Cindy Abel’s captivating and thoroughly rousing documentary Breaking Through is the kind of film that makes you wonder why all other documentaries can’t be as unique, polished, and impactful. It’s the kind of film that provides crystal-clear insight into unique obstacles facing LGBT people in our society while also inspiring all viewers to work to undo and overcome those impediments. It’s the kind of film that you finish and wonder where it’s been your whole life.
Breaking Through focuses on the personal and political lives of more than two dozen LGBT elected officials in a diverse range of positions and regions all across the United States. Some interviewees, such as Rep. Barney Frank and Sen. Tammy Baldwin, are quite well-known, but many of the most fascinating stories come from unheralded officials in unexpected localities. One that springs immediately to mind is Lupe Valdez from Dallas County (TX)—the first Latina, openly LGBT sheriff in the state. Despite the vulnerability she displays while telling her story, she is an absolute force of nature.
Although the subjects all have an astonishingly diverse range of experiences growing up and running for office, some all-too-familiar, infuriating similarities arise in most of their stories. Many of them speak of never having felt as if elected office or state-sanctioned equality could ever be within their grasp. One interviewee has this heartbreakingly telling line: “I didn’t think America was about me.” Others speak of having their personal lives cruelly exploited by election opponents. The message is clear: although things continue to improve, life is not easy for LGBT politicians, especially living under a very public microscope.
In addition to the compelling personalities on screen, this film’s production values are exceptional. The viewer is almost instantly drawn into the film’s musical and especially visual choices. The shots of photographs, newspaper clippings, and stock footage interspersed into interviews have a vibrancy that recalls the style of the visually stunning 2002 documentary, The Kid Stays in the Picture. Rather than a view of an old photo album, the experience is watching a scrapbook come alive. This graphic vitality bringing these politicians and officials to life creates a real empathic connection with the viewer.
If I have one quibble with the film, it is its energetic presentation. Sometimes the film feels a little too slick and fast-paced for its own good. The editing often favors quick, borderline-“MTV Style” edits in which shots of interviewees don’t linger long enough to fully register or satisfy. The major drawback of this occasionally jarring effect is that, with so many interviewees, viewers may never feel they get a chance to develop familiarity with them all. This is a shame, because they all have wonderful stories. (For context, I’m reviewing the shorter cut of the film. The extended version may not have a different pacing of edits.)
These aesthetic production issues, however, may be a matter of taste and don’t diminish the emotional power or uplifting crescendo of this film. In fact, one of the most admirable aspects of “Breaking Through” is the deftness and subtlety of how its final act builds. The film gives a great deal of attention to the hardships and obstacles its subjects have faced, but the film makes a quiet shift towards focusing on the power of perseverance, honesty and self-respect. The change in theme and tone happens so slyly that only in the closing minutes of the film do you realize just how compelling and forceful a case has been made for the importance of social change and the power of coming out. This film is a stellar achievement in recent LGBT documentary filmmaking. Highly and unequivocally recommended for school, public, and academic libraries catering to viewers ages 10 and up.
Psychology Liaison Librarian, James Madison University