Portrait of Jason (1967): Shirley Clarke’s Essential Documentary

Controversy erupted over Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason, a feature-length, single-camera interview with a black male hustler, which was labeled “repulsive” by conservative reviewers.

Portrait of Jason
Portrait of Jason (1967 newspaper ad).jpg

1967 newspaper advertisement promoting screenings of the film at New York theaters

Directed, produced and edited by Shirley Clarke, and starring Jason Holliday, “Portrait of Jason” is as fresh and poignant and revelatory today as it was four decades ago

A gay African-American hustler and cabaret singer, Jason Holliday (née Aaron Payne in 1924) narrates his troubled life story to the camera. As the interview unfolds, Clarke and actor Carl Lee provoke Jason to discuss matter of race, gender, social class, desire, and sexuality.

The film, dominated by Jason’s screen presence, boundless wit, and self-reflexive honesty, employs cinéma vérité to reflect Jason’s theatrical and, exaggerated persona.

Shooting took place in the living room of Clarke’s Hotel Chelsea apartment, on Saturday, December 3, 1966. It world-premiered at the 1967 New York Film Festival.

Initially, Clarke originally intended Jason to be the only speaking character. But during editing, she decided to include the off-screen voices of her, Carl Lee, and other crew members, as she explained: “When I saw the rushes, I knew the real story of what happened that night in my living room had to include all of us, and so our question-reaction probes, our irritations and angers, as well as our laughter remain part of the film, essential to the reality of one winter’s night.”

The Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman said that Portrait of Jason was “the most extraordinary film I’ve seen in my life.”

Following an intensive restoration effort that received over $26,000 from a Kickstarter campaign, Milestone rereleased the film’s original print in April 2013.

Unlike Maya Deren, Clarke saw the limitations of experimental cinema and the limited scope of exploring female subjectivity and sexual desire. Instead, she displaced her sense of marginalization onto an urban cinema of alienation, centering on outcasts and misfits, as personified by African Americans, homosexuals, and drug addicts.

Out of the antagonism between documentary and fictional narratives, Clarke activated a cinema of protest that went beyond the language of the feminized.

Directed, produced, edited by Shirley Clarke
Produced by Shirley Clarke
Cinematography Jeri Sopanen
Distributed by Film-Makers’ Distribution Center; Milestone Films (rerelease)

Release date: September 29, 1967 (NYFF); October 2, 1967 (Theatrical)

Running time: 105 minutes