Some viewers might approach the documentary “Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine” with a bit of trepidation. Those of us who recall the tragedy from 1998 will wonder if the film merely recounts a story we already know.
The case of Shepard, the 21-year-old Wyoming student who was beaten, tied to a fence and left to die, received the kind of national attention that eluded other lesbian, gay or transgender hate-crime victims such as Brandon Teena and Sakia Gunn. Sixteen years after his death, at a time when gay-rights activists are making progress nationally on issues such as same-sex marriage, why revisit Shepard?
The answer lies in Shepard’s full life story, which constitutes the first half of the film — and turns out to be particularly edifying. The biggest revelation is that Shepard was raped on a school trip to Morocco and traumatized for life. So seldom do we hear about the dangers to LGBT youths secretly exploring their sexuality at their own peril. Because they fear rejection, their friends and family often remain clueless and helpless. The film is enough to prompt soul-searching among parents, educators and the LGBT community on how to provide adequate guidance and support for LGBT youths.
The second half of the documentary recounts Shepard’s death at the hands of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, the ensuing media circus, the Westboro Baptist Church protests and tear-filled remembrances by friends and family. It’s frustrating, mostly because the people who need to see this film probably won’t bother.
“Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine.”
MPAA rating: None.
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.
Playing: Laemmle’s NoHo 7, North Hollywood.