Reflecting on LGBT reflections in cinema


If viewers look to the silver screen as a mirror — you are what you watch — there are many characters/films today that provide positive queer images. But this was not always the case. As we celebrate Pride this month, various notable Philadelphians, as well as filmmakers and scholars, describe which out, loud and proud films, characters and people they find heroic.

Chris Bartlett, executive director of the William Way LGBT Community Center, says “The Times of Harvey Milk,” Rob Epstein’s documentary on the assassinated politician, was “life-changing” for him. He admires Milk for being “a representative of principles and not personalities in leadership. He stood for Gay Liberation — a gay politic larger than LGBT people alone — that has largely been lost under the stifling rubric of gay rights.”

Bartlett also acknowledges Bill Sherwood’s “Parting Glances” as a personal favorite. “A young Steve Buscemi plays Nick, a courageous guy who is living with AIDS — and who brings humor and a wise-ass wisdom to how he lives. I love the community of queers that ‘Parting Glances’ demonstrates — it’s the community that I am still proud to be a part of: creative, revolutionary, multicultural and fun!”

Ray Murray, president of TLA Entertainment Group and artistic director of QFest, cites “Parting Glances” as well. He appreciates a scene featuring Peter (Adam Nathan) talking with Buscemi’s Nick on a stairwell. “Peter simply and emphatically explained his gayness — ‘Your dick knows what it wants.’” recounts Murray. “For me, that explained it all.” Murray also respects Holly Woodlawn in Paul Morrissey’s “Trash.” He explains, “Holly is poor, with a fucked-up boyfriend, but she is also strong and has high self-worth.”

Dashiell Sears, this year’s “Mr. Gay Philadelphia,” also looks up to a trans character as a hero, gushing, “I love Kitten [Cillian Murphy] in ‘Breakfast on Pluto.’ He doesn’t let circumstances keep him from finding his biological mother and being fabulous while on the road. The film is funny, gripping and heartbreaking — with IRA bombings, secret pasts and, yes, even sad moments, especially when an innocent childhood friend is killed by a car bomb.”

Sad stories can be particularly inspiring to queer audiences who appreciate the struggles for acceptance. WMMR DJ Pierre Robert acknowledges, “In the straight world, there are hundreds and hundreds of great love stories that have been committed to the silver screen. However, in the gay world, there is really only a handful. At the top of that list stands ‘Brokeback Mountain.’ Between the basic story itself, the majestic cinematography and the vulnerability of the characters, I was hooked. That plus the fact that two major Hollywood actors had the courage to take on these sensitive yet deep roles when most still won’t really moved me. I’m still pissed that it didn’t win Best Picture that year!”

While some folks may question if the gay lovers in “Brokeback Mountain” are role models, given what happens to them, Aymar Jean Christian, a writer and doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, says the queer community desperately needs role models. “Gay cinema is really bad at producing them. Most film heroes, queer and mainstream, are pitiable, depressive, suicidal, oversexed, closeted, violent or simply boring. For gay people of color, the options are fewer. As a writer, I identify with thinkers and artists (both real and imagined) — Reinaldo Arenas in ‘Before Night Falls,’ Hedwig or Kinsey.”

Yet Christian says he finds the most admirable queer character to be Belize (Jeffrey Wright), in the TV-movie version of Tony Kushner’s play “Angels in America.”

“He is a sharp-tongued and fiercely intelligent gay man. He stole anti-retrovirals from a closeted conservative yet treated him with respect. His final act of kindness, arranging the Kaddish for the deceased Roy Cohn, teaches us all something: Honor our sad queer forefathers, treat our villains as people and lovingly put both to rest.”

Elicia Gonzales, a queer Latina and the executive director of GALAEI, explains that she also finds prideful images in “people who carve out their own paths and make no apologies for who they are, what they believe, how they live or who they fuck.”

She responds to strong women, ranging from Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) in “Silence of the Lambs,” who displayed courage, intelligence and vulnerability, to Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) in gay filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar’s “Volver.” Admittedly obsessed with Cruz, Gonzales finds her “passion, honesty and survival skills” admirable. Another fiery Latina, Frida Kahlo (Selma Hayek), in the biopic “Frida,” is inspirational for her “optimism, risk-taking, acceptance of herself and others, her vivaciousness and her amazing, amazing beauty.”

Shayna SheNess Israel, co-executive director of Elements Organization, host of the annual LGBTQ Womyn of Color Conference in Philadelphia, also finds empowerment in a strong minority female filmmaker.

She recalls, “On a hunch back in college, searching for interesting films in the biography section, I found Cheryl Dunye, creator of the first African-American lesbian feature film, “The Watermelon Woman.” Her work explores issues of race, class, gender and sexual orientation. For many LGBTQ womyn of color this is refreshing, for it’s our opportunity to encounter media that doesn’t tokenize. We look for cinematic characters that speak to and celebrate the intersections of our lives. Dunye is unafraid to reveal the complexities and pleasures in being an African-American lesbian. It is with her, in terms of film, I first felt reflected.”

Joe’l Ludovich, an independent filmmaker and assistant professor of communication at a local college, explained that she too was particularly inspired by the lesbian filmmakers including Dunye, whose work made waves in the mid-1980s through the late 1990s.

“An independent-film movement was emerging, as coined by scholar B. Ruby Rich as the ‘New Queer Cinema.’ A robust cluster of directors, producers and actors — brave enough to take a queer role — was coming to fruition. The queer films that influenced and inspired me during this time were Patricia Rozema’s ‘I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing’ and ‘When Night is Falling,’ Donna Deitch’s ‘Desert Hearts,’ Cheryl Dunye’s ‘The Watermelon Woman,’ Lisa Cholodenko’s ‘High Art’ and Rose Troche and Guinevere Turner’s ‘Go Fish.’ How lucky was I to experience these groundbreaking independent queer artists, seeing them on the big screen, each one breaking ground in its own right.”

Sometimes it is people who make the films that give viewers the most pride. Kelly Burkhardt, vice president of operations at TLA Releasing, respects the work of many queer filmmakers — John Cameron Mitchell, Gus Van Sant, Troche and Almodóvar — but, she says, “I really only have one hero, and that’s Christine Vachon.”

An out and proud producer and architect of the New Queer Cinema movement, Vachon has helped the careers of queer filmmakers including Todd Haynes (“Poison” and “Safe”) and Tom Kalin (“Savage Grace”). Burkhardt effuses, “Vachon certainly has produced some of the most controversial and influential films ever, like ‘Boys Don’t Cry,’ ‘Swoon’ and ‘Kids.’

“It might seem ironic that I chose her — especially since most of the films she produced in the 1990s had tragic LGBT characters — but look at ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and ‘Milk.’ These films rocked the indie world but they both have tragedy looming. The bottom line is that Vachon produces stories. It doesn’t matter if they are uplifting or not, I appreciate the fact that they are all real.”