If you’re not already miserably depressed at the state of the world and how awful people can be and the terrible crimes that get perpetrated under a cloak of religion or ideology or politics, or if you just don’t think that pretending stuff like this doesn’t happen helps one bit, then tune into Showtime this month for Soldier’s Girl and Jasper, Texas, which amply demonstrate the cable network’s commitment to excellence in its original programming. Watching ’em back to back, like I did, might be a bit much for anyone to bear, since they’re both about the darkest side of human nature and the horrible things that people can do when they’re afraid and ignorant, and both films are heartbreaking and infuriating, these true stories of people being stupid and pitiless and brutal. They’d be enough to make you want to turn in your membership card in the human race, if only these sensitive and unsensationalized depictions didn’t indicate that there might be some hope for us yet.
On Fourth of July weekend, 1999, army private Barry Winchell was murdered by a fellow soldier at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. The provocation: disapproval of whom Winchell had fallen in love with, a transgendered nightclub performer, Calpernia Addams.
There’s nothing the least bit titillating about this retelling of Winchell and Addams’s story — Soldier’s Girl is, instead, half angry, raging against the institutionalized macho bullshit of the armed forces and its asinine “policy” of don’t-ask-don’t-tell, and half romantic and compassionate and seductive, refusing to box up human sexuality into neat categories and content enough to say plainly that we love whom we love and terms like “gay” and “straight” are too confining to define who we are.
But not everyone is content to with a concept so simple and so radical, of course, particularly not in the airborne infantry, where organized humiliation, which includes such regular debasement as calling male recruits “ladies,” is the order of the day. For fun, the guys hang out at a drag bar in Nashville, where sexual confusion is on the menu… for the soldiers, that is, some of whom insist that the performers are NOT men (cuz then decent straight guys like them wouldn’t find the performers attractive), and some of whom have created rigid rules for protecting their own twisted sense of masculinity, like a dude is NOT gay just because he gets a blow job from another dude. If there’s one thing that distinguishes the sweet and secretly ardent Winchell, who finds himself attracted to Addams the moment he first sees her onstage, it’s that while he may be confused by this unexpected emotion, he’s never afraid of it.
Troy Garity, who plays Winchell, is a rarity among young actors today: He’s passionate. That quality helped him steal his every scene in Barbershop and Bandits — silly comedies they were, but it was the ineffable feeling his characters exuded that made him so memorable, and his slightly cocky edge that kept him from being too earnestly ingratiating. Here, that quality serves him very well, his Winchell honest and nervous and jittery, unable to fit into his new role with the army but easing comfortably into his new relationship with Addams. As Addams, newcomer Lee Pace (a handsome guy playing a beautiful woman) is a fragile presence, a person betrayed by her body and, only halfway through her bodily transformation, in a twilight zone emotionally, too, certain that Winchell — who’s attracted to her femininity, not to the male body parts she’s still carrying around — will abandon her at any moment. Together, Garity and Pace are just about the most romantic couple I’ve seen onscreen in a good while.
They might have been okay if not for Winchell’s roommate, Specialist Justin Fisher (a terrifying Shawn Hatosy: John Q, Simpatico). Not all the guys on the base are homophobes, and some of the other soldiers lie to protect Winchell’s secret from the base commanders. But Fisher is different: crude and lewd and seriously messed up, he talks of loyalty and betrays friends, and he manipulates another soldier — another tremendously unstable 17-year-old boy — into beating Winchell. It would be hilarious if it weren’t so pathetic — these idiots threatened by perceived homosexuality, these losers who assume that any gay man would be interested in seducing them. And if the results of their ignorance weren’t so savage.
A year before Winchell was slain, another horrific murder took place, in Jasper, Texas, where James Byrd Jr. was chained to a pickup truck by his ankles and dragged two miles to his death. Byrd was black; his killers were white. The nation was shocked at the barbaric nature of the murder, and at this town that produced it.
Except it ain’t so. Oh God, yes, a black man was tortured and killed by white yahoos purely because they “just wanted to fuck with some nigger” and it “got outta hand is all.” But Jasper was not the hotbed of racial unrest — if we’re to take Jasper, Texas at face value, and there seems to be no reason not to — that it was painted in the media. Instead, a mostly united and basically happy town — one that had just elected its first black mayor — was ripped apart not by the crime that occurred there but by the circus that arrived afterward to use the crime to further its own purposes.
State trooper turned sheriff Billy Rowles (Jon Voight: Holes, Tomb Raider) is one of the first at the scene of the crime, and his reaction is more than enough to tell you that Jasper isn’t something out of In the Heat of the Night like we were lead to believe — the very idea of the crime disgusts him, and the thought of having to break this news to the victim’s family distresses him. The whole town, in fact, is upset by what’s happened, and if black parents are telling their grown children to call if they’re gonna be late, it’s hardly a sign of panic in the streets. Rowles — who can’t even bring himself to say “nigger”; just “n,” with disgust, when he has to quote a suspect — quickly calls in the FBI, knowing he’s out of his league; the mayor, R.C. Horn (Louis Gossett Jr.: Strange Justice) calls on the many local ministers to preach calm, though it hardly seems necessary; and the Byrd family, though beyond grief, insist they want only legal justice, not revenge, on the killers. From an emotional place where it would be perfectly understandable that tempers would flare and long-subdued anger would be inflamed — and Jasper makes no pretense that such did not exist in the town — everyone stays pretty levelheaded.
And then media arrives, looking for sensationalism. And the Black Panthers march, literally, into town, followed by the KKK. And Jasper and Byrd are spun for selfish reasons as outsiders tried to shoehorn it and him into representing something they don’t necessarily represent. The graphic dramatization of Byrd’s dragging death is sickening (Roy T. Anderson portrays Byrd in the brief flashbacks), as it should be, but it pales next to the thoughtlessness and rapaciousness of those who would appropriate his death for their own benefit. This is a deliberative but powerful condemnation of such people, even more so when you consider that the machinery they’re a part of — the media, political action groups — render everyone involved incapable of being ashamed of their actions.