with him on the spot.
The narrative with Jim Hutton is mostly just silly, but it does present his relationship with Mercury as only acceptable after Mercury comes back to his heteronormative bubble. It also suggests, given the exchange during their fake first meeting, that returning to this bubble and abandoning his queer life is "liking himself" — except Bohemian Rhapsody never even tries to make an argument that Mercury ever does like himself. It's too busy moralizing his behaviour and making sure his "straight family" gets enough screen time. We might not actually know if Mercury found pride in his sexuality in real life, but since the film has no issue making everything else up, why not give him a scene where he really comes into his own as the queer icon that he was?
I saw Bohemian Rhapsody a second time on its opening weekend because I wanted to experience it with a public audience before writing this (don't worry, I'm not a hypocrite: I snuck in after buying a ticket to The Hate U Give, which you do need to see). I wanted to make sure I wasn't totally off with my pretty harsh feelings (I wasn't) and was also just curious of the audience makeup — which, turns out, was a lot of...families and teenagers. And I couldn't stop thinking about the likelihood that this was the first time a lot of them ever saw a queer character or queer love or HIV/AIDS depicted in a big movie like this.
What would it teach them, besides a whole lot of factual errors about Freddie Mercury's life? That if you're queer, you will hate yourself? That if you're promiscuous, you deserve to get AIDS? That you're nothing without your "straight family"? If you look close enough, those are the lessons of Bohemian Rhapsody. And as the film makes its way to millions and millions more people over the next few weeks, it's important to understand what the lessons represent: lies perpetrated by greedy straight people (and one clearly self-loathing gay man) who wanted this movie to make a lot of money and don't seem to give an actual shit about Freddie Mercury.