“Frida” Documentary Lets the Queer Disabled Communist Speak

This review of the new Frida documentary was originally published during the 2024 Sundance Film Festival


In Catherine Lacey’s Biography of X, her protagonist explains why she had to write a corrective biography of her enigmatic artist wife: “Now that Mr. Smith’s false narrative was out there and I was in our cabin alone, I had nothing to do but avenge him and his lies, to avenge reality itself, to avenge everything.”

I thought of this explanation while watching Carla Gutierrez’s documentary, “Frida,” a work that aims to tell the life story of one of the twentieth century’s most famous artists in her own words. With another feature documentary already released in 2020, a docuseries released just last year, and, of course, the 2002 Oscar-winning biopic starring Salma Hayek, it’s fair to question if we really needed another documentary about Frida Kahlo. But every life — like every story — can be altered by its framing. And Gutierrez’s reframe is one worthy of existence.

Using Kahlo’s own words from diaries, letters, interviews, and other writings, Frida has the artist narrate her own life along with the words of friends and lovers including two-time husband Diego Rivera. (All performed by actors, of course.)

The lack of talking heads is supplemented by visuals consisting of photographs, archival footage, and animated renditions of Kahlo’s paintings. While the animation is well-done, there is something that feels counter to the film’s perspective to manipulate Kahlo’s art rather than simply portraying it. Watching the film, I yearned for a more radical approach that allowed for stillness as we listened to the voices.

But the words themselves are excellent. Due to her self-portraiture and her tokenization as one of the few women allowed into the canon, Frida Kahlo the person is often flattened. Not here. The film displays her intelligence and poetic voice, as well as her day-to-day frustrations as person and as an artist — a woman artist in a male world, a Mexican artist in the US and France. She’s vivacious and despairing and annoyed and bored. The film doesn’t force her to always be Frida Kahlo, famous artist. She’s allowed to just be Frida.

And who is Frida? Gutierrez doesn’t shy away from her queerness — with sexuality or gender — nor does she reduce her communism to a brief mention. A lot of time is also spent on the accident that caused her to live with chronic pain. It’s not framed as inspirational or depressing — it just is. Every aspect of Kahlo’s life and worldview and art was shaped by being a queer disabled communist.

The best parts of the documentary focus on Kahlo’s time in the US and France, allowing her to express the absolute disdain she felt for the bourgeoisie and the rich. There’s an understanding that these spaces are required for success in the arts while also a relatable exhaustion at this requirement. French surrealist André Breton is not credited with “discovering” Frida’s work, but rather lambasted for displaying her art alongside random Mexican trinkets — as if her worth as an artist was dependent on her ethnicity as curio.

Centering her voice is also valuable in portraying her illness. There are moments of immense grief — especially related to her miscarriage — but mostly there is just the mundane frustrations of living with chronic pain.

And, finally, this approach is divine when Kahlo — and her lovers — are discussing sex. “It’s good to have sex even when one is not in love,” Kahlo says before detailing the sensitivity of her breasts. It’s delicious to hear about her many affairs with men and women from her own voice and from theirs.

Every year at Sundance, there are a handful of portrait documentaries that were either produced by or are quickly bought by major streamers. Many of these are straight forward portraits unworthy of their fascinating subjects. While Frida may be imperfect, I admire its ambition and its less conventional approach to form. I also admire its commitment to portraying a version of Kahlo more controversial than her iconography.

If she’s going to be one of the famous women in history, she should be famous as queer, as disabled, and as a loud and proud communist. That is the biography Frida Kahlo deserves.


Frida is now streaming on Prime video.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 543 articles for us.

2 Comments

  1. I have always loved Frida Kahlo and was thrilled to find out from whatever sources I had in 1990 that she loved women as well as her famous husband. I always loved her art, her way of telling her story, her visual sense and color sense, her blue house, her love of animals, her righteousness, her politics (Trotsky!), and her way of expressing herself visually in life and her art. Pre-Colombian adornment! Letting her eyebrows be! Cutting off all her hair! Wearing a suit!
    For anyone who loves the Trotsky angle, I recommend Barbara Kingsolver’s gorgeous book The Lacuna.
    I feel like this film is much needed to balance out the other ways she has been portrayed. I can’t wait to see it!

  2. I’ve also been waiting for a documentary about her that does her queerness justice for literally decades. It’s weird that it had to take so long and it’s weird that it happens in the end when you don’t expect it anymore. Time is weird.

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