Review: A documentary about Divine, who “stood for all outsiders”

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

Jeffery Schwarz’s documentary ‘I am Divine’ was widely distributed in London cinemas last weekend for the first time since it premiered at the 27th BFI London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in 2013.

Born in Baltimore as Harris Glenn Milstead, the actor/ singer/ drag queen Divine was created by director John Waters when he befriended the shy young man and brought him into his social circle ‘the Dreamlanders’ in the 1960s. The group of social misfits included Divine, Waters, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce and Mink Stole.

Waters filmed a number of Sunday afternoon features like ‘Roman Candles’ (1966) and ‘Eat Your Makeup’ (1968) with the Dreamlanders throughout his career. Divine was Waters’ leading lady for a number of features, the final being ‘Hairspray’ (1988), and the two remained close friends throughout Divine’s life.

Divine was a generous and over the top personality. He enjoyed his food, marijuana, men and glamour. As time went on it was difficult for the actor to move beyond the character of Divine to establish himself as the character Harris Glenn Milstead.

Once the 1980s rolled around, Milstead was re-branding himself as a more serious actor. After the mainstream success of Waters’ film ‘Hairspray’ Milstead was cast in the American sitcom ‘Married with Children.’ The night before he was to begin filming in Los Angeles, the actor died of a massive heart attack.

The documentary is a wonderful compilation of old interviews of the actor, footage from past films and performances, and new interviews with co-stars, friends, mentors, fans and his loving mother. It tells a well-rounded, unedited story of Divine’s life and legacy.

Divine has inspired decades of drag queens with his original music, costumes, make-up and on and off screen performances. If you are a lover of Divine, or have never seen the breadth and depth of his work, this documentary is a fantastic way to celebrate the larger than life figure of Divine.

Click here for a list of theatres in London screening ‘I am Divine.’

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