Black men in dresses tend to be objects of comedy in mainstream media, broadly drawn characters who elicit laughter more than desire. Think: Flip Wilson’s Geraldine, Martin Lawrence’s Big Momma, Eddie Murphy’s bevy of female Klumps, even Wesley Snipes in To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. They’re all flamboyant and broadly drawn, and they’re also definitively unthreatening, mainly because they’re so upfront about being men in drag. Not gay men, not femmey men, but men who wear dresses to make statements about themselves: they’re fearless actors, good actors, the mere act of putting on a dress connotes having cojones. The glorious RuPaul is the exception who proves the rule — he became mainstream as a drag queen. The breakthrough embodied by RuPaul was that he was an overtly gay man who was, suddenly, everywhere — battling Milton Berle on MTV, promoting MAC cosmetics, hosting his own tv talk show, and appearing in movies like The Brady Bunch Movie or Crooklyn. Unfortunately, some years after RuPaul’s grand appearance, mainstream media and audiences haven’t quite been able to embrace the possibility that black male celebrities might actually be okay with their “feminine” sides, that they might flaunt them or enjoy them openly. The fact that Dennis Rodman is so often dismissed as a “freak” suggests that mixing gender codes is still a dicey business. Unless you’re playing a very het cop undercover, wearing a dress isn’t exactly the most immediate ticket to longstanding stardom for a black man.
Ving Rhames in a dress is another story.
In Robert Townsend’s Holiday Heart, Rhames plays a drag performer named Holiday Heart. As the film opens, Holiday is singing and playing the organ in church and in grand, self-loving style. Holiday’s long-haired head tilts back as his big-boomy voice proclaims his love for the Lord in no uncertain terms. Amen amen. Immediately, the film cuts to another Holiday Heart performance, this time in a club called the Penthouse: here comes Holiday in full Diana Ross regalia, a large, well-muscled black man backed by two oohing-and-aahing singers and wearing a gorgeous sequined gown, lip-synching with all his considerable heart. It appears that there’s nothing this guy doesn’t do full-on.
Holiday has deep history, too, conveyed in several minutes worth of flashbacks. Here you learn that his lover was a closeted policeman who was killed, and that Holiday’s appearance at the funeral service made the other cops mightily uncomfortable. (So much for the “undercover” cop as the only possible route to mainstream drag.) All this is only the beginning of Holiday’s incursion into mainstream masculinity. That it’s Ving Rhames who embodies this incursion is noteworthy, since he’s not known as a comedian (like Wilson or Murphy) or as a particularly beautiful movie star (like Snipes). He’s a big, rough-looking guy, famous for playing Don King and Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible sidekick (I like to remember his remarkable, movie-stopping performance as Cinque in Paul Shrader’s Patty Hearst). True, no one will ever mistake Ving Rhames for a woman, but there’s something else going on in his portrayal of Holiday, something that’s by turns daring and awkward, and precisely because of this unusual range and risk-taking, expands the possibilities of gendering as a social and media process. Unlike most mainstream male stars who put on dresses, Rhames takes Holiday seriously, and asks you to do the same. That isn’t to say that Holiday doesn’t appear in some funny situations or cut loose with occasional jokes or outrageous bitchiness. It is to say that Holiday is not a victim. Holiday is a rich, warm, and wholly appealing character, equally feminine and masculine and quite unapologetic about it.
Holiday’s adventures begin when he meets a young girl in trouble, Niki (Jessika Quynn Reynolds), a child wise beyond her years, mostly because her mother, Wanda (Alfre Woodard) is a crack addict. Niki spots Holiday on the street one Halloween (which means Holiday is in a sparkly gown and foofy high heels), takes him by the hand, and leads him to the apartment where Wanda is in the middle of a beating by her big meanie junkie boyfriend. Holiday knows what to do — abandoning his feminine demeanor and high-pitched voice, he roars at Bad Boyfriend to back off. When the villain comes at him anyway, Holiday whips out a knife: “Come on man! Trick or treat!” The crowd that has gathered in the hallway is duly impressed, as is Bad Boyfriend, who does indeed back off. It’s clear that Holiday is not, as Bad Boyfriend calls him, “stupid ass faggot.” Holiday is a man, however unconventional his outfits and mannerisms. He’s a man who can take care of himself and protect women and children from bullies.
The film goes on to make the case that Holiday is a good man, fully capable of adopting and looking after a family. He provides Niki and Wanda with a free apartment in one of the buildings he owns, an apartment that happens to be across the hallway from his own, so that they can spend a lot of increasingly intimate time together (Holiday is a good landlord too — he fixes the toilets himself). At first, both Niki and Wanda are skeptical, but soon the girl happily finds out that Holiday has tastes she can understand (“You like rap, like I do!” she exults), wears pants on occasion, and cooks great meals. Her mother is a little harder to convince, harboring some understandable distrust of men in general and some expected ignorance concerning gay men in particular. “Just so you know,” she spits, “I don’t do fags!” But Holiday has a quick and wicked comeback: “And I don’t do no-good evil bitches who sleep all day instead of taking care of their children!” Wanda is taken aback. In this moment, when Woodard’s extraordinary face reveals Wanda’s rapid reconsideration of just about everything she’s assumed about gender roles and social conformity, Holiday Heart makes its most cogent point, that indeed, Holiday is a good man whose sexuality has nothing to do with his capacity for boundless, unconditional love.
This being a movie with about an hour more to run, you know that Holiday’s capacity will be tested. Crisis must come, even after the threesome have formed something of a happy home: Wanda is a poet who is working on a book, while Holiday continues to perform at the Penthouse and take in rents. Wanda, however, just can’t stay quite straight. Soon she brings home a smooth-talking, smartly-dressed drug dealer, Silas (Mykelti Williamson), the “successful” version of her former man, mainly because Silas does not do the drugs that he sells. Because this is a movie with a lesson to teach — more than a little movie-of-the-weekish in its sentiment and structure — Holiday Heart makes everyone suffer some more before a stable family unit emerges.
On the upside, this unit includes the two men, each redefining what it means to be a man in his own way. Sadly, as ambitious and laudable as this point is, Holiday Heart falls back on the tired stereotype of the bad, weak-willed, crack-addicted, out-of-control mother to make it. There is another movie in this one, waiting to get out. And at the center of that movie is Rhames’ performance — solid as always, but also inventive, both gaudy and nuanced. His Holiday holds the film together, even during its uninspired and obvious moments.