‘Coded’ director Ryan White on his documentary short about a pioneering gay artist ‘forgotten from history’

“So few people have heard of J.C. Leyendecker, and sort of shamefully I’m one of those people who had never heard of him,” reveals director Ryan White about the subject of his film “Coded,” which is on the shortlist of 15 films being considered for Best Documentary Short at the Oscars. He talked to us as part of our panel of short-film directors being considered by the academy this year. Watch our exclusive video interview above.

Coded” looks back at the life and career of Leyendecker, a celebrated artist during the early 20th century who was known for his advertising illustrations and magazine covers. He was also a gay man whose work contained subtle hints of homoerotic desire. But despite the mainstream success he enjoyed in his heyday, especially in the 1920s, he is less well-remembered now than artists who followed him like Norman Rockwell.

White first learned about Leyendecker while working on another project, the Apple TV+ documentary series “Visible,” which chronicled the history of queer representation on television starting in the 1950s at the dawn of the medium. “We discovered this era that predated that, that predated the Great Depression during the Roaring Twenties, that many historians referred to as the pansy craze,” White explains. It was an “era of a pretty large burst of LGBTQ progress that even I, as a gay person, didn’t know a lot about.” And that led the filmmaker to Leyendecker and to wonder “why his story has been somewhat forgotten from history.”

Homophobia is part of the reason. McCarthyism swept America in the mid-20th century, resulting in the Lavender Scare, a campaign of persecution of queer people that accompanied the Red Scare targeting suspected communists. Leyendecker died during this era, in 1955, and decided to have much of his work destroyed after his death. “I think we often think that gay history began with Stonewall,” White says, “but there was a lot of history before that.”

“Coded” gives voice to those whom history has muted, but not just Leyendecker. “One of my favorite parts of having made ‘Coded’ is hearing from people about the older generations in their family,” who “might have been gay and hid it for whatever reason … I think that’s a really fun part of getting to be a documentary filmmaker from a marginalized community.” It’s an opportunity “to add to that history where we as a community get to tell our own stories.”

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