To celebrate pride, here are 10 LGBTQ films that feature characters that embrace their authentic selves. Most of these titles are available on streaming services or DVD. All are worth a look.
The extraordinary documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro” uses text from James Baldwin’s unfinished work, “Remember This House,” along with archival footage of the author from his speeches at Cambridge University, to his appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show,” to reflect on the way African Americans are oppressed in America. Director Raoul Peck judiciously uses these texts and intercuts them with images of school integration and from Hollywood films as well as contemporary footage of Rodney King and the Black Lives Matter movement. The result is a sobering, stirring discussion of race in America. The film toggles back and forth in time to contrast history with current events to show how things have not changed in the decades since Baldwin wrote his books and gave his speeches. One of the best qualities of “I Am Not Your Negro” is how Baldwin gets audiences (both those when he first wrote and spoke as well as viewers today) to think about representations of African Americans and people of color in popular and political culture.
Out lesbian director Jamie Babbit’s debut feature, “But I’m a Cheerleader” was ahead of its time when it was released in 1999. It’s a clever (and campy) satire about conversion therapy. When an intervention sends Megan (Natasha Lyonne) off to True Directions, to be “cured” of her lesbianism, she forms a connection with Graham (out actress Clea DuVall). How these teens embrace their sexuality is at the heart of this film, as Babbit’s tongue-in-cheek tone lampoons LGBT stereotypes and representation. The fabulous cast includes Mink Stole, RuPaul and the hunky Eddie Cibrian as the not-so-straight son of True Direction’s director (Cathy Moriarity).
Bisexual writer-director Desiree Akhavan’s “Appropriate Behavior” is a fabulous, unabashed comedy about Shirin (Akhavan) having a series of romantic trials and tribulations. After ending her relationship with her girlfriend, the closeted-to-her-parents Shirin leads a kind of “double life,” embarking on a series of sexual encounters with men and women as she tries to figure out what she really wants. Akhavan displays marvelous comedic timing in this heartfelt film full of awkward comic moments.
The hour-long documentary, “The Out List,” features 16 prominent LGBTQ individuals each directly addressing the camera as they talk about issues important to the queer community. From Lady Bunny’s smart speech about drag queens and self-expression to the late Larry Kramer’s passionate description of how his anger fueled ACT-UP, there is diversity in both topics and talking heads. It is easy to be inspired by the various testimonies of resilience, but the best vignettes come from the least well-known folks: Latina lesbian Lupe Valdez, a sheriff in Texas, talks about being validated in her conservative community, and Twiggy Pucci Garçon, who describes the surrogate family he found in the New York ball community.
Out writer and director Ray Yeung’s “Front Cover,” has Ryan (out queer actor Jake Choi) as an American-born Chinese fashion stylist who is assigned to work with Ning (James Chen), an actor promoting his new film in New York. Of course, these opposites attract, but as they get more intimate, they consider issues of nationality (Ryan also downplays his Chinese heritage) and sexuality (Ning tells Ryan “not to show his homo side”) as well as identity. In the process, “Front Cover” provides valid messages about respect, shame and reputation.
Sean Baker’s fun and funky “Tangerine” has transgender sex worker Sin-dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) finding out from her BFF Alexandra (Mya Taylor) that her boyfriend Chester (James Ransome) has been cheating on her. As Sin-dee searches for Chester, Alexandra tries to focus on a performance she is giving that night. Meanwhile, Razmik (Karren Karaguilian), a cab driver, seeks out both women for personal reasons. Baker’s film thrives on its neurotic energy, but it has tremendous heart and humor, and “Tangerine” benefits from Mia Taylor’s star-making performance.
The title character in trans filmmaker Silas Howard’s “A Kid Like Jake” is 4-year-old Jake (Leo James Davis), the gender-nonconforming child of Alex (Claire Danes) and Greg Wheeler (out actor Jim Parsons). The Wheelers are looking to enroll Jake in school, and while Judy (Octavia Spencer) counsels them, various conflicts and arguments develop around gender issues. This engaging film is less about Jake and more about how those around him react and respond to gender identity in realistic and messy ways.
Trans director Rhys Ernst’s shrewd romantic comedy-drama, “Adam” has the title character (Nicholas Alexander), a cisgender, heterosexual and virginal 18-year-old male attracted to Gillian (Bobbi Salvör Menuez), a lesbian. Adam does not initially correct Gillian when she assumes that he is transgender. As their relationship blossoms, however, Adam struggles with his deception. If “Adam” sounds like an insensitive comedy, out lesbian writer Ariel Schrag, adapting her own novel, is quite clever in how she addresses issue of gender and sexuality for the genderqueer crowd.
The Argentine import, “A Year without Love,” is a hypnotic drama, set in 1996, about an HIV-positive writer, Pablo Pérez (Juan Minujín) unexpectedly finding a sense of self in the BDSM scene. Pablo is struggling — financially, physically, and emotionally. When he meets the sexy Martín (Javier Van de Couter), he allows himself to become a slave for Martín. Their erotic encounters trigger Pablo’s deep exploration of the kinky subculture. Director Anahi Berneri artfully films this tale — based on Pérez’s diaries — and it is both fascinating and enthralling. Minujín delivers an exceptional performance.
Lesbian director Céline Sciamma’s exquisite “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is an exceptional romantic drama, set in the 1700s. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) unbeknownst to her subject. As Marianne observes Héloïse, a sexual tension builds between the women; their slow-burn romance soon develops into something truly passionate. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a sparse, elegant and seductive period drama. The costumes are as gorgeous as the cinematography, and the performances are stirring.