Movies that celebrate LGBTQ+ stories

Our writers celebrate LGBTQ+ films and their protagonists.

multiple writers
17th June 2020
In celebration of Pride Month, our writers tell us about their favourite movies which celebrate LGBTQ+ stories and their protagonists.

Carol (2015)

Some movies thrive in deafening silence, carefully choosing words like snowflakes. Carol, similarly, represents the subtle and subversive world of women, where desire is defined in gaze and exchanged with unspoken words. In purely receptive terms, its cinematic effect is never immediate or loud rather, the film begins to unpack and affectionately permeate itself into the conscience of its viewers after the viewing is over. 

The film directed by Todd Haynes was released in 2015 and has assumed a cult-like position amidst the masses. The sensation of the film lies in the performative brilliance of Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett portraying the robust and substantial characters of Carol and Therese. The ordinary encounter of Carol, an upper-class social elite and Therese, a working-class young salesgirl brings about a radical change in the way they understand their worlds. The love of these women exists in the 1950s inhibiting patriarchal society with fixated class and gender-roles, therefore, the language of the film mostly assumes a vocally muted and musical language. In their relationship, the amateur innocence of a young Therese fits just perfectly with the dominative persona of an older Carol, which even through complexities assumes a healthy, nurturing and maternal nature. 

The film follows the ‘saying-without-saying-it’ formula wherein, its quiet and confined emotional expressions often accompany and sometimes replace the words in its world, which is anyway illusory, metaphorical and ironical. Much of the film occupies immaculate interior spaces, with a sense of comfort and intimacy like the cars and the hotel rooms, reflecting the nature of relationship shared between Carol and Therese. The relationships Carol and Therese share with the men in their respective lives is about possessiveness and attainment. Contrastingly, the relationship shared between them is flows seamlessly, without any obstruction. Their love empowers them to go on a path of a progressive self-discovery and allows them the freedom of choice without any demands. This evolutionary journey of self and love co-exist throughout the film, extending beyond the screen and cementing itself into the lives of its viewers. The muted position of queer couples has only recently started changing, making the subtle brilliance of Carol, a muted 1950s queer love story relatable even today. 

Arnojya Shree

The Watermelon Woman (1996)

The Watermelon Woman was the first feature film directed by an out Black lesbian, and it knowingly acknowledges its role as a crucially important historical document, while retaining a smiling charm, sweet romance, and some banging 90’s outfits.

In a semi-autobiographical/part documentary-style tone, it follows Cheryl Dunye (as herself) as she tries to make a film about a forgotten Black actress of the 1930’s, exploring archives and the patriarchal, racist, homophobic suppression of history, while navigating her personal life, working in a film-rental store and exploring a new romance.

The characters are so true and full of life it is hard to tell whether what the camera has captured is scripted acting, or just people being their lovable and authentic selves. From an endearingly awkward first date to a white woman somehow managing to make everything, including a discussion on Black film stars, about her and her Italian grandmother, Cheryl Dunye maintains a knowing comedy and entirely individual tone throughout.

I’m going to be an absolute cliché and quote Sappho, saying “someone in some future time will think of us”, because The Watermelon Woman perfectly and meaningfully captures that feeling of knowing that people like you have a history, and have lived and loved in the past, as you are trying to in the present.

As part of its anti-racist pledge, the Criterion Channel has made The Watermelon Woman, along with other amazing films from Black filmmakers such as Daughters of the Dust (1991), available completely free (no subscription, no credit card, no accidentally downloading a virus) on its website. For a funny and gorgeously endearing story of Black queer history, I cannot recommend The Watermelon Woman enough.

Leonie Bellini

Tangerine (2015)

A pet peeve of mine in LGBTQ+ media is that it can be over-focused on the sexuality of the characters that it ends up reducing their identity. Being gay isn’t the same as being a sex maniac and portraying that just enforces a hurtful stereotype around the community. That’s why my pick for pride month is Tangerine (2015), a film about two Black transgender prostitutes in Los Angeles.

Okay, here me out. Despite the premise, the film barely contains any sexual acts. Instead, it follows Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) on Christmas Eve, having just been released from prison, searching the woman that slept with her boyfriend/pimp while she was incarcerated. All the while, her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) is preparing for her singing gig in the midst of the drama.

Tangerine takes a deep dive into the lives of these women, exploring their friendship and betrayals, while also having a wicked sense of humour about it. It’s not always easy-watching, and I’m certain that the reality of these women is much harsher than the film portrays. But at the same time, it opens doors for trans storytelling in an industry that will do its best to ignore it.

Both Rodriguez and Taylor are both transgender actresses, with Taylor also coming from a background of prostitution. Though neither had much experience prior, the performances they deliver are authentic and endearing, driving the simple narrative forward with unstoppable momentum.

Pride month is led by the efforts of those involved in the Stonewall Uprising in 1969, but Black drag-queen Marsha P. Johnson was one of the most outspoken activists and rarely receives the credit she’s due. Her legacy makes Tangerine feels particularly poignant in the lasting legacy of the LGBTQ community and how far there is still left to go to achieve equality.

Peter Lennon

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

This is a movie that doesn’t get a lot of recognition. One of my favourites of all time, My Own Private Idaho is an avant-garde independent film directed by Gus Van Sant (same director behind Good Will Hunting). It follows Mike Waters (River Phoenix), a narcoleptic hustler searching for meaning.

With his best friend Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves) by his side, they embark on a journey of self discovery. It is very loosely based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV. Since its release in 1991, it has been considered a landmark in Queer cinema. It embodies a time in cinema where queer stories were radical in every sense. Even now, Hollywood films that include realistic queer characters are definitely more common but there is still a long way to go. 

Originally, Mike was not supposed to have feelings for Scott. This was something that River Phoenix inserted into the character himself. The famously tender and touching scene is the one between Mike and Scott. They sit in front of a campfire and talk. In Van Sant’s original screenplay, it was a three page scene with no outright love declaration from Mike. However, with Van Sant and Reeves’ blessings, River Phoenix pretty much rewrote the entire scene. According to Van Sant, Phoenix wanted to push it further and have it be Mike’s pivotal moment. Mike confesses his love for Scott. And while this love goes unrequited, it is in my opinion, one of the most beautiful moments in cinema. The dialogue is vulnerable and real. Phoenix’s acting here shows how talented he really was. 

My Own Private Idaho was a stepping stone for Queer cinema. It wasn’t happy or unhappy. It was real and fragile and touching. We don’t receive closure or a neatly wrapped ending. It rings true to the real struggles of Queer individuals, particularly to those who are lower class. Mike is only just starting to figure out who he is outside of his sex work. He lacks direction and clarity, but the ending infers that he is on his way to finding just that. At the end, Mike stands back on the Idaho highway and says “this road will never end. It probably goes all around the world.” He falls into another narcoleptic stupor, and lays passed out on the Idaho highway, mirroring the start of the movie. It is a beautifully bittersweet ending. When a car pulls up and takes Mike, we are left wondering who it was. My interpretation was that it was his father, but viewers can make up their own minds. Mike’s search for love and security will continue. Like the roads, the possibilities are endless. 

Amy Brown

Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013)

This independent French film revolves around the relationship between two girls, Adele and Emma. As Adele meets Emma, she Adele starts to question her sexuality as she starts experimentally dating. This film had been adapted from a comic with the same title by Julie Maroh.

Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, he is able to capture the complexity of love, sexuality, and life into his film. The film constantly focuses on tiny features, especially facial features of the two protagonists, which allows the emotions of the characters to be clearly seen and interpreted by the audience. These features further highlight the amount of time, detail and effort Kechiche had put into this film.

While Julie Maroh had criticised this film's portrayal of the lesbian sex scene as being "uninformed, unconvincing and pornographic", as well as the film being directed in the perception of a heterosexual male director, to me, the film can be seen more as a love story rather than a 'lesbian' love story.

This film is honestly worth watching if you haven't already. The final scene in this film will honestly break your heart, if it wasn't already broken. The ending highlights the reality of life - that it has to continue.

Amanda Goh

Imagine Me & You (2005)

It's so rare that we get to see lesbian love stories played out on screen, and even rarer to see lesbian love stories where both of them live and end up together played out on screen. Imagine Me & You is one of those films. One, I have, without shame, can say I have seen a number of times. But each time I am watching it, it feels like I am watching it for the first time. There is a beauty in this film (outside of Lena Headley of course) that is cared and nurtured in a simple and comforting way.

Imagine Me & You follows Luce and Rachel who are drawn together at Rachel's wedding. After becoming close friends, Rachel realises that Luce is a lesbian and despite her happy marriage to Heck (who by the way is an ANGEL and I love him so much) she thinks maybe she is falling for Luce. Imagine Me & You narrativises two women who are questioning their sexuality, and deciding whether or not to embrace love as she finds it.

What's so brilliant about this film is that Rachel gets the girl, she gets love, she gets support, she gets the romance. Her story doesn't end up in a tragedy, she gets her happy ending and if that doesn't give hope to the LGBTQ+ community during Pride Month, watch the film again because you must have missed something.

This film is also full of cute little moments between Rachel and Luce, everything you want from a rom-com; the ALMOST kiss scenes oh my gosh, the arcade scene, the football game, the you're such a wanker number 9!!!!! Primarily, this is down to Lena Headey and Piper Perabo who are absolutely perfect for their characters. There is so much in love between them, so much chemistry that you can't help but fall in love alongside them.

And while this movie may be classified as a crappy, cheesy, run-of-the-mill romantic comedy, it's a lesbian classic that is so great it makes you want to fall in love and spend the rest of your life with your significant other.

I also cry so much during the last 10 minutes, I love this movie so much.

Lucy Lillystone

Le fate ignoranti (2001)

The film follows Antonia (Margherita Buy), an upper-middle class woman who was recently left widowed. While mourning her husband’s death, she discovers her husband's life with another man. In tracing the origins of this relationship, she discovers the community he was a part of.

While this might seem like a simple premise, the execution of it is commendable: the characters are complex and deeply human. The film does not rely on stereotypical portrayals, nor is it bound by traditional definitions of love. From the fluidity of sexuality to the condemnation of the sheltered life Antonia lived, this film is unlike any other I have seen.

But there is one aspect I think distinguishes it from the rest. Unlike many other films about LGBTQ+ stories, the movie largely takes place within the community itself. This was largely unseen in Italian cinema which, much like American cinema, which largely relies on stereotypes and retelling of the same story.

Director Ferzan Ozpetek succeeds in creating a world that rejects ‘black and white’ realities, and instead focuses on realistic relationships. In particular, the world Antonia learns about is neither otherworldly nor foreign. While some superficial differences can be observed, the bonds between people are just as complicated as those of any other community, which is why Antonia can find solace in the people who so deeply cared about her husband.

I am conscious this film is not widely known amongst the English-speaking audience. But if you can surpass the atrociously translated title and the ‘one inch barrier’, you will find a film that is honest, sensible and complex.

Elisabetta Pulcini

All Images Credit: IMDB

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