Jean works as a physical education teacher. She is a closeted lesbian. The reasons for her secrecy are complex, but an overreaching factor that contributes to her tortured mental state is the fear of losing her job and becoming ostracized from her family and community. She avoids socializing with her colleagues for fear of being sniffed out. She lives with constant anxiety. Paranoia lapping like dark waves threaten to subsume her emotional core. Her lifestyle. Her basic freedoms. She cannot reveal her true self. Day after day the pressure, anxiety and dread eat away at her. Wearing her down. Physically, psychically, and existentially.
Whilst having an intimate night in with her girlfriend, avoiding her neighbour’s nosy curtain twitching, Jean must cut the tryst short when her sister unexpectedly drops her nephew off on the doorstep to take care of him for the night. Her girlfriend chastises her for watching “anti-gay propaganda” show “Blind Date,” admonishing as she storms out, “Enjoy your cartoons.” She is a divorcee of a straight marriage that left her hollow and numb, family and friends never knowing her secret. Afraid to tell anyone. Stifled. Between worlds. She must even mask herself from her own family, afraid that her Christian sister and her god-fearing husband would completely disown her if they ever discovered the truth about her sexuality. It feels as though there is no way out of this purgatory. Adding to this harmful potpourri of dead-end trauma are a new set of laws that have been brought into legislation broadly prohibiting “the promotion of homosexuality.” The new laws feel like another nail in her coffin.
The film is set in Newcastle, in the north of England in 1988, against the backdrop of anti-homosexuality legislation passed by Margaret Thatcher, then leader of the ruling Conservative Party. Blue Jean speaks aptly and strikingly to the hostile social and political climate sanctioned by Section 28, a series of laws prohibiting the “promotion of homosexuality” that forced many LBGTQ+ organizations and peoples to self-censor, limit their activities, close down, go into hiding, and in some tragic cases, to commit suicide. The parallels between the era of Blue Jean and the current climate of renewed bigotry, in the United Kingdom and the United States (the two countries I call home) is unfortunately resonant.
In one poignant scene, Jean feels compelled to lie about a pupil who is suspected of being a lesbian and has been accused of sexually assaulting another girl in the showers. Jean knows this charge to be blatantly false. The girl is victim to a vicious witch hunt by classmates and teachers. This heart-wrenching scene illustrates the maddening pressure Jean feels to hide her true self and masquerade as straight. Rather than standing in solidarity, she heartlessly throws her student under the bus, resulting in their suspension. Jean chooses to betray her own nature and truth, as opposed to losing her job and her “reputation” within her family and community.
Blue Jean is a film of true nuance, aesthetically and spiritually. Sumptuously filmed on 16mm, the cinematography perfectly captures the austerity and post-industrial, post-World War II squalor of 1980s Britain, leavened with tints and flashes of blue. Scenes in which Jean is stifled, hidden, and suppressed in her professional and familial life are brilliantly juxtaposed with scenes in which she is surrounded by a community of queer friends, including her girlfriend, Viv, a powerful performance with incredible vivacity by Kerrie Hayes. One of the triumphs of Jean’s portrayal, and something that writer and director Georgia Oakley along with actor Rosy McEwen should be lauded for, is that the film never takes the easy route in bringing Jean’s dilemma to the screen. McEwan’s performance in tandem with Oakley’s screenplay is subtle in terms of dialogue but shows acres more in service to the sub-text and deeper aspects of Jean’s character. Jean is equally ill-at-ease amongst her queer friends, as awkward as she is operating within the straight world. Oakley’s vision is to “present a protagonist without glamorisation or misrepresentation. Jean is no hero…”
In this sense, the film does not pander to any kind of simplified dumbing-down, as so much flabby rhetoric tends to do so in this current socio-cultural landscape of binary oppositional thinking and populist position taking. She is a fully formed human animal, not reduced to some convenient simplistic cipher or political fantasy dreamt up on a shaky partisan pedestal. Jean is part of the LGBTQ+ community, but also exists as an individual, with all the neuroses trademark of the human condition. The film is not an exercise in ticking boxes. It is a three-dimensional portrait of a complex of personality and character, under duress imposed by an intolerant society.
LGBTQ+ rights, where they exist in any protected form, are being rallied against, eroded, threatened, and stamped upon. After all the gains and progress made in the United Kingdom and the United States in recent decades, the burgeoning anti-queer movement is most disheartening and deeply chilling. Section 28, much like the anti-gay and LBGTQ+ laws recently enacted in the U.S., are fuelled by far-right Christian fundamentalism. On Friday June 30th, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against a Colorado civil rights law that compelled businesses and organizations to treat same-sex couples equally. It ruled that these laws were in violation of the right to free speech. The case was brought by Lorie Smith, the owner of a web design company, and backed by a Christian group. Last year alone, more than 238 anti-LBGTQ+ laws were passed across the country. That amounts to more than three new laws per day.
In May 2023, Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the United Nations Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, warned that he is “deeply concerned about increased bias-motivated incidents of harassment, threats, and violence against LGBT people, including a rampant surge in hate crimes in the U.K. All of this is attributed – by a wide range of stakeholders – to the toxic nature of the public debate surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity.”
The threat to Queer and Trans communities and individuals is clear and present from the Tennessee law that criminalizes “adult cabaret entertainment” in a bizarre attempt to ban drag shows, to Florida Governor DeSantis’ record shattering raft of six anti-LGBTQ+ laws (which, among other heinous injustices, gives “license to discriminate in healthcare”) to the banning of Pride flags in Hamtramck, Michigan. Last year, the U.K. dropped down the annual ranking of LGBTQ+ rights across Europe for the third year running. Conservative governments have systematically failed to deliver on long-awaited reforms.
Bigots such as failed actor and “political activist” for the Reclaim Party, Laurence Fox, continue to stoke hatred, fear, and division towards Queer and Trans people in the U.K.. Fox recently burned a Pride flag on his social media accounts during Pride month. His fellow lackey, former Tory Member of Parliament and now fellow Reclaim Party member, Andrew Bridgen, launched a “nasty and cowardly attack” on the transgender community via his efforts to pass a bill to ban schools from including transgender rights in their curricula. These hateful and hate fuelled political manoeuvres have enjoyed the support of many educators who, like Jean, should’ve known better and who should’ve had their most vulnerable pupils’ best interests at heart.
Despite an eventual absolution and recompense for Jean’s heinous decision making, I fear the fate of all the small-minded bigots wilting in moral bankruptcy beneath the fundamentalist umbrella—those who shall continue to sabotage movements towards equality. They are a dinosaur breed, bound to be wiped out by the comet of rational progress. One only needs to look to the likes of George Santos and Ted Haggard to realize the true futility of moral denial and cultism and how absurdly ridiculous, and dangerous, a uniform it is. Blue Jean effectively depicts the lack of empathy that surrounds us, the dangers of coming out and being one’s true self, and the corrosive impact on the mental health of LBGTQ+ people in all our communities.