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‘Red, White & Royal Blue’ is bad — and that’s great!

| Thursday, August 31, 2023

Christina Sayut | The Observer

“Red, White & Royal Blue” is schlock. It’s a rom-com about a forbidden homosexual romance between the son of the American president and the grandson of the British king. The premise is awesome, but because the script sprints through some plot points while lingering randomly on others, it feels like poorly paced fan fiction. The acting is stiff — comparable to what you see on the Hallmark Channel but par for the course for streaming service movies. 

No one turns on an Amazon Prime Original because they’re hungry for craftsmanship, though. It’s unfair to judge a rom-com like it’s a Kurosawa picture. “Red, White & Royal Blue” is artless, but it has mass appeal. It’s not good, but it’s fun, and despite its mediocrity, I still think “Red, White & Royal Blue” is important. 

Queer cinema was once synonymous with art cinema. Gay movies were strange and challenging. Gay directors, auteurs like Luchino Visconti and shock jocks like Pier Paolo Pasolini, flouted conventional (straight) tastes and took pride in the mainstream’s “two thumbs down.” 

Queer cinema was peripheral — often by choice, but not always. Take John Waters. His early movies, like “Pink Flamingos,” are hailed as a peak in queer art. They’re constrained by small budgets because no one dared fund them, but they’re still hilarious. The casts are a handful of drag queens and scenesters Waters found hanging around in Baltimore gay bars. The cinematography is ad hoc, just a single hand held camera. The movies are chocked full of blood and murder and feces and filth and camp. 

Once Waters got a little mainstream notoriety and a little mainstream money, though, his style shifted. Waters was able to cast bigger names like Tab Hunter, and he could afford to bring in Hollywood production crews. These later polished works are still pretty obscene, but they’re vanilla compared to the poop eating drag queens and baby murdering lesbians of “Pink Flamingos.” 

The same Waters responsible for said drag queens and lesbians went on to make “Hairspray,” which was adapted into a hit Broadway musical and subsequently adapted into a blockbuster movie starring John Travolta and Zac Efron. While a lot of the best gay movies — and a lot of the best gay artworks in general — have been made on the outside, there’s also a desire to push further into the establishment, into the mainstream, into the conventional. 

“Red, White & Royal Blue” marks the fulfillment of that desire because there is nothing more establishment, more mainstream and more conventional than a crummy Amazon Prime Original movie. Once, if Hollywood discovered you were gay, you were blacklisted from the industry forever. Now, studios can crank out a movie like “Red, White & Royal Blue” in a couple of months, and it’s no big deal. 

To get a gay movie funded and made, it no longer needs to censor itself or bury its gay content under a million layers of subtext. It doesn’t have to be a disturbing indie art film or push itself to camp either. Now, a gay movie can just be schlock. In this way — as schlock — “Red, White & Royal Blue” is a profound achievement.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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