Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine

A review by another Matt, Matt Zoller Seitz, convinced me to watch Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine, and I'm glad I did. I wasn't going to, but these sentences got me curious: "It is wrenching but never exploitive. It is impressively skeptical of the same mission that it takes on its shoulders: to make something positive from a senseless crime without diminishing its senselessness."

What kept me from the film had been a fear of it being maudlin or superficial. I know the Shepard case well, I've seen The Laramie Project a couple of times, I've heard Judy Shepard speak about her son's murder. I didn't think more could, or even should, be made of it. The film proved me wrong.

Matthew Shepard was only a year (and a couple months) older than me. He died a few days before my 23rd birthday. Despite the barrage of national (and international) news coverage, I didn't learn of his murder for a few weeks, because I was in the midst of my first year working full-time at a boarding school, and I barely had time to sleep, never mind keep up with the news. At some point, a friend from college emailed and asked what the climate was like where I was, given how rural and isolated it seemed in my notes to her, and she worried, she said, because of what had happened to the boy in Wyoming. I didn't know what she was talking about at the time, but I soon did.

A rural gay man killed by homophobia. Once I knew about the story, I couldn't get it out of my mind. I followed the trial coverage obsessively. I thought I knew the story pretty well, but one of the excellent things Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine does is shift the angle. It's no longer the story of someone defined by his murder, though the murder is of course important, but rather the story of Matt Shepard, his friends, and his family. It tries to recover the Matt Shepard who became Matthew Shepard, a symbol for the world. That turns out to be a powerful, gripping, and deeply moving quest.

Michele Josue & Matt Shepard
It works so well because director Michele Josue is perfectly positioned to do this work — she went to high school with Shepard, but doesn't seem to have stayed closely in touch with him later, and so the film is partly about her own recovery of Matt, her own quest to fill in gaps. What she discovers and chronicles are both the material remnants of his life and, more importantly, the network of people who knew him and remember him. She finds his presence by mapping his absence.

While the film is informative and quite moving with regard to his murder, it's not so much a true crime movie as it is a story of how friendship works and how friendship lasts. It's significant that Josue made the movie fifteen years after Shepard's death, because the time is enough to allow some perspective and to allow us to look back on the legacy, but it's also not so much time that major figures within the story are no longer available. It's also not enough time, if there is such a thing as enough time, to get rid of the pain. A significant section of the film explores Josue's desire to escape grief, and her realization that such escape is not only not possible, but not desireable.

A question that comes up repeatedly, though quietly, throughout the second half of the movie is: Why did this particular crime capture the world's attention? As multiple people point out in the film, gay bashing wasn't (and isn't) especially rare. Dozens of other people were killed for being (or being perceived as) gay in 1998, but it was Shepard's story that moved the world. There's no single answer, and no really definitive answer, though some good partial answers surface, the most convincing being how much Shepard looked and seemed like an ordinary (white) boy from down the street, and how particularly brutal his murder was. (I suspect it resonated, too, because we couldn't help imagining the many hours he spent bleeding alone before he was discovered and helped, though it was too late, ultimately, to save his life. If we imagined that unimaginable time, and if we did so as someone who lived or had once lived in terror of being hurt or killed if our sexuality were known, the resonance was overwhelming and devastating.) He could have been anybody's son, somebody says in the film, which isn't exactly true, of course, but it highlights one of the perceptions that made Shepard's such an irresistible story — his was a familiar sort of face, his family a seemingly familiar sort of family, and his story came from the heart of the American mythos: not just rural but frontier America, where he was left to die while tied to a fence post. (Later, Brokeback Mountain would further publicize the idea of all-American gayness through its setting.)

It doesn't feel to me like a long time from Matthew Shepard's death in 1998, and yet it's more than 17 years now. Had he lived, he would have celebrated his thirty-ninth birthday at the beginning of this month. It's hard to imagine Matthew Shepard, the symbol, at thirty-nine, but Josue helps make a thirty-nine-year-old Matt imaginable, and thus makes his death all the more heartbreaking.

That heartbreaking quality surprised me in the film, because after the initial shock of the story, for those of us who weren't friends with Matt Shepard, his death actually came to stand for a lot of good progress that was made afterward. I have very mixed feelings about the assimilationist success of Gay, Inc., but I really never expected to see federal gay marriage in my lifetime, to see gay kisses become relatively normalized on tv and in mainstream movies, to see anything remotely like Sense8 from anyplace other than the very indie and very queer world, etc. Watching Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine, I remembered what it used to feel like to live in terror of anybody finding out, or even just suspecting, that you're not entirely heterosexual. It's not that the terror's all gone, or that we're all safe and happy and prosperous etc., or that there aren't still bashings and murders (in 2014 the FBI counted "1,248 victims [of hate crimes] targeted due to sexual-orientation bias" and suicide remains an ever-present problem). But in many places of the U.S. now, it is easier to live openly as a gay, lesbian, or bisexual person than it was fifteen or twenty years ago. The culture (or, at least, part of the dominant culture) has shifted, and Matthew Shepard's murder — and the conversations and work that murder inspired — contributed to the shift.

Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine reminds us of this, and it does a lot more besides. It pays close attention to how people continued their lives after his death. It shows why his death remains meaningful, and why his life deserves to be remembered. It suggests much about forgiveness, about grieving, about news media, and about living with questions that can't be answered. It is, finally, a beautiful tribute to a friend, and to a grief that cannot, and should not, be lost.

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