Blue Jean – lesbian teacher navigates life while trying to remain secretly in the closet
Blue Jean tells the story of Jean, a gym teacher who is forced to live a double life. When a new student arrives and threatens to expose her, Jean is pushed to extreme lengths to keep her job and her integrity.
At the 1987 Conservative Party Conference in Britain, then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stated, “Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values, are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay.” Feeding off the AIDS panic of the moment, and admonishing the Labour Party for their support of gay rights, the Tories made this kind of ratified homophobia a key point of their successful 1987 election campaign.
The following year, Thatcher’s government enacted the infamous Section 28 bill, instructing British state schools not to “promote the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretend family relationship.” For most of the staff at the hard-up Tyneside state school where young divorcée Jean (Rosy McEwen) works as a gym teacher, Section 28 makes little difference to how they go about their business.
To Jean, however, the ruling cleaves her life in two. Marking a new chapter in her life at the outset of the film with a bleach-blonde crop that nods (like the film’s title) to mid-‘80s Bowie, she has only fairly recently come out as a lesbian to friends and family. At work, however, she now has to stay tensely in the closet, her job at risk should any malicious colleague or pupil catch wind of her sexuality, or her relationship with girlfriend Viv (Kerrie Hayes).
The pretense becomes that much harder to maintain when gawky 15-year-old Lois (Lucy Halliday) arrives in her class, and the other girls immediately make the shy, unathletic newbie their punching bag — with queen bee Siobhan (Lydia Page) correctly intuiting her queerness, as the cruelest school bullies so often do.
Jean, too, picks up on the exact nature of Lois’s misfit status even before the underage teen starts showing up at the lesbian bar she routinely frequents with Viv. But to defend her too keenly, or to demonstrate her allyship, would also be to invite schoolroom suspicion. In an effort to keep her own head down, Jean finds herself perpetuating the values of Section 28 — a self-betrayal that further threatens her relationship with Viv, who has no time for toeing the line. It all appears to be no-win situation, in a struggle that many are still experiencing today in parts of the world.
BLUE JEAN will be released in LGBTQ+ History Month and 20 years since the repeal of Section 28. Available from Altitude Films
DIRECTOR’S STATEMENT by Georgia Oakley
“In 1988, enraged by Thatcher’s proposed law Section 28, a group of lesbians abseiled from the gallery of the House of Lords onto the floor, demanding protection of the rights of lesbian and gay people in the UK. The culture of silence propagated by this law, which prohibited schools and local governments from ‘promoting’ homosexuality, had devastating effects on my generation.
My motivation for telling Jean’s story stems from a personal understanding of internalised homophobia, as well as a desire to give voice to those forgotten teachers who battled stigma and defamation under Section 28.
I’m fed up with everyone saying how far we’ve come, when insidious, homophobic laws like this still exist across the globe. I have a six-year-old stepdaughter, and all I ever hear at her school is the same old narrative – it’s all ‘mummies and daddies’. There’s very little education for kids about different types of families. The legacy of Section 28 is alive and well, and it’s just one example of horrific institutionalised homophobia that LGBTQ+ communities have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.
We tried to dig into all of this with Jean’s narrative. To explore how ‘coming out’ isn’t just a singular moment in time; it’s a day-in, day-out battle. The choice whether to correct the taxi driver who has just assumed your girlfriend is your sister. The choice of words when your kid’s friend from school has just asked which one of you is the ‘mummy’. The choice whether to wear your queerness boldly, in the way you dress or cut your hair, or to disguise it, in favour of an easier ride.
It was always the plan to make a portrait piece about one woman grappling with her identity, as opposed to a big political drama about the law itself. As a storyteller, I want to hold a microscope up to the small things that keep Jean awake at night, in an attempt to reframe the discussion on bigger issues such as homophobia, patriarchy and class that plagued the UK in the 80s, as they do now.
We always intended to shoot BLUE JEAN on 16mm, and with a slightly heightened aesthetic. We wanted to create a visual language inspired by classics from the time, rather than an 80s throwback. Inspired by filmmakers such as Kelly Reichardt and Chantal Akerman, I seek to present a protagonist without glamorisation or misrepresentation. Jean is no hero – and that’s precisely why I’ve loved digging into her story these past four years.
FILM NOTES by Hannah McGill
For many in the UK, the story of Section 28 and its eventual repeal is a triumphant memory of unity and activism. Resistance to the Conservative government’s attempt to prohibit the “promotion” of homosexuality as “a pretended family relationship” was the catalyst for an assertion of gay pride that ultimately helped to sweep away historic prejudices. So blatant was the attack and so widespread the reaction against it that the bill might be said to have ultimately achieved the opposite of its original aim. That took time, however, and tremendous sacrifice. Behind the political wrangling, the public demonstrations and the celebrity opposition were thousands of ordinary people whose private lives were suddenly deemed a danger, particularly to children. Said Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the time: “Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay. All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life.”
What if you were a teacher, devoted above all else to providing kids with “a sound start in life”, who also happened to be gay?
This is the starting point for Georgia Oakley’s assured and stirring debut feature – not the activist community who immediately and loudly confronted this attack on their basic right to be who they were, but a woman who has worked hard to compartmentalise her life, keeping her girlfriend decisively separate from her family and her personal story a mystery to her workmates and pupils. Jean, portrayed with quiet power by Rosy McEwen, is a gym teacher: she coaches the netball team, itself a riot of burgeoning teen emotion and conflict. As news stories proliferate about the impact of Section 28 – Tory ministers pontificating on moral decay, activists storming the House of Lords – Jean is hyper-aware of every glance and murmur in her direction. Her relationship with girlfriend Viv, meanwhile, presents the opposite challenge, for Viv is an out and proud lesbian with a crew of similarly assertive friends. To them, the secrecy still practiced by the woman they call “Baby Jean” acts to extend the oppression they have – at considerable cost – thrown off.
Something has to give, and McEwen embodies with exquisite insight the mounting strain upon a woman who has sought to keep hidden what now burns for some release or resolution. The catalyst for change is the arrival at Jean’s school of a new pupil, Lois (Lucy Halliday) – raw, vulnerable, and instinctively connected to Jean as soon as they meet. When Lois begins to frequent the lesbian bar that is Jean’s refuge, the boundaries between Jean’s worlds collapse, and she finds herself dangerously desperate to rebuild them.
Drawing on meticulous research among lesbians who experienced the impact of Section 28, Georgia Oakley has constructed a drama at once confronting and intimate, which renders palpably real the dilemma of a fictional woman whilst pulsing with the hidden pain of countless real lives. Rosy McEwen – acclaimed by fans of TNT’s THE ALIENIST for her performance as Libby Hatch, a Screen International Star of Tomorrow 2022, and one of Variety’s 2022 Top 10 Actors to Watch – shows herself to be a leading actor of phenomenal presence and subtlety in her very first lead role. Kerrie Hayes as Viv is a further revelation, giving us a woman devoted to her community and torn between love and principle. As Lois, newcomer Lucy Halliday embodies with thrilling immediacy all the volatility, defensiveness and disruptive energy of adolescence.
Through these deeply-felt performances, the economy and elegance of Oakley’s writing, and a dreamlike evocation of the sights and sounds of 80s England, BLUE JEAN allows us to experience just how personal the political can become.
Produced by Hélène Sifre for Kleio Films, executive produced by Eva Yates for BBC Film and Jim Reeve for Great Point Media and financed by BBC Film and the British Film Institute in association with Great Point Media, BLUE JEAN celebrates its World Premiere at Giornate Degli Autori. BLUE JEAN was developed through iFeatures 5 (2018) and Inside Out Finance Forum (2019) and with the support of BBC Film
About the Author
Bryen Dunn is a freelance journalist with a focus on travel, lifestyle, entertainment and hospitality. He has an extensive portfolio of celebrity interviews with musicians, actors and other public personalities. He enjoys discovering delicious eats, tasting spirited treats, and being mesmerized by musical beats.