Licensed to Kill

Director: Arthur Dong
Screenwriters: Arthur Dong

Institute History


Licensed to Kill is a devastating inquiry into violence targeted at gay men and the social fabric that allows it to continue. Focusing primarily on several convicted murderers, filmmaker Arthur Dong (whose documentary Coming Out Under Fire merited a Special Jury Award at the 1994 Sundance Festival) examines how their attitudes toward gay men led them to violence. Through their testimonies, Dong uncovers a disturbing and complex range of motivations and circumstances. Some, sodomized as children, felt they were acting out a revenge fantasy, a personal vendetta. Others were unable to handle their conflicted feelings about being homosexual themselves. Through probing interviews, Dong lets his subjects expose and confront these paradoxes, and reveal how self-hatred births a powerful urge to destroy.

Licensed to Kill uses these specific stories to question the collective social and cultural network that is disturbingly complicit in this violence. As one of the film’s subjects, Donald Aldrich, callously explains, “If you can walk into a 7-Eleven and rob it for fifteen to twenty bucks, get your face on videotape and some guy will call the police; or if you can go to a park, come away with a hell of a lot more and because of the fact that they’re a homosexual, they’re not going to report it to the police; who are you gonna go rob?”

Dong poignantly counterpoints these testimonies against a police detective interview with Raymond Childs. Childs robbed and fatally stabbed a New York lawyer in a motel room and claimed it was self-defense against an unwanted sexual advance. Dong leaves it to his audience to interpret whether this murder was motivated by opportunism or hatred. Either way points to a disturbing reality: Because of fear of social stigma, gay men in many parts of this country occupy dangerously vulnerable positions. Without forcing conclusions, Dong has created a complex portrayal of hate crime in America. But Licensed to Kill resonates far beyond the situations it portrays; it is a powerful document about how easily people turn to violence, whether out of anger, confusion, self-hatred, or ignorance.

— Lisanne Skyler

Screening Details

Sundance Film Festival Awards


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