Based upon the frequency that it is presented to us in this narrative, one might believe that “Live and let live” acts as the proverbial catchphrase of Laramie, Wyoming – the infamous setting of a despicable murder that, in the fall of 1998, sparked a nationwide conversation about the state of LGBT relations in the United States. The victim was Matthew Shepard, a young gay man who was tortured and left to die on a fence post on the outskirts of the sparsely-populated township. However, whilst many of the characters in the film based off of the aftermath of this tragedy utter – sometimes reluctantly, often proudly – those aforementioned words of ignorance, there hangs an unadorned, unremarkable American flag from the threshold of the Fireside Lounge. Many patrons most likely think nothing of it; perhaps even Matt Shepard was one of them. However, no one probably anticipated that the worn white letters sewn on the bottom of the flag would come to encompass a revelation in the identity crisis Laramie would soon face: “These Colors Don’t Run”.
Moises Kaufman’s film is interesting in its contextualization; Kaufman, who first directed a stage play entitled The Laramie Project in the year 2000, decided to craft a narrative that follows the Tectonic Theater Company as they travel to Laramie in the year following its brush with tragedy in search of stories – stories that would be pieced and patched together and eventually adapted into a script. Essentially, while The Laramie Project (the film) is indeed about this emotional and sociological aftermath, it is also about the inception of the stage production of the same name. Thus, Kaufman has a stake in The Laramie Project not just as an impassioned first-time filmmaker in search of a captivating subject (or in this case, subjects), but as a man who was heavily involved with the company of people (most of which identified as LGBT themselves) who brought these stories to life. This unique perspective proves to be important to the way we understand the company’s presence in the film in the first place.
Kaufman could have just as easily framed the film as a purely first-person string of narratives — that typical ensemble piece you’ve no doubt seen before numerous times on screen. Instead, he implements a purposefully documentarian approach, shaping The Laramie Project into what is essentially a series of interviews, re-staged media gatherings, and court proceedings. At times, it may simply feel like an extensive Vanity Fair article that has been adapted for the cinema, but the film proves its depth to be greater than that more often than not. If the life and death of Matthew Shepard was its own story (and it very well is), then this is its epilogue. And much like the original goal of the epilogue, The Laramie Project‘s most necessary intention is to instill in all parties a sense of closure.
Of course, we find ourselves at the heart of this essay – those four pivotal words that ingrained themselves so boldly into my notepad. Among other matters, one of the more central conundrums in this big story of a small town concerns its citizens’ philosophical musings. While there is the occasional whistle-blower, if you will, that is quick to cut Laramie no slack in its outlook on the gay community (one Muslim woman in particular says powerfully of the place, “We are like this.”), most seem to lament in the fact that everyone else watching the media frenzy is being lead to believe that the entire township consists of bigots and close-minded “ranchers”. Yes, while you should be quick to question the innocence of many of the inhabitants of this largely conservative community, their caution and discomfort is somewhat understandable because that blame registers on a personal level. Even the scant number of gay and lesbian citizens (some out and some not) have gotten caught up in their own misgivings and ideological quandaries. Of the idea of Laramie being defined by a singular, monstrous act, one man suggests that the area has “become a noun”. Another townsfolk, played by Margo Martindale, remarks “How does any one person ever tell about another?” when asked if there are many hateful people in Laramie. The town has become extremely defensive – if the signage that reads “Hate is not a Laramie value” wasn’t indicative enough. It is because of this social entanglement that the intersecting and contradicting character point-of-views comes to represent a feeling of sorrow and anxiety. With this effective exploration of a diminutive population fueled by simmering emotional tensions, it is difficult not to feel the claustrophobia even among the wide open fields of southern Wyoming.
Now the phrase “These colors don’t run” begins to take on a sort of irony. This flag, held high on the wall inside of the bar that would become Shepard’s last place of comfort, preaches strength, unity, and seemingly noble dissension. After all, the saying had its start as a home-grown World War II rallying cry (its origins have been traced back to a sign in a store-front window, created by its owner) and, at its worst, has been attributed to jingoism. By the film’s end, the filmmakers make an attempt to surmise that the place has taken a big step closer to new-found solidarity, however it seems more fitting to suggest that it has only inched slightly toward it. And that is the great irony, however unintentional, that lies in the soul of The Laramie Project.