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John DoughertyJune 14, 2024
A collage of Pride Month movies. (From left to right clockwise: "The Birdcage," "Milk," "Moonlight," "Building a Bridge")

June is Pride Month, and a movie night is a great way to celebrate the incalculable contributions queer people have made to cinema. Queer people have not always received fair representation on screen and so in honor of Pride, here is a list of films that I recommend. It is by no means an exhaustive list of queer cinema classics, and many other great films could be included. But these are films that I find meaningful and believe resonate with our faith—particularly our call to love our L.G.B.T.Q. siblings and to uphold their human dignity.

This list, very intentionally, spans multiple genres and styles of filmmaking. L.G.T.B.Q. history is marked by struggle and there are many great dramas concerning that struggle. But it’s important—especially during Pride—to remember that L.G.B.T.Q. stories are more than just struggle narratives. Indeed, they encompass the full, vibrant diversity of the human experience.

Feel free to add your own favorites in the comments!

“The Birdcage” (1996). Let’s start with the official Catholic Movie Club selection for Pride: Mike Nichols’ “The Birdcage” (1996). This movie has plenty to make it my recommendation: Nichols in the director’s chair, a sharply hilarious script from Elaine May and charming lead performances by Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. As I wrote last week, “The Birdcage” challenges us to consider what makes a “real” family: Is it conformity to the traditional, nuclear model or is it the way its members love each other? This film represented a turning point in queer cinema: While earlier films largely focused on tragic stories and AIDS dramas, “The Birdcage” presented queer characters who were happy, well-adjusted (or as well-adjusted as anyone in show business can be), and most of all human. Streaming on Amazon Prime, Peacock, Hoopla and Tubi.

“Moonlight” (2016). Another Catholic Movie Club pick, Barry Jenkins’ Best Picture winner “Moonlight” (2016) follows a young gay Black man in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood through three stages of his life. Chiron (played by Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) navigates questions of masculinity, sexuality and identity while growing up in a struggling community. The film is about relationships: the people who wound Chiron, and the people who help him heal (sometimes, it’s the same person). It’s a beautiful, deeply moving film that treats the stories of often marginalized people in popular media with dignity and affection. Streaming on Max and Kanopy.

“How to Survive a Plague” (2012). David France’s “How to Survive a Plague” documents the early years of the AIDS epidemic in New York City, but anyone who lived through the last few years of the pandemic may find it eerily resonant. There’s even a (less-than-flattering) appearance by a young Anthony Fauci. The film centers on the work of L.G.B.T. activists who, in the face of prejudice and governmental indifference, courageously banded together to push for more research into life-saving treatments. It is, very literally, a fight for their lives. It’s a powerful film, and Catholic viewers may find themselves particularly shaken by footage from the 1989 ACT UP protest in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Streaming on AMC+, Kanopy, Mubi and for free with ads on PlutoTV.

“Paris is Burning” (1990). In this vital documentary, queer director Jennie Livingston takes us inside the Harlem Ballroom scene of the late-1980s, where gay and transgender people competed in fierce, fantastic fashion contests. Participants in the balls decode its unique language and rules for the viewer, while also reflecting on the balls’ greater significance. The participants are largely people of color and poor, some homeless; the balls are not only a form of entertainment, but a place to find community, acceptance and a sense of human dignity. “Paris is Burning” speaks to a universal truth: If you shut people out of mainstream society, they will carve out their own places to belong on the margins. Streaming on Max and the Criterion Channel.

“The Watermelon Woman” (1996). Sometimes the stories of marginalized people are scrubbed so thoroughly from history that recovering them isn’t possible; instead, one must reconstruct them from scant facts and educated guesswork. That is what Cheryl Dunye seeks to do in this film, which blurs the lines between fiction, history and memoir. Dunye, playing a fictionalized version of herself, attempts to discover the identity of a Black actress in a 1930s film credited only as “The Watermelon Woman.” As she digs, she reflects on her own identity as a young, queer woman of color, finding romance, heartbreak and other complications along the way. Made on a miniscule budget, the film has a funky, handmade quality while also serving as an impressive debut feature for Dunye (which also made it the first feature film directed by a Black lesbian). Streaming on Max, Showtime, Kanopy and the Criterion Channel.

“Milk” (2008). Gus Van Sant’s biopic of San Francisco activist Harvey Milk (played by Sean Penn)—the first openly gay man ever elected to public office—is a powerfully portrayed story of resistance, transformation and martyrdom. The film transcends “Great Man” movie clichés by evoking a movement and a community as vibrant as its titular subject. Milk is fighting on two fronts: trying to create political change and counteract the social violence that has buried so many of his peers in silence and shame. It’s the story of a hero, but it’s also the story of what can happen when people recognize their worth and come together to make change. Streaming on Amazon Prime.

“Howard” (2018). This no-frills documentary is primarily made of archival footage, but what it lacks in directorial or storytelling flourishes, it makes up for with an extremely engaging subject. The film centers on the life of playwright and lyricist Howard Ashman. Although he died young of AIDS, Ashman made a remarkable impact on the world of musical storytelling, writing the songs for “Little Shop of Horrors” (first debuted in 1982 on Broadway), “The Little Mermaid” (1989) and “Beauty & the Beast” (1991). The film offers a sense of the potential lost, but also of Ashman’s incredible spirit, formidable talent and enduring legacy. Streaming on Disney+.

“Strange World” (2022). This underseen Disney film features a prominent queer character in Ethan (played by Jaboukie Young-White), the youngest member of a family of explorers in the fantastical land of Avalonia. When his father, Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), is enlisted in a perilous underground mission to save their home, Ethan secretly joins him. The first openly gay character in a Disney animated film, Ethan is brave, curious and creative, and his sexuality is treated as matter-of-fact. His parents are loving and supportive; when Searcher meets the boy Ethan has a crush on, he’s embarrassing in the way that all movie dads are embarrassing, with no forced angst. Far from a token queer character, Ethan emerges as the story’s hero and a character who young viewers will want to identify with. Disney doesn’t have the best track record with queer representation (and, to be fair, the studio put little effort into promoting this film), but Ethan is a solid start. Streaming on Disney+.

“Building a Bridge” (2021). I realize that putting this on a list for America is similar to wearing a band’s t-shirt to their concert. But this list should include a film about L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics, and this is a good one. While the film largely focuses on James Martin, S.J.,’s ministry for and with L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics (and, on the opposing side, the now-defunct Church Militant), it is especially valuable for spotlighting the voices and stories of queer Catholics themselves. Their witness shows us a vision of a more welcoming and inclusive church. What better way for Catholics to celebrate Pride? Streaming on Kanopy and Hoopla.

More: LGBT / Film

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