Making History Proud: Bringing Celebrated LGBTQ+ People to the Big Screen
Five films to celebrate Pride month
This year, many Pride celebrations have returned to their political roots by joining in solidarity the Black Lives Matter demonstrations taking place across the country. Pride month after all commemorates LGBTQ+ people fighting back against police harassment at New York City’s Stonewall Inn in 1969. Refusing to remain in the closet, LGBTQ+ people stood up to demand the right to be seen and to be counted. For Pride month, we’re showcasing films that explore the lives, both fictional and real, of LGBTQ+ people throughout history. While award-winning movies like Milk and The Danish Girl spotlight pivotal LGBTQ+ heroes, the stories of everyday LGBTQ+ people matter just as much in filling out the full tapestry of history.
1) Pariah | Alike
Although Pariah’s main character Alike (Adepero Oduye) is different from that of the film’s writer/director Dee Rees, the two are bound by a mutual struggle. Rees, who grew up in Nashville and came out at 27, wrote this semi-autobiographical story as a way to explore the question: “If I had come out at 17, what might that have looked like?” Also like Rees, Alike is much more than a single identity. As a young, African American poet living in Brooklyn who is smothered by her mother’s (Kim Wayans) strict religious beliefs, Alike’s struggle, explains Rees, is “not so much coming out, but… how to be in the world”—especially a world that too often fails to appreciate the full range of human experience and identity. For Mother Jones, “Pariah leaves you aching, not only because of the story it tells, but because it whispers softly of all the stories that haven’t been told.”
2) Milk | Harvey Milk
Thirty years after his assassination in 1978, Harvey Milk got the cinematic recognition he deserved with Gus Van Sant’s Milk , a rousing portrayal of a man (played by Sean Penn) who defied expectation and made history by becoming California’s first out gay politician. Although the film would become an international hit, garnering eight Academy Award® nominations and winning for Best Actor (Sean Penn) and Best Original Screenplay (Dustin Lance Black), Black noted that in 2008 making “a mainstream film that had LGBTQ+ characters at its core seemed impossible.” For Milk’s colleague Cleve Jones (played by Emile Hirsh), the movie succeeds by capturing both a remarkable moment in LGBTQ+ history and the indomitable spirt of one gay man. “I think there's a great lesson for us to see an ordinary man who did, in fact, change the world," Jones exclaims.
3) The Danish Girl | Lili Elba
Adapted from David Ebershoff’s historical novel, Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl presents the life of transgender pioneer Lili Elbe (played by Eddie Redmayne in an Academy Award®-nominated role). What makes Elbe’s story so remarkable is not simply her force of will, but her overwhelming certainty when there were no models to follow. “Lili had no vocabulary, she had no context, she had no predecessors, she had no community,” stresses Redmayne. In the 1920s, Einar Wegener, a landscape painter married to fellow artist Gerda Gottlieb (Alicia Vikander in an Academy Award®-winning performance), began to transition into a female identity that would eventually become Lili. True to her story and historical period, “Lili’s emergence is a gradual and hesitant process,” notes Variety. “Beautifully embodied by Redmayne—and reflected by Vikander, whose Gerda does her best to adapt alongside her husband.”
4) Taking Woodstock | Elliot Tiber
Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock recounts a real-life story of liberation and self-awakening that happened in the shadow of the music festival that changed the world. Based on Elliot Tiber’s memoir Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life (written with Tom Monte), the film follows Tiber’s (Demetri Martin) fabulous life from closeted-gay interior designer to dutiful son trying to keep his parents’ (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton) dilapidated upstate motel afloat. In 1969, when Tiber helped Michael Lang (Jonathan Goff) secure a permit for his upcoming music festival, his own life utterly changed. Witnessing the festival's free-flowing river of personal expression at the motel, including a cross-dressing ex-marine (Liev Schreiber), Tiber was inspired to come out himself. In explicitly connecting “Woodstock to the gay-liberation movement and the Stonewall riots,” explains The New York Times, the film offers “a gentle, meandering celebration of personal liberation at a moment when rigid social barriers were becoming more permeable.”
5) Mary Queen of Scots | David Rizzio
In Mary Queen of Scots, director Josie Rourke takes a new look at the famous monarch (played by Saoirse Ronan) by populating the film’s historical tableaus with people of color and LGBTQ+ figures, casting choices well-grounded in historical fact. In the film, Mary's court musician and confidant David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Córdova) and her second husband Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) have a fling. For John Guy, who wrote the award-winning book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart on which the film is based, “A brief sexual relationship between Darnley and Rizzio is real history, not speculation.” Sexual identity could be very fluid during this period. “Straight and gay were not so clearly defined,” notes Guy, adding that “The vogue in France, among young hedonistic courtiers, was essentially that they were bisexual.” The Italian-born Rizzio's open-minded sexual orientation was a cultural reality. For The Wrap, treating gay sexuality as part of the historical record was not just a bold artistic choice in the film, but it “shows a heightened sense of awareness and creates a more realistic world.”