Art Doc of the Week | Jean Genet

The iconoclastic French writer weaponized his queerness to shape his life and politics.

Ernest Hardyby Ernest Hardy

Shortly after news arrived that Donald Trump would indeed be the next president of the United States, some nice white people bravely pushed through their own trauma to let it be known that they’d be pinning safety pins to their clothing to show Black people, Latinos, Muslims, and immigrants that they – the nice white people – stood in solidarity with the racialized oppressed, that the pins were to show that these particular white bodies denoted safe spaces and, presumably, minds both open and progressive. Even before rightwing groups appropriated the safety pin gesture for their own nefarious means and statements (and they did so with astonishing quickness), the substance free performative gesture of allyship was roundly mocked by many (including other white people) as some straight up white shit.

No one would have laughed louder or more scornfully at Safety Pin Theater than Jean Genet, the iconoclastic French gay novelist, playwright, poet, and activist whose outsider sympathies unblinkingly lay with the Black Panthers, Palestinians, and the magnetic underworld of hustlers, thieves and trans sex workers. His work and life were about radically challenging and reimagining the world as it exists with its varied, interconnected oppressions.

Jean Genet at a Black Panthers rally. Courtesy Getty Images.

Jean Genet at a Black Panthers rally. Courtesy Getty Images.

Director John Bond’s 1993 British TV documentary Jean Genet is a good crash course on the life and work of Genet, as well as a potent reminder for longtime fans and students of just what made him the man he was. Caveat: If you’re not a fan of writer Edmund White, who is in many ways co-subject of the film, it may be tough slogging. White, who authored 1994’s “Genet: A Biography,” is the thread tying it all together. We see him dictating notes on Genet into his tape recorder, being interviewed about his subject by various journalists, and walking along streets and visiting haunts favored by Genet in his life. File footage of old Paris and Morocco is woven throughout, as are photos of Genet from throughout his life. A voice-over by White, in which he reads from Genet’s work and offers his own pungent analysis, ties everything together: how Genet’s politics and aesthetics fused in such a way that poetic, experimental, bracing form housed an angry and empathetic politic that celebrated Black agency and radicalism, spat at white middle-class mores, and exalted the trans sex-worker.

Jean Genet and Allen Ginsberg. Courtesy the Allen Ginsberg Project.

Jean Genet and Allen Ginsberg. Courtesy the Allen Ginsberg Project.

“Few people think a sexual and social deviate, a man accused of killing his intimates and advocating betrayal, of creating scandal and perpetrating pornography, can provide an example to others. But this biography shows how such a transformation can be wrought.” – from the voiceover in Genet.

The documentary places a huge emphasis on Genet’s sexuality but it’s not prurient or simply reductive. At one point an interviewer notes that White seems to link Genet’s sexuality to his criminal escapades, and thus to criminality, and White replies that Genet himself made the connection. But White goes on to say that for Genet the connection between queerness and “criminality” lay in his being an organically and subversive fighter against the status quo. White insightfully suggests, “You can become addicted to the excitement of transgression.” Later he notes Genet’s rebuttal of Sartre’s simplistic assertion that Genet chose to be gay in order to confirm his outsider status. Genet replied that he’d chose to be queer just as much he’d chosen his eye color. No, what he’d chosen was to embrace his DNA-coded queerness and to sharpen it into a political act and tool against all repressive social/political norms.

Top image by Roger Parry