Back in 1998, 22-year-old student Matthew Shepard was tortured and murdered for being gay in Laramie, Wyoming.
The murder, much like the recent coverage of individual suicides, was not the first hate crime in America, but it was a catalyst, a symbol, and forced America’s attention to its ugly side. Eleven years later, the United States Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (Byrd was a black man murdered in Jasper, Texas, also in 1998, by being dragged behind a pick-up truck).
Shepard’s murder and the reaction to it is documented in The Laramie Project, a play by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project. It draws on hundreds of interviews conducted by the theatre company with inhabitants of the town, company members’ own journal entries, and published news reports.
The play has itself become a lighting rod, with a number of famous actors performing it and many of the performances have been picketed by representatives of Fred Phelps, who are portrayed in the play picketing Matthew Shepard’s funeral as they did in real life. The text is used in schools throughout the world as a teaching aid against prejudice.
This is a film version of the play. It follows and in some cases re-enacts the chronology of Shepard’s visit to a local bar, his kidnap and beating, the discovery of him tied to a fence, the vigil at the hospital, his death and funeral, and the trial of his killers. It mixes real news reports with actors portraying friends, family, cops, killers, and other Laramie residents in their own words. It concludes with a Laramie staging of “Angels in America” a year after Shephard’s death.
The whole film has now been made available to view:
Image source Tectonic Theater Project