Sexuality—how one defines it, lives with it, hides it, shuns it, or wields it—is inextricable from matters of socioeconomic class, though rare is the American film that centralizes this intersectional reality. Americans have long been encouraged to buy into the foundational myth of the American dream, with its egalitarian implication that we can transcend the class into which we’re born. On a parallel track, sexuality has been long been sold as fixed, a definitive, biological understanding of identity. This ideological contradiction is at the core of Ira Sachs’s 1996 debut feature, The Delta, a film that stands out in the New Queer nineties canon for the way it foregrounds questions of class and race alongside its depiction of gay struggle.
A selection of the latest edition of the Criterion Channel’s Queersighted series, Class Acts—spotlighting films that explicitly acknowledge the ways in which the pursuit of non-heteronormative identity dovetails with matters of American caste—Sachs’s film rewrites the rules of the coming-of-age drama in ways both invigorating and unsettling. Though the film received acclaim at both its Toronto and Sundance Film Festival premieres and notably received domestic theatrical distribution, The Delta is perhaps not as widely remembered as other cornerstones of the New Queer Cinema. This is likely owing to the way it refuses to provide easy answers to the questions it poses about the social, economic, racial, and sexual divides that define life in the United States.
An initial glimpse at The Delta’s original marketing materials gives no indication of its ambition and curiosity, or its sensitivities toward the experience of nonwhite immigrant communities. The majority of New Queer Cinema breakthrough hits were made by and starred white men, and their theatrical and home-video ad campaigns capitalized on stars who conformed to the period’s racially coded standards of attractiveness, who were often baring skin. Strand Releasing’s poster for The Delta is a prime example of leading with beefcake, featuring only a shirtless, smiling Shane Gray. Yet this conventionally handsome white teenager, who plays closeted upper-middle-class high schooler Lincoln Bloom, represents only one half of the film’s pair of starring roles, the other being the nuanced, wildly charismatic Thang Chan, a half-Black, half-Vietnamese first-time actor cast as Minh Nguyen, a gay, biracial immigrant from Vietnam whose life intersects fatefully with Lincoln’s while the two are out cruising one night.
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