From Moonlight to Tangerine, these are the films celebrating queer Black lives you really need to see
To mark Black History Month 2020, PinkNews has chosen eight must-see films celebrating queer Black lives and love.
The Queen (1968).
Before Paris is Burning, there was The Queen. Released a year before the Stonewall Uprising, it was a pioneering look at LGBT+ lives, specifically those of Jack Doroshow and the participants of his Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest.
The pageant was judged by Andy Warhol, emceed by Doroshow’s alter ego, Flawless Sabrina, and featured 28 drag performers who, behind the scenes, discuss their work and its relationship to trans identities, their own family, friends and lovers, and the possibility of being queer while serving in the Vietnam War.
Among the contestants featured is Crystal LaBeija, who in one legendary scene delivers a scorching read to both the camera operator and to Flawless Sabrina, furious at having been snubbed by the judges in favour of white contestants.
It’s a piece of true queer history: Labeija’s fury prompted her to boycott the white-centric pageants and instead host her own ‘House of Labeija’ balls, kickstarting the entire ballroom scene.
Paris is Burning (1990).
At a time when queer Black culture is being mined to new depths by the white, cis and – increasingly – straight media (Lip Sync Battle, we’re looking at you), a rewatch of Paris is Burning does the soul good.
Jennie Livingston’s seminal documentary shines a light on the Black and hispanic queer men and trans women who invented the concepts of reading, shade and realness.
It’s far from perfect. Livingston, a white filmmaker, has long been accused of voyeurism and of exploiting a community both societally and economically underprivileged (after the film grossed almost $4 million, producers divided $55,000 among 13 participants who had sought a share of the profits. Livingston has maintained that in documentary-making, subjects are not paid, and her own share of profits was certainly not enough to make her rich.)
Despite these flaws Paris is Burning is an essential watch – especially for those who are fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race and Pose. It balances glittering ballroom scenes with a study of the QPOC experience: chosen family, double- and tripe-prejudice, poverty, the HIV/AIDS crisis, and most devastatingly of all, violence against trans women of colour – all issues which continue to remain prevalent 30 years on.
The Watermelon Woman (1996).
The first feature film by and about a Black lesbian, The Watermelon Woman remains shocking relevant almost 25 years after its release. In one scene, Cheryl (Dunye, the film’s star, writer, director and editor) is racially profiled and harassed by two white police officers, who mistake her for a man and call her a “crackhead”.
It’s a jarring scene which will ring true for the many who’ve had similar experiences, out of place with the film’s largely comedic nature and yet vital to its exploration of Black queer womanhood and its erasure.
The film is named for the Black women actors of the 1930s and 40s who would often not be credited for their work. It follows a semi-fictionalised Cheryl as she makes a documentary about one of them (the titular Woman – who she discovers was also a lesbian), including a memorable trip to the Center for Lesbian Information and Technology (CLIT).
Pariah is often referred to as “the female Moonlight” – despite the fact that it predates it by five years.
Like Oscar-winner Barry Jenkins, director Dee Rees explores what it means to be gay in a straight, Black world. The title nods to its main character Alike (Adepero Oduye, pre-12 Years A Slave), a lesbian whose church-going parents have clocked her sexuality but refuse to acknowledge it, making her something of an outcast.
Despite the similarity in theme, the two films are worlds apart. Pariah is powerfully sex-positive – the opening scene for example takes place in a queer Black strip-club, pulsating to the beat of ‘My Neck, My Back’. And where Moonlight’s LGBT+ characters are isolated, never using the word “gay,” Pariah’s inhabitants celebrate their identity and come together as a community full of Black beauty, joy and heartbreak.
When Tangerine premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, much was made of it being shot entirely on an iPhone 5s. But much more important, if not as widely reported on, was the fact that it was a story of two Black trans women played by Black trans actors.
Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is a sex worker who has been released from jail on Christmas Eve. Upon hearing that her “pimp” boyfriend has been cheating on her with a cis woman, she recruits her best friend and fellow sex worker Alexandra (Mya Taylor) to help her get to the bottom of things.
It’s a pithy, comedic romp: a buddy picture which remains groundbreaking in terms of representation, and in its positive, authentic portrayal of sex workers.
Naz & Maalik (2015).
What does it mean to be young, gay, Black and Muslim in Brooklyn? That’s the jump-off point for Jay Dockendorf’s feature debut, a deeply intersectional analysis of two young men’s flowering identities.
Naz (Kerwin Johnson Jr) and Maalik (Curtiss Cook Jr) are high school friends and secret lovers who, through the course of a single afternoon, attract the attention of an FBI agent and face the threat of being outed to their families.
Driven by its two lead performances and Jake Magee’s fluid lensing, the film explores issues such as code switching, the federal surveillance of Muslims, the fraught relationship between Black men and police, and of course, being gay, Black and Muslim.
That the infamously white, straight and cis Academy awarded Moonlight the Oscar for best picture speaks volumes about the strength of its storytelling.
The first LGBT-focused film and the first film with an all-Black cast to be awarded the honour, Moonlight is a three-part coming of age story.
Little (Alex Hibbert) is a young Black boy neglected by his drug addict mother (Noemie Harris) and bullied by his peers for the wiggle in his hips. This hate follows him into his teenage years (when he is known by his given name Chiron played by Ashton Sanders), becoming dangerously violent. His sole distraction is a classmate with whom he shares a connection that will continue into his adulthood, when he again reinvents himself as Black (Trevante Rhodes).
Jenkins and the cast tell a story that feels universal while remaining incredibly specific to the Black LGBT+ experience, exploring what masculinity means to men who don’t fit in with either their Black peers or their queer ones. The cast is uniformly brilliant, especially Mahershala Ali – whose sole scene was powerful enough to win him the best supporting actor Oscar, and the trio of (straight) men who play Chiron at different stages of his life.
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Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki bears a slight resemblance to Love, Simon, another 2018 film which was widely applauded by critics. Both are classic stories of forbidden teenage love, ground-breaking in their portrayal of young LGBT+ people. But only one is set in Kenya, where same-sex relations are illegal.
Banned in its home country “due to its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism,” Rafiki is a tender tale of two young Black girls: Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva). A tentative friendship quickly grows into romance, but one that is tortured by society, the law, and the fact that their fathers are fierce political rivals.
Like Love, Simon, this is a film that uses a conventional narrative style to try to mainstream queer love. In this case, such a love was still too potent for homophobic local censors, but that doesn’t take away from the film’s importance in serving a community desperate for representation and visibility. A fun dive into those first flusters of love, it’s a film that couldn’t possibly have been made anywhere else and deserves to be seen by the entire diaspora.