The new Little Richard Doc is an essential black gay history lesson

Little Richard is a cultural icon but what do we really know about him, and what have we forgotten? He was born in Macon, Georgia into a small conservative family. His father was a minister and nightclub owner. We’ve been blessed with the anal sex anthem “Tuttirutti.” And Little Richard had a wonderful gift. But there is still a lot to discover.

A new documentary titled Little Richard: I am everythingrom director Lisa Curtis pays homage to the late father of rock and roll with a deep dive into his life and hardships, fusing his deeply queer upbringing with his open struggle with his homosexuality. “This is the damned night of Little Richard!” Curtis shouts out to the packed audience at the Sundanceilmestival. Noisy crowds clapped and cheered in approval.

It’s easy to see why. With songs like “Tuttirutti” and “Long Tall Sally,” Richard changed the culture, blending gospel and blues soul with something fresh, rebellious, and rebellious that later became known as rock and roll. Little Richard rose to fame in the 1950s and somehow held onto the power to bring black and white kids together a decade before the civil rights movement. His energy was so exhilarating that “even if you were a racist, you’d listen to him,” John Waters, Little Richard Stan, says in the doc.

There are many tributes to cultural icons. Mick Jagger appears alongside Tom Petty, David Bowie, Billy Porter, and even the Beatles to discuss how Little Richard’s music influenced them, how it influenced the ways they wrote songs, and even their performance. Not to mention the blatant thefts of artists like Elvis Presley. The Richard Effect is shining like a star.

“How did he get there?” Curtis marvels Outside On the red carpet at Sundance. It’s 1955. Emmett Till was murdered that year. How does this gay black man come out and bring black and white teens together? How can he go to England and have the Beatles at his feet, and the Rolling Stones at his feet? He’s from Macon, Georgia. He had no formal education. He just had soul and genius. And this is a story about when you don’t allow yourself to be put in a box, you can really change the world.”

It wasn’t an easy path. When he first left home at a young age, he took refuge in queer clubs where he would even perform in drag. And in his usual performances, he wore make-up and flashy clothes. How did playing the chitlin’ circuit in the South look like that? Everyone from his band to his inner circles knew him as a gay man. And even though Little Richard started out with separate shows, he knew he had something magical when white kids started smashing them.

His sexuality has always been the elephant in the room, even within himself. Little Richard renounced his sexuality several times throughout his life and even went to seminary school where he proposed to a woman. Richard seemed to return to his home secretary when he became more aware of his demise, and feared his sexual escapades and drug use might send him to Hell, but the film is careful not to judge and respects his choices. Curtis says they wanted to explore his “struggle with correcting his faith while being gay,” and the documentary does so lovingly to show how he paved the way for not just rock and roll, but the generations of queer talent that got us to where we are today.

He was an undeniable superstar, even when people and the industry belittled him, robbed him, or refused to recognize the groundbreaking he did. The story of Little Richard is not just the story of the inventor of rock and roll, but of a queer black man growing up in the South who absolutely hated his sexuality. But in the end, his weirdness gave him the talent and courage to create a path entirely of his own, a whole genre that can be replicated, but never replicated. Little Richard’s spirit lives on today, everywhere.

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