In Benjamin Smoke, Cohen and Sillen use a mix of color and black-and-white film stock and vacillating camera speeds to assert the credo of the best documentary: that a fascinating character is always at its heart. Smoke is that and more. He's a vocalist with a gravelly sound equal parts Tom Waits and Radiohead's Thom Yorke. He's a naturally gifted conversationalist who also can come off as confused and a bit fried. Whether it's his problems with drugs or his medically approved dependence on them (he's in the last stages of AIDS and is shown taking the drug cocktails that keep him alive) is beside the point. Disenfranchised on several levels -- poor, Southern, gay, drag queen, HIV-positive, drug abuser -- Smoke was a man who was never in any definition of the mainstream. He died in January 1999, and this beautiful and tragic film is his fitting epitaph.
Benjamin Smoke, né Robert Dickerson, lived in Cabbagetown, a crumbling neighborhood of Atlanta. "It was the home of go-carts and young children going to jail really early," he says, "[where] the parents all do inhalants, sniffing glue out of Colonial bread sacks." The film may be the community's last opportunity to be memorable; as the community progresses, signs of gentrification creep in and the shuttered stores and abandoned mill are about to become coffeeshops and loft apartments. It would have killed Smoke to see his neighborhood slip away if AIDS-related illnesses hadn't already done him in.
Throughout Smoke's oral biography, the filmmakers find images of his environment that resonate like Walker Evans' Depression photographs. In the window of a boarded-up mattress store is a poster of Martin Luther King Jr. stamped with "I Have a Dream." In a trashy diner where the poor white patrons chew on the last coffee grounds, a shitty TV flickers with a scene of Sidney Poitier's detective from In the Heat of the Night. Stray dogs and children roam around looking for something to do. Smoke's impeccable memory supplies other equally vivid scenes, such as his tale of dancing in drag at a waffle house to Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Sweet Hitchhiker." It's a milieu that Smoke eloquently captures when he says, "I don't know where the beautiful stops and the difficult begins."
Just as Patti Smith ultimately found Smoke captivating, turnabout was fair play; he says that her Horses LP "changed what music could be." He joined a punk band in the late '70s called Freedom Puff before moving on to the Opal Foxx Quartet and the eponymous Smoke, which eventually opened for Smith. Smoke's lyrics were as peculiar as his style; one song involved a list of Luke Perry-related fetishes. And he recalls how, with Freedom Puff, "the sixth song of our set always made people mad. It was me and four angry young dykes, and I was arrested by an African-American cop ... er ... pig."
If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had any real spine, it would have found Benjamin Smoke a place among nominated documentaries were there not always more Holocaust stories and uplifting tales of disabled children. While those stories are valuable, the system cries out for a wider panorama. Perhaps an unapologetically drug-addicted gay man -- also on disability, caught in the personal holocaust of a failing immune system and at least as interesting as the lunatics Errol Morris populates his films with -- is just too real.