VOD film review: Donna (2022)
Cathy Brennan | On 28, Jul 2022
Director: Jay Bedwani
Cast: Donna Personna, Jaylyn Abergas, Pina Busch, Pleasure Bynight
A drag queen throwing coffee into a cop’s face triggered an important, yet almost-forgotten piece of American LGBTQ+ history. The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot of 1966 is one of the earliest known instances of trans women standing up against discrimination as a group.
Donna Personna is a trans woman who used to hang out at Compton’s as a gay teenager and knew some of the queens who took part in the riot. Now in her 70s, having come out as trans at the age of 59, Donna still lives in the Tenderloin neighbourhood of San Francisco where the riot took place and is the subject of this documentary by Welsh filmmaker Jay Bedwani.
Through his time with Donna, Bedwani constructs two narratives: Donna’s attempt to reconnect with her estranged family, and her work with Mark Nassar and Collette LeGrande to produce a play about the Cafeteria Riot. By retaining the focus on Donna herself, the film neglects the political significance of the riot, the queens who took part in it, and arguably Donna’s own sense of purpose.
Towards the end of the film, we see footage of Donna delivering a speech at City Hall. She speaks about how the women who took part in the riot – women she knew – are now mostly dead, and how they were never appreciated in life. There is little sense of this in the film up to that point because Bedwani is focused on Donna as an individual.
We only learn about Donna’s connection to the riot nearly 20 minutes into this 75-minute film. Up until that point, the camera dwells on Donna’s everyday life. This is somewhat understandable because the strongest moments in the documentary are derived from Donna’s own voice.
The daughter of a church minister, she never felt like she could be accepted by her family for who she is. One of the most beautiful moments in the film is when Donna speaks about when her younger sister, Gloria, got pregnant as a teenager, so Donna took her to the beach to get away from it all. It’s a wonderful expression of sisterly love, and Donna’s enduring affection for her siblings is powerful. This makes the footage of Donna attending Thanksgiving dinner at Gloria’s all the more moving.
However, there is an imbalance in the film that would have been remedied by a more graceful intertwining of the personal with the political. In downplaying Donna’s own extensive work as an activist and the history she is a part of, Bedwani offers up a lacking portrait of her.
Donna joins a number of documentaries about trans elders such as Mamma Gloria, Major! and Kate Bornstein Is a Queer & Pleasant Danger. Any work that seeks to draw attention to them should be welcomed because it ensures that they are being heard and that successive generations of trans people have a sense of their own history. Yet a critical perspective is crucial when determining the extent to which these films serve trans participants and audiences. Donna is not a failure in that regard, but it could have been so much more.
Donna is available to rent on Bohemia Euphoria until 14th August 2022.