The history of queer activism is entwined with the history of queer identities and lives. Those within the queer community have been born into opposition against the heterosexual mainstream: to live openly as a queer person in itself has historically constituted a revolutionary act.
In this sense, all queer cinema can, to a degree, be considered a form of activism. By virtue of unashamedly existing, these films vigorously promote and campaign for queer representation and the action of sociopolitical change.
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Activism serves as a key theme for this year’s BFI Flare, with a peppering of films that highlight the ongoing sociopolitical struggles for LGBTIQ+ people across the globe.
Blaise Singh’s Pride & Protest interrogates the ongoing fight against pro-LGBTIQ+ education in Birmingham. Michael Barnett’s acclaimed Changing the Game forms a bitingly contemporary, compelling study of the victories won by trans high-school athletes in the US. Our Dance of Revolution, directed by Phillip Pike, serves as a fascinating look into how a cohesive black LGBTIQ+ movement was formed in Toronto. And Linda Goldstein Knowlton’s We Are the Radical Monarchs documents an Oakland-based organisation that provides a progressive alternative to the Girl Scouts, rewarding badges for completing units on social justice, including LGBTIQ+ allyship.
The below serves as but a glimpse of the wider queer film canon, offering politically charged chronicles of queer oppression, triumph, communities and icons.
Before Stonewall (1984)
Director: Greta Schiller and Robert Rosenberg
Although the rights queer people have attained over the last five decades often seem precarious, it’s difficult to imagine a world in which queer people are a sociocultural nonentity. Yet this was the norm as little as half a century ago, when queer identities were corraled into closets and shady basement speakeasies, as a stigmatised affront to the mainstream.
It’s this world that, through candid interviews and a scrapbook’s worth of archival materials, Greta Schiller and Robert Rosenberg excavate with Before Stonewall, a chronicle of the queer American underworld up until the earliest cries of queer liberation. The film tactfully manoeuvres from the roaring 20s, through the Second World War and up to the Stonewall riots, examining America’s earliest examples of organised queer protest and interrogating how they came to form. Before Stonewall is a fascinating collection of relics from a world (hopefully) long gone.
The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
Director: Rob Epstein
Using a combination of archive footage, talking heads and narration provided by Harvey Fierstein, prolific queer documentarian Rob Epstein retells the political career of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California. Epstein’s film recalls Harvey Milk not only as a political miracle but as a stalwart activist – one who not only advocated for queer visibility throughout the States, but for queer Americans to escape the closet en masse.
The film won the Academy Award for best documentary feature in 1985, and served as the structural muse for Gus Van Sant’s later biopic, Milk (2008) – up to the inclusion of Milk’s tape recorded will, in which he eerily preempted his assassination, as a recurrent motif. While Van Sant’s film works well as an introduction to Harvey Milk’s later life and career, it lacks the stringent historical accuracy of Epstein’s documentary. In this sense, The Times of Harvey Milk is unparalleled.
Director: Arthur J. Bressan Jr
Any one of the independent AIDS narratives stemming from the mid-80s to early 90s – John Erman’s An Early Frost (1985), Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances (1986), Norman René’s Longtime Companion (1989) – warrants inclusion on this list. These lo-fi, jerry-rigged films were a collective riposte to Hollywood’s prejudiced moralism at the time, which largely – even after the death of the iconic Rock Hudson – ignored the plight of gay Americans.
Buddies, a slapdash, 81-minute feature made in less than a couple of weeks in the spring of 1985, was the first such film to confront the AIDS crisis in America. A delicate two-hander set in New York City, the film follows the short-held friendship of David (David Schachter) and Robert (Geoff Edholm). David volunteers for a local AIDS organisation to look after Robert, who is deteriorating from AIDS-related complications; in doing this, he becomes Robert’s ‘buddy’. The film’s final shot amplifies Bressan’s call for compassion: David pickets the White House alone, a sole beacon in a sea of ignorant commuters.
Tongues Untied (1989)
Director: Marlon Riggs
“Black men loving black men is THE revolutionary act.” Preceding Moonlight (2016) by 27 years, Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied – an unconventional tapestry of spoken word poetry and documentary footage – was among the first films to tackle the intersections of race and sexuality in modern America. With much of the narration performed by Riggs himself, the film is an introspective essay on how to reconcile said identities. By including the voices of other poets, such as Essex Hemphill, Tongues Untied takes on a vital sense of community action.
In examining the place of black gay men within both America and the queer community, Riggs identifies issues of systematic racial coding. The predominantly white queer community in which Riggs is immersed, he suggests, cannot conceive why sexuality would come into conflict with race. Tongues Untied demands understanding from the white mainstream, while serving as an emancipatory rallying call for black gay men.
How to Survive a Plague (2012)
Director: David France
Investigative journalist turned documentarian David France is the most emphatic cinematic voice on queer history and activism right now. How to Survive a Plague, his debut feature – and the first of a trio of his films on this list interrogating global queer predjudice – is a thrilling retelling of the New York City AIDS crisis, constructed almost entirely of archive footage. He predominantly focuses on the efforts of NYC-based activists, such as the members of ACT UP, to force legislative action.
The result is bitingly critical, as France’s film denounces the American political structure and those within it; none more so than President Ronald Reagan and his wider administration, whose inert reaction to the epidemic is seen as cruelly, and intentionally, apathetic. Yet the brilliance of How to Survive a Plague is in France’s ability to cut through grotesque atrocity to deliver a vital humanist core. It makes this the strongest and most damning chronicle of the AIDS crisis.
The Normal Heart (2014)
Director: Ryan Murphy
Ryan Murphy’s HBO film is certainly the most conventional melodrama on this list, but its sheer accessibility outweighs its safe Hollywood sensibilities. Adapted from Larry Kramer’s essential play of the same name, first written for the stage in 1985, The Normal Heart is a dramatised account of Kramer’s own experiences throughout the early years of the AIDS epidemic, beginning on 3 July 1981, the day the New York Times ran its first article on the disease.
Kramer’s proxy is protagonist Ned Weeks, played by Mark Ruffalo. In response to both state and federal legislative inertia, Weeks and his closest friends on the scene establish the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an ad-hoc health organisation formed to support AIDS victims. Although a touch mechanical in its storytelling, the resulting film is a heart-wrenching portrait of the epidemic’s sheer injustice.
Larry Kramer: In Love and Anger (2015)
Director: Jean Carlomusto
Cinema has become a vital tool for the dissemination of queer history, largely because of the lack of other formal routes for this history to spread. One symptom stemming from this lack of education is the relative obscurity in which Larry Kramer’s name exists, particularly outside of queer circles. This seems astonishing, given how formative Kramer – the founder of both ACT UP and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York City – was in the fight against AIDS.
Larry Kramer: In Love and Anger is a candid portrait of Kramer’s tumultuous life and divisive career, capturing everything from his tumultuous adolescence in an ‘anti-sissy’ household to his passionate rage towards a heteronormative dominance that would see his friends and colleagues perish. Much like the works of David France, the film takes a largely archival approach: scenes from throughout Kramer’s career are woven together to form a meditative study on the man who, despite his infamously abrasive manner, ranks among the most important of all queer activists.
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)
Director: David France
The reversal of syntax in the title of David France’s second documentary speaks entirely to his approach. For France, to discover who caused the death of Marsha P. Johnson – an iconic trans rights activist, widely believed to have had a central role in the Stonewall riots – seems more pertinent than to further excavate her legacy. The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson finds a robust balance, serving as both an investigative journey and a celebration of life.
France follows trans rights advocate Victoria Cruz as she fights to uncover the truth of Johnson’s death while simultaneously retelling her legacy as an activist. Cruz faces a series of logistical challenges and pushbacks, which in themselves illustrate how long the road to justice will be. The film is a timely portrait of a trans icon; one that further emphasises the ongoing struggle for trans people of colour today.
120 Beats per Minute (2017)
Director: Robin Campillo
Robin Campillo’s astonishing 120 Beats per Minute is the most widely seen recent film to tackle queer activism through drama. It focuses on the Paris wing of ACT UP – the AIDs Coalition to Unleash Power, an ad-hoc, direct-action protest organisation established by Larry Kramer in 1987 at the height of the AIDS crisis. Campillo’s film is split into two key narratives that interweave generously: the relationship of two activists, Nathan (Arnaud Valois) and Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), the latter of whom is HIV-positive; and candid meetings of the ACT UP chapter to which Nathan and Sean belong.
It’s in the latter sequences that the film, a potent cocktail of pathos and rage, is at its best. The meetings evoke the sensibility of a war room. From the rafters we watch queer people fight for their lives, against inept goverments, social stigma and clandestine medical institutions. Rarely has the urgency to survive felt so palpable.
Welcome to Chechnya (2020)
Director: David France
David France’s latest film, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020, is his most vital to date. Welcome to Chechnya visits the eponymous Russian republic in the North Caucasus, where Ramzan Kadyrov – Putin’s administrative puppet at the helm of Chechnya’s local government – has enacted an anti-queer purge for the past three years. Global outrage was sparked in 2017, when the purges were first reported by the western press; since then, reports are scarce, despite the pogrom continuing.
This is the first of France’s film projects to deviate entirely from archival footage, using instead a combination of hidden camera footage, clips intercepted by Chechen activists, and talking heads. The resulting film, however, maintains something of an archival sensibility, with Tyler H. Walk’s deft editing cutting together a visceral narrative. So the thrilling urgency of his earlier How to Survive a Plague continues here, bringing France’s compelling style to a contemporary atrocity with poignant results.