New Documentary Chronicles Drag Queen’s Crusade To Make NYC Council History
When filmmaker Emma Fidel began work on “Queen of New York” more than three years ago, she envisioned the documentary as the perfect melding of two of her passions — politics and drag performance — that would also “instill a sense of curiosity and urgency” with regard to local elections in cities across the U.S.
Judging by the applause that greeted “Queen of New York” following its sold-out premiere last week at NewFest, New York’s premiere LGBTQ+ film festival, Fidel’s intended message was warmly received. The film offers a poignant and meticulously researched look at drag performer Marti Gould Cummings, who in 2019 embarked on a historic campaign to become the first openly nonbinary New York City Council member.
Had Cummings — who uses they/them pronouns — gone on to represent Manhattan’s District 7 in 2021, they would have been the first drag queen elected to office on the East Coast and the second in the nation, following the 2019 election of Maebe A. Girl to the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council in Los Angeles.
“Local politics really make a difference in our day-to-day lives in a way that a lot of people don’t understand because we don’t necessarily have that kind of education in the U.S.,” said Fidel, who was introduced to Cummings via the film’s producer, Dan Ming. “I didn’t want the film to feel like a civics lesson, but I hope people who see it will want to get involved in politics in ways that are comfortable for them.”
Despite an encouraging influx of fundraising dollars and volunteer support, the challenges Cummings faces in seeking office are made apparent early in the film. Ultimately, they lost the election to fellow Democrat Shaun Abreu. Still, Fidel dispels the notion that the effort was “a publicity stunt or a gimmick,” noting Cummings has been an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and progressive causes for years.
“Marti’s always said that drag is political, and has always been political,” she said.
To give viewers a better grasp on Cummings’ charisma, “Queen of New York” offers glimpses of the Maryland native’s early years in New York, when they were struggling to get a toehold in Manhattan’s ever-changing nightlife scene, by way of personal testimony. There are also lively chats with several of Cummings’ drag artist cohorts as well as campaign manager Brian Derrick, who has become a social media star in his own right.
Not surprisingly, Cummings cites former President Donald Trump’s rise to power as their impetus for becoming more vested in public service. The documentary reaches its emotional climax in a scene where Cummings is preparing to make their concession call to Abreu and playfully compares themself to Hillary Clinton on the day after the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“The theme of role models was one of my guiding principles in telling the story,” Fidel said. “Hillary is that person for Marti in that moment, but Marti is that person for so many other people, too.”
Watch the trailer for “Queen of New York” below.
“Queen of New York” feels especially relevant given the startling rise in anti-LGBTQ legislation, much of it focused on transgender and nonbinary individuals as well as drag performers, in many conservative U.S. states. Though Fidel is hopeful her film will be picked up for wide distribution on a streaming platform, she and Ming are currently planning on rolling it out “on a more grassroots level” to various state capitals and queer community spaces.
And she’s confident Cummings will soon find another avenue for their civic interests, even if a second campaign isn’t yet in their game plan. Last year, the drag queen was invited the White House to witness President Joe Biden’s signing of the Respect for Marriage Act, which safeguards the right to same-sex marriage nationwide.
“Marti can inspire people so quickly, whether it’s on a stage at a drag show or at a rally or protest. This is a person who really cares about what they’re doing,” she said. “[Lawmakers] will keep finding new ways to persecute queer people, but there’s power in seeing someone be their true self and speaking up for themself and for others, to try to make a difference, in the face of that.”
“Queen of New York” is available for online streaming through Tuesday, Oct. 24.