Thanks to the responsiveness of the subject, and the cold simplicity with which Miss Clarke handles the camera, ["Portrait of Jason"] is a good deal more than an unusually frank interview with a homosexual who, at one point, exults: "I'm bona fide freaksville!"
The truth is, of course, that he isn't.
The portrait of Jason that takes shape from the bits and pieces of remembered orgies, profitless hustles and traumatic family confrontations is that of a black, sardonic Candide, who dreams one day of becoming a nightclub performer.
Jason camps in a rather muscular imitation of Mae West, recalls his mother in what was apparently a not particularly poverty ridden home in Newark … and relives the disgust his father … felt for a son who liked to skip rope. In these moments the film says more about the need for personal identity—not only in black-and-white America, but also in the world at large—than do any number of pretentious fiction films….
"Portrait of Jason" is a curious and fascinating example of cinema verité, all the ramifications of which cannot be immediately known. As the life of Jason Holliday (né Aaron Paine 33 years ago) is the film, so now has the film become a part of that life—an extraordinary recognition and, perhaps, even a kind of reward for having survived.
Vincent Canby, "'Portrait of Jason'," in The New York Times (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 30, 1967, p. 26.