“There have never been lesbians or gay men in Hollywood. Only homosexuals.” With this final despairing statement, gay film historian and activist Vito Russo ends The Celluloid Closet, his landmark study of representations of LGBTQ people in film.
When Russo first published The Celluloid Closet in 1981, he could not imagine that over a decade later LGBTQ directors would make movies that depicted the complex and varied experiences of LGBTQ people with respect and pride, and that Hollywood would begin to finance and distribute these films. Nor could he foresee that 35 years later, Barry Jenkins, a Black gay director, would win the Best Picture Academy Award for Moonlight, a sensitive, nuanced, and beautifully filmed story of a young gay Black man’s coming of age.
Sadly, Russo died of AIDS-related complications in 1990 and did not live long enough to see the blossoming queer cinema that began to emerge shortly thereafter. In 2013, GLAAD created the Vito Russo Test in his honor. Mainstream Hollywood filmmakers still have a way to go in terms of positive portrayals of LGBTQIA characters, but queer filmmakers around the world have been producing excellent films that pass the Vito Russo Test and then some for decades. Here are a few of my favorites:
Appropriate Behavior. A funny and surprisingly affecting film about Shirin, a twenty-something bisexual Persian American woman who is neither fully understood by her family, who’s unaware of her orientation, nor her ex-girlfriend, who doesn’t get why she won’t just fully come out.
By Hook or By Crook. An endearing and utterly unique buddy film featuring two gender outlaws, Silas Howard and Harry Dodge, By Hook or By Crook is a landmark in trans and genderqueer cinema and one of the few films depicting trans and genderqueer characters that was written, produced and filmed by trans and genderqueer individuals.
Tongues Untied. Combining documentary, rap music, dance, street poetry and more, director Marlon Riggs presents a deeply felt, personal look at the lived reality of Black gay men in the United States. This groundbreaking film remains just as fresh and relevant nearly 30 years after its initial release.
Carol. Based on a lesser-known novel by Patricia Highsmith (who was lesbian and drew from her own life story to write it), Carol is a gorgeously shot, moving and refreshingly non-tragic story of a passionate love affair between Carol, a wealthy older married woman and Therese, a young sales clerk and set designer set in 1950s New York City.
Want more? Here’s a list of 25 other films to watch this month and throughout the year. Representation matters. Happy Pride!
– posted by Abby B.