Documentaries and history films have, in the last 20 to 30 years, proved to be valuable tools for conveying the legacies of LGBTQ+ figures and events to contemporary queer viewers.
While many of us might immediately think of recent productions like Call Me By Your Name, Moonlight and Portrait of a Lady on Fire when we think of LGBTQ+ cinema, there is a bountiful canon of films highlighting the realities of LGBTQ+ history.
From documentaries on the Stonewall Riots and the LGBTQ+ community supporting the miners’ strike to a biopic of Ireland’s favourite gay, Oscar Wilde, here are some of our favourite LGBTQ+ history films to check out this Pride season!
Paris is Burning (1990)
Some of us might immediately recognise the name Paris is Burning from the iconic reading challenge on RuPaul’s Drag Race, and this acclaimed documentary is widely considered to be essential viewing for all LGBTQ+ people. The documentary is so highly regarded, in fact, that it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2018.
Tracking the LGBTQ+ history of ballroom and drag house culture in 1980s New York City, Paris is Burning is particularly notable for centring the stories of Black and Latinx gay and trans youth.
Paris is Burning is currently available to stream on HBO Max.
The Celluloid Closet (1995)
This documentary, directed and written by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman and narrated by Lily Tomlin, is based on the 1981 book The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, written by Vito Russo.
Russo spent much of his professional life studying the ways in which the LGBTQ+ community were portrayed in film and TV by Hollywood. Both the book and the documentary explore dangerous facets of LGBTQ+ history in film, such as the Hollywood Production Code, or the Hays Code.
The Hays Code (1930) made it illegal for Hollywood studios to exclude anything that could even remotely be considered explicitly queer from their films. This resulted in a great deal of “queer coding”, a method by which audiences could assume a character’s queerness without it being explicitly stated.
You can watch The Celluloid Closet right now on Amazon Prime Video.
Based on Richard Ellman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Wilde tells the story of Ireland’s treasured poet and playwright Oscar Wilde. In addition to authoring iconic queer texts such as The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Wilde was an important LGBTQ+ figure in history.
Wilde’s intimate relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, the son of a British nobleman, became very public when he was put on trial for libel. During the trial, Wilde gave an emboldened speech defending same-sex love, after which he was found guilty of “gross indecency” and sentenced to serve two years in Reading Gaol.
The biopic, starring Stephen Fry as Wilde, engages with the writer’s sexuality openly. Fry is joined on screen by some of the best actors of late 1990s Britain, including Jude Law as Lord Alfred and Michael Sheen as Wilde’s first lover, Robbie Ross.
Wilde is currently available for download on Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, and Google Play.
The Queen of Ireland (2015)
In more recent Irish history, The Queen of Ireland displays all the glory and the glitz of the nation’s beloved ‘queen’, Miss Panti Bliss.
Directed by Conor Horgan, this stunning documentary is a glowing tribute to one of the leading public figures behind the meteoric success of the 2015 Marriage Referendum. From her Nobel Call on the Abbey stage, Panti captured what it means to feel oppressed and in doing so, changed the hearts and minds of so many Irish people.
Discover how a drag queen from Ballinrobe became a national treasure and relive all the elation and love of referendum results day, but be sure to keep a pack of tissues handy because there won’t be a dry eye in the house by the end of it.
Queen of Ireland is available to stream on Amazon Prime.
With a star-studded cast including Sean Penn and Josh Brolin, this Oscar Award-winning biopic follows the life of Harvey Milk.
A key historical LGBTQ+ figure in America, Milk was the first openly gay person to be elected to public office when he joined the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977.
The biopic traces the last years of Milk’s life, from his 40th birthday to his assassination in 1978. When it was first released in 2008, Milk received widespread acclaim, with Variety describing the biopic as “adroitly and tenderly observed”.
Milk is available to stream on Disney+.
The Imitation Game (2014)
Perhaps one of the most influential figures in LGBTQ+ history is Alan Turing. Turing was a gay British mathematician and cryptanalyst who was crucial in advancing the Allied war efforts against Nazi Germany in WWII by decrypting German intelligence messages.
Despite his fundamental contribution to history, Turing was betrayed by the British government, who, not unlike Oscar Wilde, was found guilty of “gross indecency”. Instead of going to jail, however, Turing elected to undergo chemical castration in an attempt to “cure” his homosexuality.
The pain of this castration led Turing to take his own life in 1954. More than 50 years after Turing’s death, Queen Elizabeth II granted the mathematician a Royal Pardon in 2013.
The Imitation Game traces the history of Turing’s life. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the biopic garnered eight Academy Award nominations and won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2008.
The Imitation Game is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Rebel Dykes (2021)
Providing a comprehensive oral history of London’s lesbian scene in the 1980s, Rebel Dykes is a documentary by Harri Shanahan and Sian Williams. By collecting footage from archives, home videos and interviews, the film traces the LGBTQ+ history of London’s little-known lesbian community.
From politics and feminism to art and sex, Rebel Dykes is a self-documentation, by lesbians, for lesbians, about lesbians, that allowed the often neglected community to reclaim its place in Britain’s queer history.
Rebel Dykes is available to rent via Frameline.
The 2014 film Pride tells the story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) which was founded in London in 1984. The group, which was co-founded by Northern Irish rights activist Mark Ashton, came together in solidarity with British miners who were striking against the closure of collieries. LGSM collected substantial donations to support the families of the miners, leading to many of the miners and their families marching in the 1985 London Pride march.
With an all-star cast including Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton and Andrew Scott, this is a feel-good film not to be missed.
Pride is available to stream on Disney+.
120 BPM (2017)
One of the most important historical LGBTQ+ dramatisations of the last decade is the French masterpiece 120 BPM. Based on true events, it tells the story of ACT UP Paris in the 1990s.
Set in the height of the AIDS crisis it recreates some of the most powerful direct actions undertaken by the group and gives a fascinating insight into the workings of the organisation. It also beautifully captures the personal stories behind the activists and their struggles in facing the effects of the virus on their lives.
120 BPM is available to stream on Netflix.
So there you have it, a fine selection of films exploring LGBTQ+ history to add to your watch list. During Pride month and beyond, it’s important to acknowledge those who have come before us and paved the way, and these productions are a great place to start in terms of learning more about queer heritage.
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