Why this might not seem so easy
The real challenge with New Queer Cinema lies in working out where it begins and ends. The concept itself wasn’t explicitly adopted by filmmakers, but was instead defined through the writing of critic B. Ruby Rich in the early 1990s. Rich acknowledges that the films and filmmakers she considers under the umbrella of New Queer Cinema (including Todd Haynes, Cheryl Dunye, Isaac Julien, Gus Van Sant and Gregg Araki), “don’t share a single aesthetic vocabulary or strategy or concern.” Instead, they’re unified by the ways that they queer existing narratives, subvert expectations and foreground queerness in material where it had been only implicit.
This means that finding a jumping-off point for these films isn’t straightforward. There’s no simple arc to follow, as in exploring the work of individual filmmakers. Instead, New Queer Cinema contains multitudes. Emerging mainly from North America and the UK in the late 1980s and 1990s, these films illustrate the hugely diverse nature of queer experience and art, covering everything from Shakespeare to ball culture.
Although most of the filmmakers were independents, working away from the mainstream, their films made a powerful step forward for queer representation on screen. The result was a kind of cinematic coming-out, bringing us a body of films that is as varied and irrepressible as queer life itself.
The best place to start – Totally F***ed Up
With its punky attitude, up-front sexuality and experimental textures, Gregg Araki’s 1993 film Totally F***ed Up (1993) – the first in a trio of films that became dubbed as the ‘Teen Apocalypse trilogy’ – is one of the best examples of what New Queer Cinema was trying to do, as well as being one of the more viewer-friendly options.
Centring on six teenagers – four gay men and a lesbian couple – the story is told in fragments, with one of the characters attempting to make a documentary about the group’s lives. At one point this character declares “I wanna show things the way they really are,” and this is something that rings true for much of New Queer Cinema, with its desire to show queerness in its many forms. Araki does this with a kind of minimalist realism, never shying away from the darker sides of queer life. The film incorporates AIDS-prevention adverts, and the spectre of homophobic violence looms large over the film, with not every character getting an easy coming-out or happy ending.
The melancholy and violence in the film are difficult to shake off, and there’s a great deal of power in how explicitly and honestly Araki presents what it means to live, and try to stay alive, while being queer. He continued his fascination with the pressures, liberation and horror of adolescence in The Doom Generation (1995) and its spiritual sequel, Nowhere (1997).
What to watch next
One of the most iconic films associated with New Queer Cinema is the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning, an electrifying survey of New York ball culture and the queer community, showing how people could live and thrive and come together, even in unforgiving times. Director Jennie Livingston also tackles the prejudices and violence that queer people can be victim to.
Then there’s New Queer Cinema’s challenging of historical narratives, in order to reveal the subtext that was there all along and bring it front and centre. This impulse unites Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991), which turns Shakespeare’s Henry IV into a tale of hustlers and queer desire in the Pacific Northwest, and Derek Jarman’s Edward II (1991), an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s play that becomes an experiment in postmodernism, full of gleeful anachronism and explicit queerness.
Jarman had been pushing boundaries in British cinema since the 1970s, but the New Queer Cinema period also saw the younger artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien emerge on the UK scene. His 1989 film Looking for Langston similarly uses a historical focus, exploring queer culture at the time of the Harlem Renaissance. Filmed in black and white and mixing archive footage with dramatised sequences, it radically foregrounds black culture and romance, presenting the love between two men in the kind of heightened poetic register that so often feels reserved for straight couples.
Cheryl Dunye’s 1996 film The Watermelon Woman is another important queer film of the era. It explores queer narratives through the lens of a woman of colour, interrogating the ‘mammy’ stereotype in which black actresses were often typecast during Hollywood’s classic period. Dunye’s landmark release engages with queer film history, and what it means for minority narratives to be forced into the margins.
From Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987) to [Safe] (1995), Todd Haynes’ early films form one more essential area to find your way through. His 1991 release Poison tells three intercut stories, all of which explore outsiders and how they relate to the world through media, sexuality and violence. The triptych is heavily stylised, drawing on a variety of genre conventions, from tabloid sensationalism to 1960s horror.
Where not to start
Derek Jarman’s Blue (1993) is one of the more experimental films to fall under the umbrella of New Queer Cinema, and would make a challenging first dip. The film is stripped back, presenting a simple blue screen and a variety of soundscapes as Jarman’s narration explores nature, queerness and his declining health and vision during treatment for AIDS. Meditative and moving, Blue assumes the form of an elegy, giving it a tone that’s very different from the more anarchic energies with which New Queer Cinema is usually associated.