By Dennis R. Upkins
No matter who you are, it’s probably a safe bet that finding a decent movie to watch is not unlike searching for the Holy Grail. However for LGBTQs, finding film that reflects us and our experiences in a positive and nuanced manner often feels like an exercise in futility. Because while there are many “gay films” out there, many aren’t good and many are immensely problematic.
For LGBTQs of limited resources, media may be their only lifeline. As a non-straight artist of color, this issue obviously hits close to home. Which is why I’m always keeping an eye out for progressive media. While said search can be frustrating at times, there are a few cinematic gems that not only surpass my Media Litmus Test but are also permanent residents in my personal library. The following are seven movies that aren’t simply good LGBTQ films but are exceptional cinema that happens have LGBTQ leads/themes.
1) Love, Simon
Everyone deserves a great love story, but for 17-year-old Simon Spier, it’s a little more complicated. He hasn’t told his family or friends that he’s gay, and he doesn’t know the identity of the anonymous classmate that he’s fallen for online. Resolving both issues proves hilarious, terrifying and life-changing.
If I have one monumental issue with Love, Simon, it’s that I wish there had been a film like this when I was a kid. It’s a coming of age romantic teen dramedy that’s layered, smart and has heart without even trying. This film also features multiple compelling Black protagonists including a love interest which sadly is still very rare in the 21st century. But this shouldn’t be a shocker given that CW Arrowverse architect Greg Berlanti is the director. It should also be noted that Berlanti has gone on record crediting Muhammad Ali for giving him the courage to come out to his parents. So when you have The Greatest as one of your heroes, greatness (personally and artistically) tends to follow. Love, Simon is a testament to this.
2) I Am Not Your Negro
In 1979, James Baldwin wrote a letter to his literary agent describing his next project, “Remember This House.” The book was to be a revolutionary, personal account of the lives of three of his close friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as Baldwin’s perspective on American History. At the time of Baldwin’s death in 1987, he left behind only 30 completed pages of this manuscript. Filmmaker Raoul Peck envisions the book James Baldwin never finished.
Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, this 93 minute documentary combines archive footage and animated visuals with the prose with one of history’s greatest writers which results in a phantasmagorical journey which both entertains, educates and challenges the viewer. Created on a $1 million budget, the original release had a very limited run which resulted in $7.7 million box office. Practically unheard of for a documentary and a testament to the artistry of this film.
3) Game Face
Exploring the coming-out journeys of LGBTQ athletes: telling the parallel stories of Fallon Fox, the first female transgender pro MMA fighter; and Terrence Clemens, a college basketball player in Oklahoma who happens to be gay.
Even if you aren’t a sports fan, you’ll definitely appreciate this film. Directed by Michiel Thomas, this documentary does a masterful job of humanizing the individuals behind two trailblazing athletes and allowing the audience to follow Clemens and Fox on their respective quests and experience their trials and triumphs along with them. While the name of the film may be entitled Game Face, game changers is just as apt for these two pioneers.
4) People You May Know
The lives of several friends are at a crossroads which is only further complicated when their relationships are thrown into chaos after a drunken one-night stand.
People You May Know is without question the greatest cinematic masterpiece of the 21st century. I say this objectively as an artist and academic. This assessment certainly has nothing to do with the fact that this film provides Sean “I’m Too Pretty To Be Legal” Maher in the type of hot sexy scenes usually reserved for the Paul Morris ouevre. Nope this is all factual objectivity.
Just joking. Sorta. Maybe.
In all seriousness, what makes this movie truly special is that even though two of the three leads are gay, their arcs make them relatable to any demographic. Each of the leads are searching to discover what will fulfill them and some of the choices they make may not be conventional or the right choice for others but it’s right for them. In one way or another, the completion they’re each searching for, they ultimately find within. People You May Know is a dramedy that has the cinematographic sensibilities of an indie film without being overt and pretentious. An amazing film and definitely one worth watching.
Did I mention it stars the delightful and gorgeous Sean Maher?
5) Dirty Computer Emotion Picture
An android, Jane 57821, attempts to break free from the constraints of a totalitarian society that forcibly makes Jane comply with its homophobic beliefs.
This groundbreaking Afrofuturistic short film is a love letter to Black LGBTQ Excellence. Co-starring Tessa Thompson as Jane’s love interest, Emotion Picture accompanied the release of Monae’s third album, Dirty Computer in 2018. If you have not seen this tour d’force………..no time like the present.
6) Codebreaker: The Alan Turing Story
Codebreaker tells the remarkable and tragic story of one of the 20th century’s most important people. Alan Turing set in motion the computer age and his World War II codebreaking helped turn the tide of the Second World War. Instead of receiving accolades, Turing faced terrible persecution. Documentary elements seamlessly interconnect with drama scenes in CODEBREAKER to offer a three dimensional picture of Turing, his accomplishments, his tragic end, and his lasting legacy.
Unlike that other film, Codebreaker is a true testament to Alan Turing. Codebreaker is a bittersweet film that pulls no punches exploring the persecution Turing endured which led to his death, the qualities that made him one of history’s greatest (and still unsung) champions, and how his legacy can be found today. Case in point, the computer device you’re reading this article from. This film is a tribute to the life and legacy of a bonafide superhero and one I can’t recommend enough.
7) Freedom Fighters: The Ray
Combining the first two seasons of the hit animated series, which premiered on the CW Seed, as well as includes never-before-seen footage, Freedom Fighters is the animated origin story of Ray Terrill, who discovers himself as a superhero from a parallel Earth called Earth-X. The new superhero is on a mission to fulfill his destiny as the Earth-X Freedom Fighter, The Ray.
I previously discussed in depth why Freedom Fighters is an exceptional film and a most important one. The original CW Seed animated series is television’s first gay male superhero lead. This film is a shining example of how artistry, superhero narratives, and social commentary are properly blended and executed. Hopefully, Freedom Fighters is lighting the way for other exemplary narratives to follow.