Licensed to Kill

Licensed to Kill
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Licensed to Kill

Per questo film, il regista Arthur Dong si è recato in diverse carceri negli Stati Uniti ed ha intervistato nelle loro celle sette assassini di uomini gay, chiedendo loro direttamente: “Perché lo hai fatto?”. L’idea di occuparsi di omofobia e di aggressioni anti-gay venne a Dong dalla lettura di un rapporto in cui si affermava che negli ultimi tre anni erano stati assassinati più di 200 gay negli Stati Uniti, tutti vittime di ‘crimini di odio’. Dong decise cosi di incontrare alcuni di questi assassini, per capire chi erano e farli conoscere al resto del mondo. Cosi scelse e contattò 25 assassini rinchiusi in carcere, sette dei quali accettarono di rispondere alle sue domande davanti ad una telecamera. Ognuno con la sua storia particolare: dal giovane che giustifica il suo omicidio con la necessità di proteggersi dalle avance sessuali della sua vittima, all’uomo gay religioso che si disprezza, alla vittima di abusi che teme di perdere la sua virilità, al sergente dell’esercito arrabbiato contro i gay. Non sorprendentemente nelle interviste emergono spesso riferimenti a dichiarazioni anti-gay fatte da leader religiosi e politici omofobi. Le testimonianze sono poi completate da atti dei processi, rapporti della polizia, immagini di repertorio, oltre a scene di manifestazioni e dichiarazioni anti-gay. Nel film Dong cita anche una sua personale esperienza negativa, avvenuta venti anni prima. Nel 1977, una sera molto tardi, mentre camminava verso casa con un amico, nei dintorni del quartiere di Castro, senza mostrare alcun segno esteriore di sessualità omosessuale, una macchina si fermò in mezzo alla strada, saltarono fuori quattro ragazzi, e urlando frasi omofobe cercarono di aggredirlo. Dong e l’amico allora bloccarono una automobile e si buttarono sul suo cofano; l’autista della macchina capì la situazione e li portò fuori di lì. Un paio di giorni dopo Dong lesse la notizia di un prete che era stato massacrato da una banda di ragazzi quella stessa notte e pensò “quelle sbarre di ferro erano forse per noi”. La prima domanda che si fece allora fu: “perché io?”, ma la vera domanda doveva essere: “perché queste cose accadono ? Che cosa motiva questo tipo di idee e di violenza ?”. Allora, nel 1977, le aggressioni omofobiche erano molto comuni, ma non se ne parlava; era il periodo in cui la cantante Anita Bryant conduceva con successo la sua battaglia contro i diritti dei gay. Da quel giorno Dong cominciò a fare le sue ricerche raccogliendo ritagli di giornale e altro materiale su questo argomento. Quando il film uscì qualcuno criticò il fatto di aver dato voce a degli assassini – Dong rispose dicendo ” La mia idea era che dobbiamo capire da loro se stiamo andando verso il superamento dei problemi che hanno causato tali crimini”, “Ho voluto dare a quei carcerati la possibilità di raccontare le loro storie, senza dare alcun giudizio su di loro – La mia intenzione non era quella di presentarli come dei demoni – volevo registrare le loro storie e metterle sullo schermo perché il pubblico potesse vederle e giudicare”. Per questo film Dong è stato premiato sia come regista che come produttore al Sundance Film Festival. (R.M.)

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When we think about how society reinforces its laws, we usually think of law enforcement agencies doing what they’re contracted to do in protecting people and property. But there are other kinds of laws and other kinds of enforcers. Arthur Dong’s documentary Licensed to Kill explores the “laws” — sometimes written, sometimes simply understood — against homosexuality and the men who take it upon themselves to rid the world of what they’ve been trained to think of as a weak, disposable group — gay men. In this graphic look at a loose subculture of murderers of gays, Dong exposes not simply a group of rampaging sociopaths but, more importantly, a society that carefully creates them.
Dong somehow obtained permission to interview seven of these men, with surprisingly varied profiles. Sgt. Kenneth French is less typical than the others in not targeting gays specifically in a restaurant murder spree that ended with four dead and seven wounded. Still, his act was triggered by what was arguably a coded version of “homosexual panic” — fear brought on by Clinton’s 1993 plan to lift the ban on gays in the military. French exhibits a classic paranoid hetero response to the idea of being forced to be in contact with out-of-the-closet gays. His apparent working-class background is proof of how easy it is to trap one group of have-nots into demonizing another in our culture.
The homosexual panic defense beloved by defense attorneys surfaces more overtly in the case of William Cross (right), who knifed a gay man to death after an alleged pass. Some of Cross’s comments — “It’s like this rage just came from nowhere” — sound as if his attorney invented them, but Cross is believable when he describes being raped at age 7 by a friend of the family, an act that seems to have destroyed any chance he had to develop into a reasonable adult. Cross’s inability to distinguish between a child-rapist and ordinary gay men shows just how successful religious and other irrational groups have been in equating the two.
The devaluation of gay lives is a theme throughout Licensed to Kill. Jeffrey Swinford, who helped kill a man who supposedly came on to him after a pick-up, sees gay men as a nuisance “that oughta be taken care of.” Typically, he counted on the homophobia of local law enforcement, so much so that he was surprised at being caught, and far from remorseful. Indeed, he thought so little about the crime that by the time he was nailed, “I’d really almost forgot about it.” Swinford recalls being asked by his high-school science teacher to “Pick a subject, something you don’t approve of and why.” He chose homosexuality and marshalled Bible quotes as support. One could argue that one of the small steps that probably contributed to Swinford’s murderous act was this teacher’s — read: the system’s — failure to make him think about his hatred of homosexuals. Swinford smiles more than the other men in this film and appears oblivious to the fact that in committing this murder he’s in a sense killed himself: his crime will keep him incarcerated for most of his vital years.
One of the few men here who shows any understanding of what he did is Corey Burley (right), from the projects of Dallas. Burley’s crime, killing a Vietnamese student who came to the U.S. to escape the war, was part of a continuum of violence from an early age that included robberies and assaults. Like the others here, he was socialized to believe that violence is part of the birthright of the hetero male: “When I was growing up, I wanted to be bad,” he says. But he adds ruefully, “Well, look where it’s got me. I’m bad, but I’m locked up.”
The case of Raymond Childs complicates the straightforward notion of gaybashing with issues of class and race. Childs, who is black and working-class, was picked up by a middle-aged, well-off, married white lawyer who, he says, “rushed” to put the make on him. “The anger and you know, the thought of me even getting touched by a man, it made me furious.” While the lawyer could be seen as an exploiter, Childs’ defense is undercut by the fact that he was picked up at a well-known gay cruising spot, that he willingly went to the man’s hotel room, that he killed him brutally (stabbing him 27 times), and that afterward he went on a shopping spree with the man’s money. It’s difficult to reconcile the killer’s panic defense with these facts.
In some ways the most chilling of the group is the serial killer Jay Johnson. At first glance, I thought Johnson was a commentator brought on to add some intellectual perspective to these cases. That’s how articulate he is. Raised in a strict religious household and with the added factor of a mixed-race background, Johnson is the classic self-hating queer whose inability to reconcile the religious beliefs beaten into his head from childhood with his own natural impulses led him first to cruise the parks, then to murder. “I was disgusted with what I was doing,” he says of his sexual liaisons, “and … I thought to myself, `If I shut these places [cruising parks] down, my temptation to do that would be less.” He did this by killing two men and wounding another before he was caught.
Johnson talks at length about the insidious influence of religion on his life, and Licensed to Kill resonates with this disturbing motif, lining up the faces of the larger criminals — Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell — who helped create these killers in their proper place alongside them.

(Gary Morris, www.brightlightsfilm.com)

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