Licensed to Kill (1997): Arthur Dong’s Docu about Homophobia and Anti-Gay violence

Sundance Film Festival 1997 (World Premiere Documentary)–Offering a most harrowing and disturbing look at homophobia and anti-gay violence, Arthur Dong’s Licensed to Kill, winner of two awards at this year’s Sundance Festival, is a highly intelligent, matter-of-fact exploration of sexual prejudice and violence in contemporary American society. This powerful fusion of never-before-used evidence, including on-camera inetrviews with half a dozen criminals, may be too tough a topic to watch in movie theaters, but it should certainly be shown on PBS, schools, and other venues for serious, investigative nonfiction fare.

Centering on more than 200 murders of gay men in the last three years, Licensed to Kill provides an uncompromising examination of the psychological and sociological reasons behind these atrocities. The interviews, which Dong conducted in various jails, reveal a wide range of personal profiles: a self-loathing, religious gay man, who killed because of his own troubled homosexual identity; an army sergeant, angry over the issue of gays in the military; a victim of child abuse, fearing the loss of his own sense of manhood.

Gay Directors, Gay Films? By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press, August 2015).

For Donald Aldrich, age 32, who murdered a 23-year old gay man, and is currently on death row in Huntsville, Texas, homosexuals were both a source of easy money and, more alarmingly, a way to release deep-seated hostilities. Aldrich points out that given the choice of robbing a 7-Eleven and a gay man in a dark park, he would go for the latter, “because homosexuals are not gonna report it to the police, they don’t want people to know it.” For this perpetrator, the crime is a product of rational thinking, as he says, “You’re gonna rob where you’re gonna get in the least amount of trouble.”

Different motivation is provided by Corey Burley, age 26, who killed a young Vietnamese immigrant, who ironically came to the U.S. to escape the effects of the war. For Burley, money was not the only motive for attacking homosexuals–there was also the “fun” of it. “It was just to do it,” Burley says, confiding how he shot the Vietnamese under the encouragement–and peer pressure–of his friends, who were present at the scene of the crime.

Convicted for a second-degree murder and first-degree robbery, and serving a life sentence at Illinois’ Danville Correctional Unit, Raymond Childs reconstructs on camera “the anger, and the thought of me getting touched by a man, which made me furious.” Childs met a prominent married lawyer in an area in the Bronx where male hustlers cruise. Childs claims that, later that night, at a motel, when the lawyer touched his penis, he stabbed him 27 times with a knife he had brought for protection.

Since the film is composed of seven or so individual case studies, no statistical patterns or unified motivations emerge regarding the roots of anti-gay violence in America other than severe intolerance for minorities and any kind of deviance. Helmer Dong skillfully combines videotaped confessions of the criminals (some of whom feel no regret), news reports of their crimes, scenes from the court rooms, graphic evidence from police files–and, most illuminatingly, home and police videos of actual gay bashings and killings. Result is an informative, probing survey of the roots of a problem that, if anything, is much more prevalent than one is willing to admit. Like rape victims, many gay men who have been victims of bashing fail to report the crimes to the police for a variety of reasons.

With only a minimal text to punctuate the presented info and mark transitions among the individual profiles, Dong takes a remarkably even-handed approach, refusing to comment or editorialize on the crimes and basically letting the material speaks for itself. But viewing the problem from a rather detached standpoint, while admirable in its own right, also creates a distance and makes the documentary more impersonal than it needs to be.

It is recommended that select parts of the documentary be shown in all levels of schooling as instructional materials in courses dealing with prejudice, crime and violence in American society.


A Deep Focus production. Produced, directed, written, edited by Arthur Dong. Camera (color), Robert Shepard; music, Miriam Cutler; associate producer, Thomas G. Miller; production assistant, Grace Lan; post-production supervisor, Joe Hoffman; research consultant, Angie Rosga. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 17, 1997. Running time: 80 min.