Why I’m Making a Film About a Teenage Drag Queen

by Jonothon Mitchell

I was driving along a winding, country road in Gaffney, South Carolina when the first words of my upcoming feature film entered my mind. The film’s protagonist Rodney, staring at a glamour shot of his mother in the prime of her life, turns to his best friend Monique and says, “I want hair like that. All big, ya know?”

I let the words marinate as I snaked my way through this small town not unlike the one I grew up in. Suddenly hit by a wave of nostalgia, I was overcome with memories of growing up gay in a town with a population of less than 3,000. Inspired by Rodney’s first words and being totally immersed in small-town culture for another film I was shooting, I resolved to create a film for the queer kids like me who may be growing up in the harsh, unaccepting environment of the bible belt. That film is Pageant Material.

This coming-of-age southern dramedy tells the story of a seventeen year old boy named Rodney (Hart Morse) in rural Alabama who dreams of escaping his small southern hometown in pursuit of following in his mother’s footsteps as an award-winning pageant queen. Despite struggling to come to terms with his mother’s death and an onslaught of bullying and abuse from his step-father, step-brothers, and classmates, Rodney calls upon his best friend Monique (Marianne Johnson) and a unique cast of southern characters to help him take the crown in an upcoming teen drag pageant hosted by the one-and-only Miss Dixie Lee (Mayhem Miller, RuPaul’s Drag Race) in Atlanta, GA.

The script, co-written with the incredibly talented Madison Hatfield, tells the kind of story I’ve always been eager to tell. At the beginning of this year I looked back on my portfolio of work and felt disappointed with the films I’d been making. I was upset that I was creating work that added noise to the current void filling our media avenues instead of sharing stories and messages of underrepresented characters and communities that could resonate with audiences. As a filmmaker I resolved to bring stories of everyday people to life in fresh and exciting ways, but more importantly as a gay man I swore to create more accurate and positive LGBT representation in film.

So I’m doing just that. Pageant Material aims to explore topics such as growing up gay, the struggle to create your own identity, and small-town life. While many films about LGBT identity set in the deep South focus solely on the opposition, we wanted to take a different approach and focus on painting the South in a tolerant light, despite a lack of resources

Naturally, there are characters who lack understanding of the LGBT community and will create conflict in our story. We as creators plan to show an overwhelming majority of characters who lead a life of acceptance, who strive to help, and who know that regardless of gender love is love. Who better to share that message than the film’s lead protagonist Rodney?

At his core, Rodney is character who is stronger and braver than I am. He is fearless and stands his ground in the face of oppression. He is smart, quick-witted, and unapologetically queer. He exists to celebrate queer difference, not straight acceptance

In a Buzzfeed op-ed regarding recent release Love, Simon’s homonormativity journalist John Sherman writes, “What queer teens may need to hear more than anything is that popular notions of what’s “normal” are what make you feel wrong, or weird, in the first place.

This is why Rodney and this story are important. This is why I’m making this film. Rodney is everything I wish I was at seventeen. If only he existed when I were a teenager, he could’ve easily informed the person I am today.

While Rodney may not have been a source of inspiration for me in my formative years, I know there is still an opportunity for this character and his story to inspire others. I hope that audiences will see this tall, gangly, awkward teenager follow his dreams to be a queen as beautiful as mother once was and feel inspired to be the Rodney they wish to see in the world.

Half of the profits earned by the completed film will go on to benefit The Dru Project. This organization seeks to provide support for education on issues facing LGBTQIA community members, assist in the development of Gay-Straight Alliance programs in schools, provide support and consultation for parents of LGBTQIA youth, advocate for greater access to mental health services, and develop future leaders in the LGBTQIA community. (http://thedruproject.org). For more information you can visit our website at http://www.pageantmaterialfilm.com

About the author:

Jonothon Mitchell is a web series host, writer, independent filmmaker, actor, and pop culture enthusiast. Since graduating from the University of Florida in 2011, he has written and produced numerous features, webseries, and award-winning short films. You may recognize him from his time as a morning show host on the Adult Swim digital series Stupid Morning Bullshit. These days you can catch him live every Monday at 11 p.m. ET on Dear Jono on adultswim.com.