“I’d like to live a respectable life; that’s for sure. A happy life.”
These are the first words you hear as the black-and-white images move across the screen. You watch a young Black transgender woman take her time as she shops for a minidress in a downtown boutique. It’s an expression of a universal human desire and a yearning to pursue an individual’s true happiness.
In 2020, an 8-minute student film about a Black transgender woman might not seem revolutionary, but in the 1960s, UCLA student Nikolai Ursin’s “Behind Every Good Man” stood out.
The film provides “an illuminating glimpse into the life of an African American trans woman. In strong contrast to the stereotypically negative and hostile depictions of transgender persons as seen through the lens of Hollywood at the time, the subject of Ursin’s independent film is rendered as stable, hopeful and well-adjusted,” writes Mark Quigley, John H. Mitchell Television Archivist in the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
This makes “Behind Every Good Man” just one of many essential films in the Outfest UCLA Legacy Project — the world’s largest publicly accessible collection of LGBTQ films, 41,000 irreplaceable items of LGBTQ motion picture history. The Legacy Project is a collaboration between the UCLA Film & Television Archive — a division of the UCLA Library, and the world’s largest university-held collection of media materials — and Outfest, a global LBGTQIA+ arts, media and entertainment organization best known for its annual Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival.
With this June’s LGBTQ Pride Month marking the 50th anniversary of the first Pride marches and parades, it’s crucial to remember a sometimes forgotten history — of transgender women of color starting the pivotal Stonewall Rebellion in 1969, a few years after this film was made.
“Behind Every Good Man,” is available online for those interested in viewing what Quigley calls “a rare cultural artifact of transgender life and African American life in the U.S. at the midcentury.”
“Having this film available to the public speaks volumes of how important the Legacy Project is,” said Todd Wiener, the Archive’s motion picture archivist. One of the Legacy Project’s chief roles is to amplify and celebrate minority voices and depictions.
The UCLA Film & Television Archive has restored 22 films, with more in progress, from the Legacy Project’s collection since the project’s genesis in 2005, when then-Archive Director Tim Kittleson and his Outfest counterpart Stephen Gutwillig brought the two organizations together in the interests of preserving LGBTQ moving images.
At the time, the two agreed that existing prints of important LGBTQ films, like 1986’s “Parting Glances” and the seminal documentary “Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives” from 1977, were too damaged to screen properly before audiences, thus becoming the first two films pegged for restoration by the Legacy Project.
Though the partnership to preserve films began in 2005, Outfest was founded at UCLA in 1982 as the Gay and Lesbian Media Festival and Conference, making it the oldest film festival in Los Angeles. It’s now also the largest, regularly commanding an audience of 50,000.
“UCLA Film & Television Archive was instrumental in helping locate the materials that were shown at that first really influential conference,” said Brendan Lucas, Outfest’s Legacy Project Manager. “The expertise of the archivist and the print traffic department then was instrumental in putting together what was one of the first large-scale historical retrospectives of gay and lesbian film at the time.”
LGBTQ titles are at even greater risk for deterioration because most were made independently, outside of the large studios with the means to store and preserve their films. From Wiener’s perspective, the Archive — focused on preservation and social justice issues — was the perfect place to hold materials from Outfest’s enormous media collection.
“It’s important to preserve these source materials, these historical examples of queer representation or self-expression or history where they have existed,” Lucas said.
And the synergy between Outfest and the Archive comes naturally, since both understand the value in conservation, preservation and programming.
“Both organizations are conscious of omissions of history and some of the people — the different communities — that get left out and thinking about who had access to resources to tell their stories,” Lucas said.
What’s next for the project? With the usual quarterly programming for screenings at the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum at UCLA suspended because of the novel coronavirus, the Film & Television Archive will launch a Virtual Screening Room later in June.
“We want to make sure the program that we put together from the Legacy collection is as intersectional as possible,” said K.J. Relth, film programmer at the Archive. To her, that means considering all narratives and attempting to understand how experiences of people of color intersect with the LGBTQ experience, something the new Virtual Screening Room series will allow them to do.
“For this first Virtual Screening Room program, we’re prioritizing the intersection of Black and queer stories, especially those stories that have been documented in public, or stories about ‘coming out,’ in both senses of that term,” Relth said.
Looking at the Legacy Project’s impact, Relth points to last year’s Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences screening for the 30th anniversary of Oscar-winning 1989 documentary “Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt” — restored by the Legacy Project, along with the Academy Film Archive and Milestone Film & Video — as particularly powerful. The screening was attended by directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, producer Bill Couturié and executive producer Howard Rosenman, and featured sections of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt on display in the Samuel Goldwyn Theater lobby.
Relth said the event was “a testament to the power of these stories and the bravery of everyone involved in the making of this film, especially back in the 80s.”
“That screening was an incredible moment for me that saw this communion of Outfest, of the Academy, of UCLA, and all of the communities that these three organizations reach, in a beautiful theater watching this beautiful restoration,” she said. “Then being able to interact with, in terms of physically seeing, the quilt pieces in person — it was harrowing and it was breathtaking.”
Such poignant moments illustrate why rescuing and restoring a minority community’s treasured histories from the ravages of time is vital work.
“The most rewarding part of restoring materials from the Legacy Project’s collection is giving access to these films. So many of the films are either historical documents or historically important,” said Jillian Borders, senior film preservationist at the Archive. “And the more access the public has to these films, I believe, the more awareness and acceptance will follow.”
Those interested in donating film or video that represents, is about or is by LGBTQ people or communities, especially communities of color, to the Outfest UCLA Legacy Project, are asked to email Brendan Lucas and Todd Wiener.