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May 2, 2008

Dedication and brotherhood


Documentary offers a backstage view of a leather contest

It’s a busy month for the leather community.

After another successful Cleveland Leather Awareness Weekend, there are just a few weeks until the International Mr. Leather competition in Chicago.

During this brief lull, however, it’s the perfect time to sit back, put the feet up on the coffee table and watch a movie. And perhaps no DVD would be better suited to the season than Mr. Leather, a documentary released by Here! and Liberation Entertainment.

The film follows the nine contestants in the 2003 Mr. Los Angeles Leather competition, a group of men whose aspirations are the same, whose motivations are similar, but whose personalities and histories are as diverse as the names of the feeder competitions that put them in the race.

While one competitor is soft-spoken and shy, almost to the point of seeming like a serial killer in hiding, another is boisterous and a bit queeny in conversation.

The competition, just to spoil the surprise, was taken by Stephen Blackwell, who had been Mr. Gauntlet II Leather leading up to the contest.

Throughout the film, he stands defiant in the face of detractors who believe that a “boy” couldn’t win a leather competition like that, preferring the more dominant competitors.

However, his knowledge of the leather community and his dedication to it and the larger LGBT community in Los Angeles won the day.

Far more than simply documenting the competition, however, Mr. Leather shows some of the inside workings of the contest, the different events. It follows the competitors through the nerve-wracking days until they all go on stage at El Rey Theater to see who will take home the sash.

It shows the anguish of the contestant who freezes up, blanking out on his prepared speech partway through.

It shows the ego of the gym rat whose body, while admirable, cannot overcome the arrogance he brings with it.

The film also shows a thin slice of the diversity in the leather community. Although it focuses almost exclusively on men, one of the 2003 runners-up is black. There are also two bear competitions that feed into Mr. L.A. Leather. The only thing the competitors really have in common is their dedication, and the brotherhood that Mr. L.A. Leather creates between them.

There are a few annoying points to be made about the documentary, some of which are taken care of in the DVD’s additional features.

The first is right on the front cover. The tag line, “Not your mother’s beauty pageant,” underneath Blackwell’s picture, is dismissive and completely detracts from the film itself.

The filmmakers do occasionally have their little “Get a load of this!” moments, but they are few and far between.

Overall, the documentary feels rushed, and that’s something that is counteracted to a degree with the additional features.

These include a history of leather with commentary by author Guy Baldwin, Daddy Don Anspaugh and Dr. Tony Mills, which includes photographs and footage dating from World War II to the present.

Another featurette is a day at the gym with Chris Woods, by far the most annoying contestant. His conversations with the filmmakers during the main movie bordered on arrogant, and watching him struggle with adding an exercise machine’s weight numbers doesn’t improve the impression of his intellectual prowess.

The short “A Little Bit of BDSM” is interesting, building on some of the moments in the larger documentary and explaining in greater depth some of the details.

Director Jason Garrett also takes the viewers behind the scenes of a leather porn film with star Zak Spears, a judge in one of the feeder contests. Spears first notes that, because of his fame from appearing in over 80 films, he will not compete in the Mr. L.A. Leather system.

Garrett then shows the camaraderie and bonhomie on the set, which does far more to humanize the actors in porn films than many other documentaries.

Overall, it’s an interesting film, although it can’t quite seem to decide for whom it was made. It might be a little “extreme” for the vanilla crowd, but it would come off as condescending and flaccid to many in the leather community.


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