Alongside the recent “Scout’s Honor,” “Shades of Gray” provides the kind of reassuring, just-folks take on gay rights activism that’s most likely to change Moral Majority mindsets. Stirring docu about one pitched antidiscrimination battle in the heart of the Heartland — Lawrence, Kan. — eschews polemical grandstanding in favor of a strong emphasis on individuals, both for and against. Vid feature will be most at home on the small screen, but could score limited exposure elsewhere given some grassroots drum-beating.
Focus is on an attempt to get a sexual orientation clause inserted into the liberal college town’s Human Rights Ordinance. As supporters point out, currently citizens have no legal recourse should they be fired or evicted due to anti-gay prejudice.
However, the campaign attracts powerful opponents. The Rev. Leo Barbie, repping a fair chunk of the town’s African-American community, says gays don’t constitute a “real” minority and ergo don’t deserve special rights. His rhetoric grows more inflammatory as the battle heats up — his trump card being his claim that he has a brother who is a black homosexual with AIDS and who has never been discriminated against for being gay.
Nearby Topeka, Kan., pastor Fred Phelps says he’s proud of the fame he’s earned with three simple words: “God Hates Fags.” When Phelps and his cronies show up to heckle at the public burial of gay-bashed murder victim Matthew Shephard, Phelps claims the latter “paid with his life for that silliness (being gay),” and further that “Of course God approves of picketing funerals!”
Antidiscrimination issue becomes a political football among city leaders, who manage to delay it long enough for it to become their own re-election campaign key. While this process proves frustrating to activists, those spotlighted here nonetheless have faith that ultimately cool heads will prevail. The activists range from a young mayor’s daughter (who once attempted suicide rather than face her “shame”) to a middle-aged black former Playboy Bunny/fashion model and an octogenarian WWII vet. Brief B&W reenactment sequences illustrate some of those back-stories. But emphasis is on the here-and-now, as a community struggles to weigh stereotypical biases against the fact that many of “those people” are cherished longtime neighbors.
Director Tim DePaepe’s smooth, straightforward package takes care to let all sides have their say — including Phelps, who further blurs these moral “shades of gray” when it’s revealed he crusaded for racial desegregation as a young attorney. Kansas’ crucial role in past freedom battles, from slavery days through the1960s Civil Rights era, are usefully woven into central focus.
Result is first-rate reportage with dramatic engagement to spare, as well as a refreshing look at grassroots U.S. political involvement well outside the usual contempo realm of professional lobbyists, spin-doctoring, etc. Tech package is unfussily solid.