6 LGBTQ+ Films Ahead of Their Time and Why They Are Important

6 LGBTQ+ Films Ahead of Their Time and Why They Are Important

Editor’s note

We at Frame.io believe in recognizing the contributions to the art and craft of cinema by those in disenfranchised communities, be they based on race, gender, or sexual identification. This Pride month, we wanted to formally say “thank you” to those in the LGBTQ+ community who have moved the needle in spreading awareness, acceptance, and elevating this craft we all love.

Introduction

Cinema hasn’t always been generous to the LGBTQ+ community. For most of its history, cinema would either perpetuate stereotypical caricatures or overlook the community entirely. Given the persuasive power of the movies, that narrative treatment could leave an entire segment of the population unable to see themselves represented on screen, and unable to receive greater acceptance in society as a whole.

Nonetheless, there are still examples of films that succeeded in being cinematic oases that not only did justice to LGBTQ+ issues, but made an impact on the community and individuals within it. Here are six of them.

1. Boys in the Band

William Friedkin’s 1970 adaptation of Matt Crowley’s stage play revolves around a party. Michael is hosting a party for his gay friends, when an old—and straight—friend named Alan stops by unexpectedly.

When Michael tries, but fails to hide his sexuality from Alan, the party takes a turn as Michael tries to prove Alan is in the closet. As a result, the party starts to expose resentments, hurts, and possible secrets that all reflect the difficulty the characters have living with their sexuality.

At the time of its release, Boys in the Band stood out for having a cast of predominantly gay characters enjoying each others company without (mostly) hiding who they are, while addressing many gay topics in ways that were uncommon in film at the time. That had an impact, Friedkin has said: “I hear from guys all the time that this was the film that helped them come out of the closet … It gave them the courage not to be ashamed.”

Not that the film received a completely glowing reception from the LGBTQ+ community. There were complaints about the lack of visible physical affection, as well as a somewhat bleak portrait of gay life through the film’s often self-pitying and loathing characters. Nonetheless, Boys in the Band’s representation mattered, for better and worse, and it has become, and remained, a significant milestone in LGBTQ+ cinema.

2. Hedwig and the Angry Inch

John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch is more widely known now (thanks, in part, to an elaborate Broadway revival starring Neil Patrick Harris), but it can be easy to forget that 18 years ago, his play-turned-film bombed when it hit theaters. It was, perhaps, not a surprise. A story about a German punk rock singer who undergoes a failed sex-change operation and recounts his life wrestling with his fluid sexuality, through song, was likely never destined for mainstream success. Even if it deserved it.

It was, however, a hit with the LGBTQ+ community where its honest exploration and musical celebration of gender fluid expression had rarely been seen in a movie. It made an impact. The film went on to inspire Rocky Horror Picture Show-style sing-a-long screenings, but it also put into the world a cinematic lighthouse to guide those exploring their sexuality; or just looking for proof that they weren’t alone in their experiences. Even if they weren’t German punk rock singers.  

3. Paris is Burning

Released in 1991, Jennie Livingston’s documentary looked at the lives of New York City drag queens involved in ball culture, gatherings where people competed against each other through dance, fashion, and shade. But it also depicted the struggles the LGBTQ+ community faced in the late 1980s in New York City, including discrimination, AIDS, poverty, as well as the houses (like surrogate families) that formed to provide a shelter from the storms.

You need only watch a season of RuPaul’s Drag Race to see the influence Paris is Burning has had. The impact of Paris is Burning wasn’t just that it introduced ball culture to a wider audience (including its own community) but it also depicted drag culture in a way that was free from the mocking, or shallow, way drag is often treated in mainstream films.

Reflecting on the film’s intentions to the New York Times, director Jennie Livingston nicely summarized its impact and influence: “I also made the film for people who want to think about how race, class, gender, white supremacy, capitalism, and AIDS influence each other—and how those things shape who we’re supposed to be, and who we’re not allowed to be. It’s so important to consider the film’s legacy of usefulness and meaning to individuals, but also to activists and activist movements.”

4. Philadelphia

Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia wasn’t the first movie to deal with the HIV/AIDS crisis. Films like Longtime Companion and Parting Glances got there first. But Philadelphia was certainly the biggest, and most mainstream attempt to tackle the subject matter, with two of the 1990s biggest stars and a $26 million budget. As Tim Teeman wrote for The Daily Beast, “If you were around at that time, gay, and politically engaged, you went to see Philadelphia at your local cinema with bated breath.”

Philadelphia did positively depict much that hadn’t been seen in a Hollywood movie before. Now, because of its mainstream nature, it does often take a safer route to its subject matter, whether it’s an arguably tame depiction of the relationship between Tom Hanks and Antonia Banderas’ characters, or foregoing commentary on institutional failings on the U.S. government’s part to do more for the AIDS crisis.

Still, representation does matter, and the movie’s willingness to depict homophobia, professional discrimination, and a loving gay relationship still proved to be an act of unprecedented exposure and awareness raising within Hollywood. All the more so when the film grossed over $200 million worldwide, and two Oscars.

5. Sunday Bloody Sunday

It still seems somewhat hard to believe that a film was released in 1971 that depicted a love triangle with a man, a woman, and their bisexual lover. And yet, Sunday Bloody Sunday did just that, exploring how a divorced woman falls for a bisexual artist, who is also involved with a successful middle-aged doctor. It wasn’t, however, just the subject matter, but the treatment of it that was so unconventional for its time.

None of the gay or bisexual characters are caricatures or tortured souls. They are accepting of their sexuality, or sexual arrangements, and live well-adjusted lives with romances that are treated with complete matter-of-fact normalcy. It was that element that made the film so significant then—and now—in the LGBTQ+ community.

As Kathi Wolfe put it in The Washington Blade, “back in the day, Sunday Bloody Sunday was as life-changing and exhilarating as the advent of penicillin or seeing an astronaut on the moon. Watching its queer characters (who weren’t sinners, sad, confused or crazy) kiss, love, and live their lives just as the straight characters lived and loved, brought many of us out of our guilt-ridden closet.”

6. The Times of Harvey Milk

The impact of Harvey Milk, who became the first openly gay elected official in 1978, on gay and human rights can’t be understated. In life and death, after he was assassinated the same year he was elected, he is a beacon of hope. A beacon that The Times of Harvey Milk managed to bottle up in cinematic form.

The documentary, which tells the story of Milk’s life, and the trial of his killer, achieved notable success on its own accord – winning the Special Jury Prize at the first Sundance Film Festival, and winning Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars (where the director thanked his partner). But it’s scope extends beyond that. It was among one of the first films to address gay life in America, while at the same time presenting Milk’s message to a wider audience, as well as contemporary and future generations of the LGBTQ+ community. The importance of Harvey Milk has never faded, and so, neither can the impact of The Times of Harvey Milk.

What do you think of our list? Which films representing the LGBTQ+ community do you feel had a profound impact, either on cinema itself, or the community as a whole. Share in the comments, or let us know on Twitter and Facebook.

 

Thank you to Alexander Huls for contributing this article.

Alexander Huls is a freelance writer based in Toronto. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Esquire, and other fine publications.

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