With the recent crop of LGBT-based narratives signaling a new wave of queer cinema, including gay football short Wonderkid, here’s a look at some of the films that have changed the landscape of gay cinema. Some notable omissions: The Boys in the Band (1970), Another Country (1984), Maurice (1987) and Longtime Companion (1989).
My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)
From a screenplay by Hanif Kureishi, Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette concerns the inter-ethnic relationship between Omar (Gordon Warnecke), a young South London Pakistani man, and his childhood friend Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis), a white skinhead. Under Margaret Thatcher’s reign, Britain was a deeply divided nation. Omar’s rampant individualism tallies with Thatcherite doctrine in a way that the subversive power of homosexual attraction to traverse economic/class/racial lines does not. Frears dares to address racism, homophobia, and sociopolitical marginalization in an England that is not drastically different from today’s post-Brexit Britain.
Paris is Burning (1990)
Paris is Burning presents the lives of real people on the drag ball circuit, a safe haven for poor, black, Latin, queer ‘children’ in late 80s Harlem. With its mix of competitiveness, pageantry and raw talent, the drag ball was serious business for its contestants. Willi Ninja, the godfather of Voguing, made his first appearance here as the “mother” of the House of Ninja. Many of the contestants vying for trophies represent “Houses” which serve as surrogate families for those on the fringes of society with a desperate need to belong. ‘Reading’, ‘Shade and ‘Realness’ are all slang terms that have entered the mainstream(ish) vernacular, since popularized by RuPaul’s Drag Race, but they originated here. Tragically, most of the cast died young from AIDS-related illness and saw little of material benefit from their performances. Beautiful and sad.
“Andy brought AIDS into our offices,” says the former boss of the law firm that fires Tom Hanks’ character, Andrew Beckett, when they discover he is gay and has AIDS. By 1993 AIDS had killed more than 200,000 Americans. Philadelphia put a subject that America didn't want to acknowledge on the big screen with a major star. The Oscar-winning moment comes when Beckett translates opera lyrics for his reluctant attorney, Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), the only lawyer willing to help him fight his case. A deep bond develops between them. We watch Miller melt before our eyes as he starts to see Andy as a fellow human worthy of compassion and respect. In that moment, the national conversation about HIV-AIDS changed—although for many a decade too late.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)
By the mid 90s people had stopped dying of AIDS thanks to major advancements in antiretroviral treatments, but 1993-95 were the worst years of all. The exuberant Priscilla, a film about two drag queens and a transgender woman from Sydney on a road trip through the unforgiving and unaccepting Australian outback, pivoted towards a joyful new dawn after a decade of death and shame. It was a time to reclaim the camp extravagance of the liberated 70s that the AIDS epidemic so brutally stole from the LGBT community. Priscilla functions as a glittering time capsule that enshrines the ebullient spirit of a community that had weathered an awful storm and marks a moment in gay history when LGBT folk could once again allow themselves to look to the future with hope.
Beautiful Thing (1996)
With a screenplay written by Jonathan Harvey based on his own original play first performed in 1993, this British film gives a rare glimpse of gay love crosshatched with working class realism—a quality often missing from portrayals of LGBT life. This tender coming-of-age tale of two teenagers—Jamie and Ste—set during a hot summer on a South-East London housing estate, is the crown jewel in the pantheon of rite-of-passage LGBT movie-viewing experiences. It speaks to a pre-internet age when reaching for your first gay magazine off the top shelf or going to your first gay pub were simply what you had to do in order to find your support system. It showed that gay people were just like everyone else, only without the same opportunities to safely express themselves.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Brokeback Mountain broke ground as a major motion picture portraying a love story about two men: a pair of young cowboys, Ennis and Jack, in the 1960s.
They fall in love during a summer spent tending sheep in the isolation of a fictional mountain in Wyoming. They spend the rest of the film—and their lives—grappling with a love that they have to keep secret. Brokeback Mountain came at just the moment when attitudes were shifting, and mainstream audiences were ready to see two men coupling—particularly when those two men were Ledger and Gyllenhaal. Stories like Brokeback Mountain retain their potency because shame, fear, and prejudice have not vanished.
A Single Man (2009)
Based on the 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood, this was the first foray into film by Tom Ford, one of the most famous names in fashion and luxury branding. George Falconer, played by Colin Firth, is a discrete Englishman whose partner, Jim (Matthew Goode), has just died in a car accident. Set in Los Angeles in 1962, he dresses impeccably and lives in a modernist house whose glass walls promise an openness that George can’t personally show. Julianne Moore plays George's alcoholic best friend Charley, a fellow English expat and divorcee who lives across the street. Through flashback, we get to see what a domestic life shared by two men with dogs could look like, albeit a rather fabulous one. To observe a man’s heart break for another man is a thing of rare beauty. Thank you Mr. Ford.
While London often hogs the limelight in British movies about gay people (see above), Andrew Haigh’s down-to-earth feature takes place in an unremarkable provincial town. This sets the tone for a frank, accurate portrayal of two young men who meet on a drunken night out. Weekend shines a light on the paradoxes of gay identity in an era when basic battles for legal recognition have been won, but more insidious forms of homophobia are still very much alive. The heckling that comes from off-camera in the finale, for example, serves as a reminder that public displays of affection can still be hazardous for gay people. A film fully of its time, their drug-fuelled debate over gay marriage is sharply observed. Softly spoken Russell, who works as a lifeguard at the local leisure center, thinks marriage is to be celebrated, while Glen, a fired-up art student on his way to America, argues it’s a conformist capitulation to heteronormativity. John Grant’s melancholy music makes the perfect accompaniment to a profound piece of modern storytelling that leaves deep, seismic emotional aftershocks.
Stranger by the Lake (2013)
Mainstream movies often pussyfoot around homo rumpy-pumpy by presenting a castrated version of gay masculinity that panders to a straight audience. Not so with this French film, which takes place at a cruising ground and nudist beach by a lake, and makes no apology for its graphic depiction of what goes down in the bushes. Franck falls for Michel, who looks like an 80’s porn star, and it is exhilarating to see so much gay male flesh on display in such a blissful natural setting. But all is not well in this little patch of Eden: there is a serpent in the grass. When the cops get involved the detective is baffled by the indifferent nature of a clandestine culture that relies on anonymity asking “One of your own was murdered, and you don't care? You guys have a strange way of loving each other sometimes”. Tense, intelligent thrillers don't get darker than this.
Barry Jenkins’ honest and uncompromising drama about a gay black kid in an underprivileged, drug-ridden neighbourhood of Miami, is a story that never gets told. By critiquing a culture that inherently devalues the stories, if not existences, of “non-normative” people, Moonlight takes the unsung narrative to a new level. Based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” the film follows the stop-start relationship between the main character, Chiron, and his classmate Kevin with powerful restraint. Arrestingly beautiful, Moonlight breaks the mould by illuminating forbidden love in a culture where homophobia is a depressingly harsh fact of life.
About the author
Culture journalist Richard Bence was lifestyle editor of Attitude, Europe’s biggest selling gay magazine, for 10 years and the former editor at large for BritWeek magazine. A guest critic and talking head on various pop culture, TV and radio shows for BBC, Channel 4, Channel 5 and VH1, Richard is currently West Coast correspondent for radio station Monocle 24's Arts Review. richard-bence.com