This is a tough one, folks. I Am Michael is a controversial film that stirs up strong emotions for both gay people and anti-gay Christians because, well, it’s about a gay guy who becomes an anti-gay, “ex-gay” Christian minister. Anti-gay Christians have tried to some extent to use it as an inspirational come-to-Jesus conversion story in which a heathen finds God, but they are put off by the graphic gay threesome. Gay people are put off by the fact that the title character is not written off as an unambiguous villain.
The film is based on the true story of Michael Glatze, a one-time gay rights activist. It’s an interesting, if baffling, story and a fascinating character study. And there’s no question that James Franco as Glatze does some great work. The film-making is excellent: well-structured, well-written, and excellently-acted.
The problem lies in how one interprets the perspective of the film. Is it from the perspective of a Christian who believes that the “gay lifestyle” is an abomination that needs to be repented of? Is it from the perspective of someone who thinks this man is a monster for switching from fighting for to fighting against the gay community?
The answer is neither. The film is directed by the director of King Cobra, the gay porn thriller I previously reviewed, and it stars an actor (Franco) who is well-known for playing sympathetic gay characters. It also stars Zachary Quinto, an out actor. This is not a film that is trying to convince people to denounce their sexuality and turn to (their version of) Jesus. Anti-gay Christians who think so are deluding themselves.
The film is not interested in moralizing for either side. Its intention is to provide a character study and to explore the nature of identity. They go far out of their way to help us sympathize with Glatze without fully condoning his actions.
As someone who has studied identity from an academic perspective, I can appreciate the effort. The nature of identity is complicated and does not give itself to absolutes easily. Or at all. And that is Glatze’s fatal flaw according to the film (at least that’s my interpretation). His insistence on absolutes makes him a poor fit to either worldview. When life challenges his absolutist opposition to religion that he perceived to be necessary to his gay rights activism, his response is to veer wildly off to the other extreme, rejecting homosexuality in order to be religious. A compromise to the two never even occurs to him. The idea of an out, proud gay man with religious beliefs is anathema to his innate absolutism. It’s one or the other, all the way.
But by challenging Glatze’s absolutism the film also challenges the absolutism of the viewer, which is why neither side will really come out of the film thoroughly satisfied. Post-modernism can be very frustrating.
As a film, as a work of art, I can appreciate what it is trying to do and does well. But I can also see how the criticisms are somewhat legitimate. By portraying Glatze’s development as a potentially legitimate path, it could further confuse those who are dealing with the same things. I think if I had seen this film when I was struggling with my own coming out and the religious issues involved, without the benefit of some emotional distance from it, it would have been very difficult for me to watch. Maybe even harmful.
And it’s a little disingenuous in how it keeps our sympathy for him. The filmmakers omit some of the most hateful, harmful things he said and wrote after making his switch. It would be too hard for the gay audience to continue to feel invested in his perspective if they were to hear it.
Bottom-line: It’s an excellent, challenging film, with some aspects that will frustrate you no matter what your perspective is. But worth it!