In the ongoing struggle for equality, LGBT rights have inspired some amazing fictional and documentary films over the years. Here are the top benchmark LGBT films that got people talking around the world.
Brokeback MountainThe year 2005 was just right to make this movie. Massachusetts, in 2004, became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, the U.S. military was looking pretty weak without full inclusion, and Hollywood was untested when it came to workaday depictions of masculinity. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal played Ennis and Jack, Wyoming cowboys, who shocked each other — and audiences — by having sex in a pup tent in the mountains. Debates on decency roiled across the news shows, critics rang in with support, people stampeded to local cinemas to see an old-fashioned love story of kisses, betrayal, and Old West archetypes reconstructed with two men at the center, deeply in love. It’s also just a fantastic film full of sadness and longing set against the gorgeous backdrop of the Rockies.
Sunday, Bloody SundayIn 1971, British thespians Peter Finch, Glenda Jackson (both nominated for Oscars), and Murray Head created a love triangle onscreen in John Schlesinger’s tiny but impactful gem of a movie. Penelope Gilliatt’s screenplay centered on an aging Jewish doctor’s heartbreak over his selfish male lover’s exploits with another. The newspapers were abuzz with the film’s casual depiction of gay love and bisexuality, heralding this kind of nonchalance as a new form of acceptance. The beauty of this small and sad film is that the non-issue of same-sex relationships allows for the story and the characters to flourish, leading to the sorrowful Sunday in question.
WeekendTo illustrate how accepted gay love has become, “Weekend” (2011) featured British stars Tom Cullen and Chris New in a dialogue-driven, tender and true indie flick about two men in a love affair over the course of a few dreary days in Nottingham. Russell is introverted, Glen is outrageous. The film explores childhood fears and our common desire to be held and appreciated.
PhiladelphiaTom Hanks won a Best Actor Oscar in 1993 in a film that moved and challenged audiences about a very scary issue pre-antiretroviral drugs – HIV/AIDS. It was also one of the first Hollywood films to directly address gay love and homophobia. Although smaller films like “Longtime Companion” (1990) and “And the Band Played On” (1993) attacked more head-on the socially paralyzing aspects of the AIDS epidemic, “Philadelphia” allowed a formulaic structure (courtroom drama, characters “coming around” from their homophobia). Audiences were galvanized and appropriately moved.
Midnight CowboyHistorical because it was the first film slapped with an X rating to win Best Picture, John Schlesinger’s 1969 movie dove into the smelly sewer grates and subway stations of New York City. A poverty-stricken hell was made palatable through the intense bond between Ratso Rizzo and Joe Buck (Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight). A thief and a male hooker, homeless during the winter, they seek refuge in the Warholesque flashy and carnal underground enclaves of the city. Is Joe Buck gay? There are some wincing moments such as the oral sex scene in the theater, and the infamous nude Scrabble game that point in that direction. Whether or not, “Cowboy” conveys that a bond of love with your best friend quells a few ills.
Paris is BurningThis documentary about the LGBT underground is as detailed and involving as any major feature film. Peering into New York City’s ball sub-culture of the 1980s, filmmaker Jennie Livingston highlights the diversity of the Big Apple’s drag scene. That includes black and Latino gays who are runaways, abandoned by their parents, or dropouts from above-ground society who face the camera and share their fears, dramas, and dreams. You’ll meet Angie Xtravaganza, Pepper LaBeija, and Willi Ninja, and you’ll get a front seat to a revolutionary era of racism, homophobia and the first AIDS casualties. Drag means donning whatever you like, and acting however you feel, especially if it’s bending the gender.
Boys Don’t CryHere is a challenging film about self expression in the face of extreme indifference. It’s the true story of Brandon Teena, a Nebraska girl who felt more comfortable as a boy and gave her life to fulfill this lifestyle. Hilary Swank plays the protagonist, winning a well-deserved Oscar in 1999. Teena’s love affair with Lana (Chloe Sevigny) is what motivates her to hang around a volatile, homophobic Midwestern group of people who take her under their wing, thinking she’s a he until they stumble upon the truth. Director Kimberly Pierce shows how create social and sexual masks to attempt to find and sustain love.
MilkThis film could have wallowed in Harvey Milk’s tragic assassination, but celebrates his life and triumphs instead. Sean Penn won an Oscar as Milk, the San Francisco politician who scored some major historical wins for LGBT rights in the 1970s. California’s first openly-gay person elected to office, Milk faced enormous odds, especially with city supervisor Dan White, whose fierce opposition and fear of Milk motivated him to kill Milk and then-mayor George Moscone in 1978. Penn delights in the spirit of Milk’s inspirational activism in this Gus Van Sant-directed film.
Blue is the Warmest Color (La Vie d’Adele)The Cannes jury in 2013 handed director Abdellatif Kechiche and his two stars, Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux, the Palme d’Or for their work. The small-budget, three-and-a-half-hour-long French film soon became a word-of-mouth sensation, with crowds flocking to see the long, single-take sex scenes between the two young women. What they got instead was an honest coming-of-age story about a young dreamy girl in an intense relationship with older painter. The hours fly by watching this film and the buzzed-about sex scenes are crucial in illustrating how loving the bond is between the characters.