Some of us who’ve caught Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro — a blistering, brutal truth-bomb of a film powered by no less than one James Baldwin, almost entirely in his own words — have wondered about that film’s curious blind spot: In a film that expounds brilliantly on Baldwin’s view of the various struggles presented to African-Americans, why is there but one passing reference to Baldwin’s parallel struggle as a gay man? Clearly, this was a directorial choice, but perhaps, rather than get caught up in whatever that thicket is all about, let’s view Shirley Clarke’s 1967 documentary Portrait of Jason as its very worthy companion piece.
Using a kind of aggro-verité interview style mostly seen in French films of the time, Portrait of Jason is a powerful 105-minutes-long knockout of film with just one face in it: That of Jason Holliday, the kind of raconteur/hustler/performer that, like Baldwin, only New York City could have produced. Holliday is so entrancing, so singularly capable of raising more questions each time he answers one, that if you didn’t know him, you’d swear someone made him up. But Jason Holliday made up Jason Holliday in the same way as James Baldwin made up James Baldwin, and Portrait of Jason works as a kind of dark mirror to what happens when self-invention turns into something much more perilous. As the film wears on, Holliday wears down: Things get tense, hysterical, hilarious and disturbing. As movies like this go, Portrait of Jason is peerless and, in its way, timeless, too.