'Political Animals': LAFF Review

Courtesy of Afterword Pictures And Idiot Savant Pictures
A vibrant tribute to four lesbian political activists.

Jonah Markowitz's documentary focuses on four prominent lesbians who achieved major victories in the California legislature.

In a year that sees the possibility of the first woman president, there’s an undeniably timely kick to a documentary about the first openly lesbian members of the California legislature. Political Animals, which had its world premiere at the LA Film Festival this week, focuses on four women who won elective office and then made a major push to introduce anti-discrimination laws. The film rambles at times, but the women at the center of the canvas are engaging and articulate enough to compel our attention.

The first of these pioneers was Sheila Kuehl, who had achieved earlier fame as an actress when she played Zelda on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, the hit TV series of the 1950s and 1960s. When her acting career faltered, partly because of rumors of her lesbianism, Kuehl studied law and graduated from Harvard Law School. She was elected to the California assembly in the early 1990s and fought to introduce a bill that would ban bullying against gay students. It took almost a decade for the bill to pass. By then Kuehl was joined by Carole Migden, and both of them were skilled negotiators who managed to turn the tide against their conservative male colleagues in the California congress.

Two other openly gay women — Christine Kehoe and Jackie Goldberg (a veteran of the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s) — joined them in the fight for domestic partnership laws that would benefit gay men and women. The doc suggests aptly that their victories helped to pave the way for the 2015 Supreme Court decision validating same-sex marriage.

There are several eye-opening revelations contained in the film. The first is the reminder of how long it took for LGBT rights to be legally validated. Many younger people might think that these laws were passed in the 1960s or 70s, so it is astonishing to realize that even in California in the 1990s, these bills faced an uphill battle. (It is equally astonishing to realize how quickly hearts and minds have changed over the course of just the last two decades.)

It also is surprising to realize that the legislative pioneers were women rather than men. Much attention has been given to gay male activism during the AIDS crisis, but in the more mainstream political arena, lesbians led the way. Migden and Goldberg suggest that it was their background in the women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s that may have given them more political smarts than their gay male colleagues.

The doc is sometimes haphazardly edited and seems to shortchange Kehoe and Goldberg, perhaps because Kuehl and Migden were there first. But some of the most affecting scenes show a recent reunion of the four women. All of them have left the legislature, but they continue to fight for progressive causes. Their groundbreaking battles for equality deserve to be honored in a contentious election year.

Venue: LA Film Festival (Documentary Competition)
Production companies: Afterword Pictures, Idiot Savant Pictures
Director: Jonah Markowitz
Co-director: Tracy Wares
Producers: Jonah Markowitz, Anne Clements
Executive producers: David Bohnett, Bill Resnick, Brenda R. Potter, Cyndee Howard, Michael J. Stubbs
Director of photography: David Gil
Editor: Michael Hofacre
Music: J. Peter Robinson

Not rated, 88 minutes