Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker Review: A Queer Artist Gets His Due

The late artist's work gets center stage in this engrossing and electric doc.

The title for Chris McKim’s documentary, Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker, censored curse words and all, signals with more than enough verve the fiery spirit of the artist being chronicled. That is, even if you’re unfamiliar with the work of David Wojnarowicz, the downtown New York City artist, writer, photographer, and activist whose vital art in the 1980s put queer desire and political action front and center, McKim’s title makes sure you don’t walk in expecting a neat sanded-down bio-doc. Taken straight from a well-known 1984 piece, McKim’s title feels like an affront and an invitation. In that, he’s keeping the spirit of Wojnarowicz intact. There’s a sense of provocation in his work, yes. But there’s also an urgency to call out and name that which is often discarded, ignored, or outright demonized. And, of course, to reclaim it.

From its very first frames, McKim’s documentary puts the late artist’s work front and center. “David Wojnarowicz was a multimedia artist,” a title card informs us. “David’s life was the inspiration for his work from his earliest years till his death at 37. His archive of journals, cassettes, photographs and Super 8 films is the basis for this film.” McKim understands that to talk about David’s work is to talk about his life.

And so, the documentary functions both as a primer for those who may not have encountered those incendiary photos and art pieces that stirred up controversies in the art world in the late 1980s, as well as an ode to David’s life. McKim wisely lets David’s words drive much of the narrative of this vibrant 80s video inspired film. We hear about his childhood and his abusive father, about his life in a gritty New York City and his friendship with Peter Hujar; about the highs and lows of becoming a downtown “it boy” and, of course, of his AIDS diagnosis and his political activism.

Known for his boundary-pushing work (photos of naked gay men in dilapidated New York City cruising piers; video footage of ants crowding a crucifix; his “If I die of AIDS – forget burial – just drop my body on the steps of the F.D.A.” jacket; sewing his mouth shut embodying the “Silence=Death” motto of AIDS activism), David Wojnarowicz was an heir apparent to the likes of Arthur Rimbaud and Jean Genet. An outlaw who’d been a homeless street hustler and navigated the world knowing how disposable he was in the eyes of the government, Wojnarowicz gets here a transfixing ode to his unsparing and striking work.

Perhaps what makes Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker so impactful is the use of David’s recordings. The documentary is full of audio and video footage — ranging from messages on answering machines and interviews to taped musings in his apartment. The content is as raw and insightful as you’d expect (“I tried very hard to be normal. And tried very hard to be accepted. And on some level it’s a terrific waste of time”) but it’s the timbre of his voice that’s arresting.

Deep and gravelly, as if emerging from a dark and cavernous space, his voice is almost like a growl. It explains why he was such a good fit for the eclectic East Village found-sound group 3 Teens Kill 4. David’s voice was an instrument unto itself. It uncannily conjures decades’ worth of anger and frustration all the while keeping your rapt attention. You hear that firsthand during clips of his interview with Terry Gross from back in 1990 when his work was at the center of the kind of culture wars debates that continually tried to stifle queer dissenting voices.

But more than a portrait of an artist, McKim’s film is a pressing reminder that David’s decades’ old fiery righteous ire remains depressingly relevant today. “I want to throw up because we’re supposed to quietly and politely make house in this killing machine called America and pay taxes to support our own slow murder,” he once wrote, “and I’m amazed that we’re not running amok in the streets and that we can still be capable of gestures of loving after lifetimes of all this.”

The documentary shows you the evolution of his work. From those stencilled houses on fire in New York City streets to haunting photographs like 1991’s “Untitled (Face in Dirt)” one year before he died of AIDS, you get the arc of his artistry. But McKim’s decision to collage them and remix them, to tear them apart and to fuse them, to refuse to present them neatly against white backdrops (opting instead for blunt crossfades and harsh juxtapositions) makes them feel dynamic, pulsating with the kind of energy Wojnarowicz wielded on the page, the screen and the canvas.

Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker is out March 19 through Kino Marquee virtual cinemas.