On June 28, 1969, a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village changed modern history. The patrons—a downtown mix of gay men, drag queens, lesbians, and trans people—stood up and fought back against the police harassment, inciting a local riot that lasted for nearly five days. While the LGBTQ movement didn't start with Stonewall—various groups had been organizing for decades—the spirit and spontaneity of that small uprising instilled a sense of pride and purpose for future generations. As people around the world celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots this June, we want to acknowledge the importance of LGBTQ history by tracing out its story of liberation through film.
From the upcoming Downton Abbey—in which the butler, Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), finally finds someone special—to the recent Boy Erased, which spotlights a practice affecting contemporary LGBTQ people, these films together tell a remarkable and proud story. Not only do they illuminate a love too often obscured by Hollywood, but acknowledge the struggles and solidarity of people whose history is only now being fully written.
The Danish Girl | 1920s
Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl—adapted from David Ebershoff’s historical novel—dramatizes the life of real-life transgender pioneer Lili Elbe (played by Eddie Redmayne in an Academy Award®-nominated role). In the 1920s, landscape painter Einar Wegener, supported by his wife Gerda (played by Alicia Vikander in an Academy Award®-winning performance), transitions to become Lili, her authentic identity. In a time when trans identity was inconceivable, let alone accepted, Lili forged a future with no history to guide her. “Lili had no vocabulary, she had no context, she had no predecessors, she had no community,” notes Redmayne of his character’s unique predictament. Although Lili’s heroic struggle seems like a thing of the past, many are quick to point out how trans people still face a world as hostile as it was one hundred years ago. As The Wrap notes, “the physical violence and medical ignorance that Lili faces over the course of her evolution remain in place today."
Far From Heaven | 1950s
In Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven, Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, and Dennis Haysbert create a triangle of disenfranchised identities from the 1950s. Cathy Whitaker (Moore), a Connecticut housewife doing her best to keep a stylish home for her husband Frank (Quaid) and their two children, finds her life turned upside down when she walks in on her husband in the arms of another man. Overwhlemed and alone, Cathy finds solace in her budding friendship with Raymond (Haysbert), an African American landscape gardener. Imagining this story through the lush, melodramatic lens of fifties filmmaker Douglas Sirk, Haynes gives a new perspective to the very real prejudices facing people of that period. Each character in a different way was, as Variety notes, “an outsider in a world that tolerates minorities only while they remain innocuous and invisible on the margins.” Portraying a gay man in the fifties, Quaid focused on what it was like to live in the margin of the closet. “We all have our secrets and feel we're not living an authentic life,” he explains.
Taking Woodstock | 1960s
Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock revisits America’s quintessential counterculture moment, a milestone that took place less than two months after the Stonewall riots. Connecting these two pivotal historic events is Eliot Tiber (Demetri Martin), a closeted gay man helping run his parents’ dilapidated, upstate New York motel. Tiber's unassuming life changes dramatically when he is able to provide a new concert venue to Woodstock organizer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) after he loses his original permit. Witnessing a new generation on their way to Woodstock, Tiber finds the courage to embrace the blossoming of his own new identity. Explicitly connecting “Woodstock to the gay-liberation movement and the Stonewall riots,” the film, in The New York Times' review, provides “a gentle, meandering celebration of personal liberation at a moment when rigid social barriers were becoming more permeable.”
Milk | 1970s
Gus Van Sant’s Milk brings to the screen the emerging LGBTQ liberation movement of the seventies through the story of the gay politician Harvey Milk (played by Sean Penn in an Academy Award®-winning performance). After moving to San Francisco in 1972 with his lover Scott Smith (James Franco) to open a camera shop, Milk slowly finds his political footing by building consensus with other disenfranchised groups. Out and proud, Milk proclaims a new politics of authenticity. “Gay brothers and sisters...You must come out,” he famously told his supporters. While Milk met a tragic end when he was assassinated in 1978, his courage paved the way for future generations. “Milk is a fascinating, multi-layered history lesson, which as a film," notes The New York Times, “is a marvel.”
Dallas Buyers Club | 1990s
Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club brings a new angle to perhaps the most tragic event to hit the LGBTQ community in modern times—the AIDS crisis. As the film’s unexpected, real-life hero, Ron Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey in an Academy Award®-winning role) is an ornery, very straight Texas cowboy who contracts HIV. Determined to live at any cost, Woodroof smuggles into the country experimental AIDS drugs that help him as well as hundreds of others struggling with this new and devastating illness. Teaming up with a trans woman living with HIV named Rayon (Jared Leto in a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award®-winning performance), the two provide a crucial support network for the local LGBTQ community. In additional to chronicling Woodroof’s inspiring transformation, the film paints a poignant portrait of a period in which so many people, often ignored by the medical industry, joined together to save each others' lives. For Salon, “Dallas Buyers Club is a fierce celebration of the unpredictable power that belongs to the outcast [and] the despised.”
The Kids Are All Right | 2010s
Made five years before the 2015 Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage, Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right captures the comic trials and tribulations of real life for many LGBTQ people. Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are a happy couple living in Los Angeles with their two kids, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). Their family life is turned inside out, however, when the kids track down their sperm-donor dad (Mark Ruffalo). While offering a new model for family entertainment, the Academy Award®-nominated movie never loses its political edge. As Entertainment Weekly notes, it hard to “know what’s more delightful” – its brilliant comedy “or that this warm, funny, sexy, smart movie erases the boundaries between specialized ‘gay content’ and universal ‘family content’ with such sneaky authority.”
Boy Erased | Today
In a time when LGBTQ people seem to be universally accepted, Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased shows how much work still remains. Based on Garrard Conley’s memoir, Boy Erased dramatizes the fate of Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), a young man whose parents—a Baptist minister (Russell Crowe) and his devoted wife (Nicole Kidman)—push their son to enter a conversion therapy program after he confesses to gay feelings. Deftly balancing the sincere religious beliefs of the parents with the real emotional damage such programs inflict, Boy Erased captures the complex collision of religion and identity in America today. For The Hollywood Reporter, “ it deserves praise not as a polemic but as a richly humanistic, emotionally searing drama that sticks in the memory."