LGBTQ+ cinema throughout history

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As LGBT History Month draws to a close we turn our attention to the impact of queer cinema, as Bethany Smith lists 10 of the best and most important queer movies.

It’s taken a little too long for overtly LGBTQ stories to come out of the celluloid closet. It wasn’t until after the Stonewall Riots in the U.S. and the decriminalization of homosexual acts in England that they began to take shape in Western cinema.

But LGBTQ people have always existed, and our fabulous little whispers can be heard in the subtexts of many classic films. Even now, stories that cover the true diversity of the queer experience continue to be hushed by the expectations of mainstream cinema. There are so many wonderful and important stories that have been told, however, and here are 10 of them.

1. Morocco (1930)

No films with obviously gay characters were around until at least the 1960s, but this film, featuring the legend that is Marlene Dietrich - famously a carefree bisexual - displays a level of camp sexual frivolity that was daring for its time.

Dietrich, in her iconic top hat and tails, saunters through the nightclub, coolly flirting with and kissing women in the audience in one iconic scene that has all genders hot under the collar.

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Marlene Dietrich. flickr / scogan2010

2. Victim (1961)

In its acutely sensitive depiction of a lawyer coming to terms with his own homosexuality both in the private and public world, this film is way ahead of its time. It offered a persuasive case against Britain’s anti-sodomy laws, and contributed to the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 which de-criminalized homosexual acts.

It stars the heartthrob Dirk Bogarde, who, though remaining officially in the closet for his entire career, took a brave and risky step towards visibility by appearing in this controversial film. The most touching dynamic is that between the protagonist and his wife, who together find the courage to accept and understand his homosexuality.

3. Paris is Burning (1990)

Arguably one of the greatest documentaries of all time, this iconic film depicts the glitz and drama of Harlem’s drag scene in the 1980s. Issues of class, race, gender, and sexuality find face in the glam aesthetics of the New York ball, where those on the fringe of American society find confidence, companionship, and a will to survive in a world in which they are outrageously themselves.

4. Beau Travail (1999)

One of my personal favourites, a film in which unspoken homosexual desires are thrown into disarray by oppressive masculinity and ego. Directed by the phenomenal Claire Denis, the all-male environment of the French Foreign Legion is unclothed by the female eye; the body of the Legionnaires, like a single lean and powerful organism moving through the African sand, is at once erotic and vulnerable. The French really know how to do gay cinema.

5. Boys Don’t Cry (1999)

Hilary Swank plays the trans teen Brandon Teena in this true story about a hate crime in a small Nebraska town. Woven through with a convincing love story with none other than the cult queen herself, Chloe Sevigny, this film is a painfully raw and difficult piece of cinema.

Receiving immense critical acclaim for a low budget film with such unusual subject matter, Boys Don’t Cry was a landmark in the depiction of the complexity of the American trans experience. Though what would make this movie perfect, of course, is if the lead actress knew anything about really being trans – but hey, we’ll get there eventually.

6. Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Ang Lee’s sexy cowboy romance is a classic and a must-see for any lover of queer cinema (and anyone who loves a good cowboy rolling around in the dirt). The gruff and reserved Ennis (Heath Ledger) falls for the cheerful Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhall) in this epic tale of impossible love. This was one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to unapologetically depict the full extent of a male homosexual relationship.

via GIPHY

7. Pariah (2011)

The beautiful cinematography and the stunning central performance make a real work of art out of the story of Alike (Adepero Oduye), a black Brooklyn teen who must decipher her sexual identity whilst navigating a complex family dynamic. A noteworthy film since its depiction of the black butch lesbian experience is one that we rarely see, even in the indie film festival circuit, Pariah deals with its subject with perfect delicacy and honesty.

8. Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013)

The French doing gay their way, again, this movie is a naked and sensual depiction of the relationship between two women. Its release was shrouded in controversy about a gratuitously long sex scene and the problem of the male-gaze perspective of a woman’s story.

And all that wasn’t uncalled for, but that isn’t all this movie is; it feels like queer cinema brought into the modern. It’s not about lesbians, really, but about the complexity of modern relationships and the all-consuming power of love.

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Blue Is The Warmest Colour. flickr / canburak

9. Tangerine (2015)

Shot entirely on the iPhone 5s, Tangerine is a triumph of filmmaking. We follow a pair of transgender sex-workers who trot through Hollywood looking for the pimp who’s done them wrong. At times hilarious, and always engaging, this colourful film brings something wholly new and unique to the queer cinema dialectic.

10. Moonlight (2016)

This emotional odyssey through black homosexuality in working class America was the first LGBT film, and the first film with a primarily black cast, to win Best Picture at the Oscars. Male-male desire is visually poised like poetry in this stunning film.

Other films worth mentioning:

  • A Woman (1915)
  • Tongues Untied (1989)
  • Orlando (1992)
  • My Beautiful Launderette (1985)
  • Happy Together (1997)
  • God’s Own Country (2017)
  • The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)
  • Call Me By Your Name (2017)

Featured image picture credit: YouTube / A24


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