June is always LGBTQ Pride Month, and traditionally it’s been both a time for reflection on gay history and struggles (originally created to commemorate the Stonewall riots of June 1969), along with a colorful, pride-ful celebration of many important achievements and milestones. Since Independent Lens is naturally a film-centric space, we decided to honor the occasion by reaching out to a few filmmakers who’ve made documentaries for Independent Lens, asking them to contribute their own picks for the gay-themed films (fictional or documentaries) that affected them most profoundly. A few films deservedly get mentioned twice, but it’s an appropriately diverse list. [updated 2020 and 2016; originally posted 2014]
[2020 new additions:]
Tom Shepard, co-director of Unsettled (PBS’s DocWorld):
“During my senior year of college, mired in premed classes way over my head, I enrolled in a continuing education seminar on documentary film. The first night of class, the instructors popped a VHS tape of The Times of Harvey Milk by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman into the player. The next 90 minutes were transfixing. I felt myself float above the class and into the screen. I’d never quite experienced an endeavor in which craft, social history and political change could intersect so powerfully in one sitting.
“We went on to watch most of Marlon Riggs’ body of work; Tongues Untied and Black Is Black Aint were my favorites. That class—and those films—were a game-changer: it’s not an accident that, not long after, I tore up the med school applications and began looking for video production and journalism classes. Kudos to those instructors—Philippe Roques and Ken Jacobson—for opening new doors for me. Film is powerful and can change lives. It certainly has changed mine.”
Daresha Kyi, director of Mama Bears and Chavela:
“The first time I watched Tim Curry strut about in a bustier, ripped pantyhose and high heels as he seduced Brad and Janet with equal lust and zero shame in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, I was turned on and turnt out! Who was this wild, sexy beast who so perfectly mirrored my own eccentric ethos, this shameless hussy who sang, danced and seduced us all with absolute aplomb? As a 15-year-old in Dayton, Ohio who usually felt like a fish out of water, ‘Frankie’ was exactly what I wanted to be, free to love whomever I pleased. Walking out of the theater at 2am after a midnight screening, I knew I had found not only my first queer icon, but I had found my people! Dressed in our silly, outrageous costumes, my friends and I would get high as kites and join all the other merry misfits to sing at the top of our lungs, spray each other with water, throw toast at the screen, and do the time warp again and again (and again.) This cult classic awakened my undying love of androgyny (hello, Prince!) and taught me how much fun it could be to let my freak flag fly high. I was never the same.
“My next queer movie crush was Desert Hearts, the first mainstream lesbian love story I saw where the lovers weren’t punished for being gay and the actors had genuine chemistry—which made the sex scene both warm and tender and hot! It wasn’t a big, splashy movie like Rocky Horror but the way it normalized lesbian love felt revolutionary at the time. I’ve fallen for many more innovative lesbian films since, but as the Lesbian Film Guide states, ‘It is no exaggeration to say that in 1985 Desert Hearts was the film many lesbians had waited for all their lives. For the first time in cinema history here was a movie which was an unashamedly romantic lesbian love story, aimed primarily at a lesbian audience.'”
“After nursing a lifelong infatuation with Langston Hughes’ poetry and persona, Looking For Langston was another film I didn’t realize I needed until I fell under its hypnotic spell. The cinematography, costumes, set design, and stunningly beautiful men, combined with Langston, James Baldwin, and Essex Hemphill’s words and Isaac Julien’s unique aesthetic sensibilities was EVERYTHING. Seeing black male love so lushly and lavishly celebrated was such food to my soul that the images of two elegant, tuxedo dressed black men dancing together and that fine mutha with the wings, I mean ‘the Angel,’ hold a permanent place in my psyche as ‘epitomes of beauty.'”
“Speaking of beauty, I have to give a nod to the wonderful Wachowskis debut film Bound, the first mainstream movie to have a lesbian relationship at its heart without homosexuality being central to the plot. As a sign of things to come from these talented transgender sisters, it was clear evidence of how far out of the box their clever minds dwell. This smart, stylish and subversive neo-noir flipped the script and played upon audiences’ assumptions about women, men and gender with sass and panache. In the best role of her career, Jennifer Tilly, whose voice became high-pitched and “girly” whenever she spoke to men, and deeper and more natural when she spoke to Gina Gershon’s Corky, perfectly embodied a woman whose innate intelligence has been underestimated her whole life. Although at times the film was excessively violent, I can’t tell you how excited I was to see two women ride off into the sunset after literally getting away with murder.”
Patrick Sammon, director of Codebreaker, co-director of upcoming Cured:
“Pride Month this year is happening at a difficult but transformative moment in our history. Hundreds of thousands of protesters are courageously marching in the streets, demanding racial justice and systemic change. Of course, the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights is a very different fight with very different roots, but stories from our community’s ongoing movement for equality offer timely lessons about how social change is created.
“I want to highlight three of my favorite documentaries about LGBTQ people working to build a more just and equitable society. I’m a bit biased on the first because it was co-directed by my Cured co-director and friend Bennett Singer. Bennett and his co-director, Nancy Kates, chronicle the life of civil rights pioneer Bayard Rustin in Brother Outsider. Rustin, a visionary activist and strategist has been described as “the unknown hero” of the civil rights movement. He was a disciple of Gandhi and a mentor to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Also, he worked as the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. In addition, Rustin courageously lived as an openly gay man during a period of virulent homophobia. His life and legacy — as relevant now as ever before — provide inspiration for challenging bigotry and standing up for justice.
“The Freedom to Marry, directed by Eddie Rosenstein, documents the decades-long struggle to legalize marriage equality in the United States. This film’s protagonist is Evan Wolfson, whose singular vision and stubborn persistence paved the way for the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic 2015 ruling that gave LGBTQ Americans the freedom to marry. This victory didn’t happen by accident. It wasn’t inevitable. As the film explores, this victory resulted from decades of work by literally millions of people across the country to change the hearts and minds of Americans — and with it the laws of the land.
“How to Survive a Plague [photo above] examines the early years of the AIDS epidemic. Death and fear and anger motivated a group of activists to fight back against a government that was largely ignoring the epidemic as it ravaged the gay community. David France’s documentary highlights the efforts of two activist organizations — ACT-UP and TAG — as they forced action by the federal government. Combining civil disobedience from the outside with strategic pressure from the inside, members of these two groups were instrumental in speeding up the development of the life-saving drugs that turned HIV from a terminal illness into a chronic disease.
“These three films offer inspiration and insight about how to build coalitions, exert public pressure, reshape public opinion, attract support from powerbrokers and ultimately bring about lasting change.”
“I saw Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet at a matinee show in a multiplex in San Jose, California when it was first released. I had immigrated to the US from Taiwan several years before as a high schooler, aware of my sexuality but struggling deep in the closet. Now in college, I had just come out to myself and my friends, but not yet to my parents. I was blown away by the film. The Wedding Banquet is a comedy, but I sobbed through most of the movie. It was indescribably cathartic to have my life experiences validated by images on screen for the very first time. I finally understood what it was like to really be seen.”
Macky Alston, who directed Love Free or Die (Independent Lens, 2012), winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, writes:
French trailer for Fassbinder’s Querelle
“The first queer film to rock my world I never saw. It was [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder’s Querelle. I loved the poster and all the film stills I could find from it so much, I think that, by the time I could get my hands on it, I didn’t want to be disappointed. I wanted the film I fantasized it to be to hold my imagination, rather than [be] something that fell short. The first queer film I actually saw, or at least first film with gay love in it, I watched in a hotel room after midnight with my first love sleeping by my side. We were young and dreaming of freedom. As my love slept, I watched Making Love [1982, directed by Arthur Hiller; starring Harry Hamlin, Michael Ontkean, and Kate Jackson], and for the first time on the television that had once given me The Brady Bunch I saw a path I could follow.”
Filmmaker Roger Ross Williams, whose powerful documentary God Loves Uganda aired on Independent Lens, wanted to point out several films that had an impact on him:
- “Parting Glances had a huge influence on me because it was the first time I saw the reality of the HIV/AIDS crisis and gay life in NY on the big screen.”
- My Beautiful Laundrette: “This film about race and sexuality made me realize that a well-made film could be political, entertaining, and sexy all at the same time.”
- The Crying Game: “I was blown away by the dialogue this film sparked around gender, both good and bad.”
- Outrage: “This provocative documentary [by Invisible War director Kirby Dick] about the destructive hypocrisies of closeted gay politicians who lobby for anti-gay legislation was the spark that got me thinking about my film God Loves Uganda.”
Yoruba Richen‘s film The New Black [Independent Lens] explores the issue of gay marriage from within the African American community, and she’s also producing the documentary The Fire This Time about young African American lesbians who were threatened and attacked in the West Village of New York City. Richen told us a few films come to mind when thinking of gay-themed features and docs that stayed with her:
“Brother Outsider, the Bayard Rustin documentary, was really seminal to me.
“My friend Rodney Evans’s film Brother to Brother, set during the Harlem Renaissance.
“Marlon Riggs’s documentary Tongues Untied: “What was powerful about it when I first saw it (I saw it again more recently) was the intersection of race and sexuality, how he explored the lived experiences of race and sexuality in that film were things I hadn’t been seen in any film before.
“Watermelon Woman, Cheryl Dunye’s film, which I remember seeing in the theater in the ‘90s, was really important to me in terms of both storytelling and in terms of seeing a lesbian character at the forefront at the story, interpreting our history.”
Johnny Symons is a Bay Area documentary filmmaker whose films include Daddy & Papa (official site), the Independent Lens film Ask Not (official site), and Out Run (WORLD Channel’s DocWorld). Symons writes:
“When I think about LGBT films that most influenced me, I think back to myself at age 23. I had recently arrived in San Francisco, was immersed in gay and HIV activism, and dreamed of one day being a documentary filmmaker. I remember two stunning film screenings—both at small, packed movie houses in the Mission District—that particularly inspired me. The first was the world premiere of Tongues Untied, an experimental, politically charged, and intensely personal film about the black gay male experience by renowned Bay Area filmmaker Marlon Riggs. A few months later, I saw the West Coast premiere of Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning, which documents New York’s underground ‘ball’ scene, where contestants compete for trophies, glory, and a chance to transcend their often marginalized lives. The response to both films was staggering—thundering applause that helped launch them on to widespread acclaim both inside and outside of the LGBT community.
“Together, these films illustrate how two directors can tackle similar subject matter—race, culture, community, violence, HIV, and the use of performance as a means of liberation and transformation—using dramatically different approaches. Tongues Untied is alternately forceful and humorous, angry, and poignant, unpredictable and carefully crafted—a call to action made specifically by and for the black gay male community. In contrast, Paris Is Burning is an ethnographic exploration of ball culture made by a white lesbian, marked by intimate interviews and compelling observational footage on and off stage. To me, the films were a testament to the fact that both insiders and outsiders can tell moving and powerful stories through documentary.
“Nearly 25 years have gone by since then. Marlon Riggs died in 1994, his life and brilliant career tragically cut short by AIDS. Jennie Livingston hasn’t made another feature documentary [editor’s note: she’s actually working on a new one now]. But these two films continue to be legendary, capturing a critical moment in LGBT history and continuing to inspire filmmakers, performers, and activists.”
For David Weissman, who himself made two seminal films about gay history, We Were Here (Independent Lens, 2012) and 2002’s acclaimed The Cockettes (co-directed with Bill Weber), it’s not as much a film that comes to mind as a film festival:
“I remember going to the very first Gay Film Festival in San Francisco in early 1977. There were about 50 of us, maybe 100, watching a few short films projected on a Super 8 film projector, with sound from a portable cassette tape recorder that never quite remained in sync with the films. 37 years later, it’s mind-boggling how the world has changed, with this year’s Frameline San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival screening hundreds of films from around the world with an extraordinary range of styles and subject matter.
“I participate in the LGBT film world not only as a filmmaker but also as co-programmer (with Russ Gage) of QDoc in Portland, Oregon, which is the only film festival in the world devoted exclusively to LGBT documentaries. So while I think it’s important to think about what we watch, I also want to encourage our community to think about how we watch. It’s remarkable to have access to so many quality LGBT films, both documentary and narrative, on PBS, HBO, and elsewhere, and streaming. But there is nothing like the experience of watching those films on a big screen, with a room full of other LGBT folk sharing our laughter, tears, and inspiration as we watch our history, culture, politics, and all our diverse stories as told by so many extraordinary filmmakers.
“If you’re fortunate enough to live somewhere with an LGBT Film Festival, support it, and enjoy!”
Here’s a trailer David put together for the 1995 Frameline festival: