We’re here, we’re queer, we’re making beautiful art and you’re going to sit down and see it.
Sheila Munyiva of Rafiki (2018)
Now more than ever it is so important to not only educate ourselves on black and queer history but to recognise and acknowledge the brave marginalised voices, stories and profound works of those who came before us. Celebrate pride month with us by engaging with and commemorating the nuanced and intersectional queer experience. This film list was created with the intention of informing, honoring and elevating BAME works and perspectives. There are some familiar titles on here along with some indie treasures that absolutely deserve more attention. This list is dedicated to the queer POCs of our community.
PARIS IS BURNING (1990)
For anyone who has not yet seen this classic, Paris Is Burning was re-released last year on Netflix. This landmark documentary is an intimate depiction of the 1980s New York drag scene through the lens of Harlem’s African-American and Latino working class queer community. An instrumental snapshot of queer history filmed over 7 years (let’s remember the pioneers of this very community such as Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera fought for our rights at Stonewall in 1969) Paris Is Burning invites us into the history of balls, drag houses, fashion and vogueing. We are introduced to the extravagantly designed ballroom competitions – think fashion runway but more camp – where contestants must ‘walk’ and are then judged on various criteria such as their fashion, dance ability and drag ‘realness’. The ballroom community offers performers the opportunity to join a ‘house’, which serve as both a performance collective and alternative family unit for members who have been rejected by their biological families because of their sexuality or gender expression. The documentary alternates between footage of the flamboyant balls and interviews with popular members of the scene – renowned drag queens, voguers, queer homeless youth and trans women including Willi Ninja, Pepper LaBeija, Dorian Corey and Venus Xtravaganza. The candid one-on-one interviews reveal insightful, humorous and moving accounts of personal history, gender identity, drag culture, survival and struggle to exist in an oppressive ‘rich white world’. Paris Is Burning explores the socio-economic and cultural issues of the community such as the stigma and suffering caused by the AIDs epidemic in the 1980s, poverty, homelessness, violence, racism and pervasive homophobia and transphobia. It also examines the sex work relied upon by many members of the community to survive or save up for gender reassignment surgery. Despite the important but harsh realities discussed in the documentary, Paris Is Burning portrays its subjects with dignity and pride whilst shining a light on a diverse range of gender presentations and sexual identities. It also illustrates the pageantry and fun of the scene at the same time as opening a dialogue regarding the community’s relationship with race, class, sexuality and gender. With moments of heartache and joy Paris Is Burning captures an early pivotal moment for drag culture and queer history that should be remembered and celebrated.
Available on Netflix
Set in a rough neighbourhood of Miami, Florida in 2015, this beautiful and poignant indie drama chronicles the tender story of ‘Chiron’ a young gay man. The narrative explores the adversity he faces growing up, his experiences and struggles with his identity and sexuality, in a world designed to systemically and violently oppress queer people of colour. His story is spread across three defining chapters: childhood ‘Little’, adolescence ‘Chiron’ and adulthood ‘Black’. The film begins by introducing a socially alienated young Chiron running away from bullies, which by chance leads him to encounter local drug dealer ‘Juan’ who becomes a fatherly role model and provides solace away from his unstable home and school life. This coming-of-age story is based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unpublished semi-autobiographical play ‘In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue’, and was co-written and directed by Barry Jenkins who for this work received an Oscar Nomination for Best Director and jointly won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay with McCraney. The cinematography is delicate and artful, everything seemingly possessing an ethereal hue of blue. The juxtaposition of hazy dream sequences, illusory close-ups and euphonic swells courtesy of composer Nicholas Britell, and frank depiction of Chiron’s trauma, racial, class and sexuality struggles, make for a sensitive yet powerful examination of masculinity. Not only pivotal in its delicate and perceptive storytelling, Moonlight also became the first LGBTQ themed film and first film with an all black cast to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Mahershala Ali who plays ‘Juan’ in the film became the first Muslim to win an Oscar for acting, and Joi McMillon also became the first black woman to be nominated for an editing Oscar. Shocking that these feats took until 2016 but they should be celebrated nonetheless. Whether or not you are a member of the queer community or a POC, this film is highly relatable in its stark and moving illustration of dysphoria and alienation, let its message be one of empathy and understanding.
Available on Netflix, Google Play, Youtube and Amazon Prime
It could be argued that good films open with artfully sophisticated mise-en-scene, but GREAT films open with Khia’s iconic song ‘My Neck, My Back’. An impressive debut from black queer writer and director Dee Rees, this semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age indie drama is a pithy and raw portrayal of a budding teenage lesbian in Brooklyn, New York. Adepero Oduye plays the smart and poetry-loving protagonist African-American 17 year old ‘Alike’ who lives at home with her overbearing religious mother, Police officer father and younger sister Sharonda. In the first scene we’re introduced to Alike, disoriented in the midst of a busy underground strip club she appears uncomfortable in the surroundings – she hasn’t quite found her feet yet – but there is no question of her sexuality as her eyes fall onto the curves of the dancers. Alike, new to lesbian culture seeks guidance from her confident older butch friend ‘Laura’ (Pernell Walker), a savvy and tough survivor of a poverty-stricken background. Together we follow Alike’s journey of exploration, establishing her sense of self and sexuality amidst her parent’s suspicions, tangliby unhappy marriage, and the relationships she forms along the way. Despite its perhaps histrionic title, Pariah is not without irony and the odd laugh out loud moment. This film also boasts a catchy empowering womxn-centric soundtrack and the cinematography is so gorgeous it won the Excellence in Cinematography Award at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. At the time it was released Pariah was one of the very few films depicting the story of a young person of colour as they come to terms with their sexuality and subsequently sparked new conversation regarding the representation of blackness and sexuality. Pariah explores the intricacies of religion, politics and socio-economic factors surrounding a black family in a heartfelt way, and the palpable honesty of the writing and performances gives it broad emotional resonance and appeal.
Available on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Google Play and Youtube
Christened ‘Tangerine’ in reference to the colour of Los Angeles at sunset, this American indie dark comedy-drama directed by Sean Baker provides a gorgeously stark snapshot into the lives of transgender sex workers on the streets of LA. It’s Christmas Eve, the highly strung ‘Sin-Dee’ is fresh out of prison and we follow her with best friend ‘Alexandra’ on a series of misadventures whilst on the hunt for her pimp boyfriend, after hearing rumours he has been unfaithful in the 28 days she’s been locked up. Predominantly taking place on the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue renowned for drugs and prostitution, Tangerine is colourful and fast paced. Vivacious and gutsy, Sin-Dee and Alexandra take centre stage, pulling at our heartstrings and giving the film a healthy dose of comic relief with their rapid fire, snappy dialogue. Alongside them we are also introduced to an Armenian cab driver’s daily encounters and side story of infidelity which segways into the main narrative when we realise he’s no stranger to soliciting. Shot ENTIRELY on three iphone 5s along with Moondog Labs anamorphic clip on lens and the FiLMIC Pro app on a micro-budget, this film defies conventions not only in terms of technology but fundamentally, representation. Tangerine was a massive step towards more inclusive representation in cinema with its lively and idiosyncratic close-up portrait of black transgender sex workers in a unique subculture of LA and with real life friends Kiki Kitana Rodriguez (Sin-Dee) and Mya Taylor (Alexandra) having significant input on the project. The plot of Tangerine was actually inspired by a real conversation Rodriguez overheard, and its frank depiction of marginalized individuals – sex workers, cab drivers, drug addicts, fast food workers etc – struggling on the fringes of an oppressive society, gives a refreshingly honest overview of modern life from a perspective we don’t see often enough. The fact that the main characters are played by African-American real transgender women with little to no prior acting experience (including Mya Taylor who previously was a sex worker on the streets) brings a beautiful authenticity and rawness to the performances. When everything else is stripped away what we’re left with is a visceral, sincere and compelling original story about betrayal, friendship and two women trying to survive by any means necessary in a toxic system fashioned against them. Shout out to Kiki Kitana Rodigeuz and Mya Taylor for delivering the heart and soul of Tangerine, black trans visibility and perspective is so important – but we still have a long way to go. More films like this please.
Available on All 4, Amazon Prime, Google Play and Youtube
THE WATERMELON WOMAN (1996)
A cult classic LGBTQ film and most notably the first feature film directed by a black lesbian (!) – wild that this took until the 90s but let’s appreciate its importance. LGBTQ activist Cheryl Dunye not only directed this landmark film but also wrote, edited AND starred in it. Set in Philadelphia 1993, the plot follows young aspiring filmmaker ‘Cheryl’ (played by Cheryl) on a quest to discover the history of an uncredited 1930s black female actor who is only referred to as ‘The Watermelon Woman’. We follow filmmaker Cheryl – who works at a video rental store and part time as an events videographer with her friend Tamara – as she navigates the problematic and sometimes nonexistent history of black actresses and queer black women of Hollywood in the 1930s and witness her frustration that they were constantly typecasted as ‘mammies’. Cheryl is determined to shine a light on the cinematic history of black lesbians as she states “our stories have never been told” and decides to make a documentary about the subject. The cinematography and editing is fractured to distinguish between scenes from Cheryl’s life, interlaced with VHS documentary footage, and spoof archive footage which was created specifically for the film – as Dunye says “sometimes you have to create your own history”. Through the lense of Cheryl’s experiences and relationships, Dunye also cleverly examines differences, issues and attitudes of the black and white queer community of the 90s, as well as white privilege, black fetishization, racial bias of the Police and homophobia. The title of the film references this in its flip on Melvin Van Peebles comedy film ‘The Watermelon Man’ (1970) in which an extremely prejudiced white car salesman wakes up black. Winner of a Teddy Award for Best Feature Film at Berlin International Film Festival and considered a monumental film within New Queer Cinema, the cultural significance of this film is immense. Dunye not only creates an engaging, funny and openhearted dialogue regarding blackness and queerness in the 90s but also critiques Hollywood’s erasure of black actors whilst elevating the black lesbian perspective through the mythical character of ‘Fae Richards’ (The Watermelon Woman). Everyone NEEDS to watch and appreciate this film at least once.
Available on BFI, Amazon Prime, Google Play and Youtube
A colourful and touching indie drama directed by Wanuri Kahui centering the love story between two girls in Kenya where homosexuality remains illegal and punishable by imprisonment. ‘Rakifi’ which is Swahili for ‘friend’ references the harsh reality of Kenyan queer folk having to introduce their partners as such due to social and legislative homophobia. It also refers to the tale of friendship blossoming into forbidden love amidst a backdrop of political and religious pressures. What’s interesting about this film is that it queers and subverts the Romeo and Juliet style ‘tragic love story’. Protagonists ‘Kena’ and ‘Ziki’ are the daughters of two opposing local politicians going head to head in a campaign war, Ziki from a privileged wealthy family and Zena from a more humble background – everything including their friends, family and society is against them, yet despite their divergent upbringings and societal constraints we are presented with an alternative more hopeful perspective. The cinematography is gloriously vibrant and colour plays an important role in the film. Vivid contrasting tones and patterns are used throughout in order to reflect the kaleidoscopic setting of Nairobi and depict Kenyan culture, softer pastels are also used to convey the more intimate moments between Kena and Ziki. Notably, Rafiki was the first Kenyan film to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, but was banned in its home country due to its “promotion of lesbianism contrary to Kenyan law”, the Kenyan Film Classification Board asked director Wanuri Kahui to change the ending as it was too “positive” and she refused (an iconic and brave decision) which led to the ban. In order to qualify for the Oscars Best Foreign Film category, the ban was lifted for seven days in September 2018 – where it subsequently sold out – after she sued the Kenyan Government. This film is SO important in sharing the plight of queer people in countries where homosexuality is still illegal, highlighting how much further we still have to go to fight for the rights of everyone in our community. Go and support black female director Wanuri Kahuri and queer cast members by taking the time to watch this gem.
Available to watch on Netflix, BFI and Amazon Prime
CHUTNEY POPCORN (1999)
The first feature length film co-written and directed by Nisha Ganatra who also starred as protagonist young Indian-American lesbian ‘Reena’ who lives and works in New York City. This touching comedy paints a portrait of two sisters straddling an identity between two cultures and the shifting dynamics of an Indian-American family. When Reena’s happily married sister ‘Sarita’ discovers she is infertile, Reena steps in and offers to be a surrogate in the hope of bettering her relationship with their disapproving mother who frowns on her sexual orientation. We also witness the pressure this puts on Reena’s relationship with her girlfriend Lisa and how they navigate surrogacy as a couple. Chutney Popcorn perceptively examines issues of cultural assimilation, motherhood, sexuality and family in a lighthearted way. Fundamentally this film, creates visibility and validates the experience of second generation immigrants in Western society and addresses themes of cultural homophobia suffered by queer POCs. South-Asian represenation in cinema is still severely lacking and Chutney Popcorn lends us an eye into a part of the South-Asian queer experience which is so often overlooked and should be more visible. It also several film awards at the San-Francsico Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, the Paris Lesbian Film Festival and L.A Outfest. All-in-all a sensitive and heartwarming story by Nisha Ganatra which deserves more attention, I also urge you to check out some of her other work such as Dear White People and Transparent.
Available on Amazon Prime
Another magical instalment from Pariah’s (2011) writer and director Dee Rees. A turbulent and moving HBO biopic based on the life of 1920s vocal powerhouse Bessie Smith. This vivid and intimate portrait into Bessie Smith’s life illustrates her tenacious spirit and reveals how she helped pioneer the genre of blues music, propelling it into mainstream consciousness. Queen Latifa smashes it as the fierce eponymous lead ‘Bessie’ in perhaps one of her best on screen performances to date. Despite her impoverished background and the odds stacked against her, Bessie overcame the many obstacles in her life with a dogged determination, earning herself fame, fortune and the title of the ‘Empress of Blues’ at a time when America was still racially segregated. Bessie’s bravery, talent and no-nonsense attitude paved the way for the likes of Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. At her peak, she was the highest paid African-American recording artist of her time and the first African-American superstar. She was also instrumental in trailblazing the growth of the ‘race records’ music market targeted at black audiences of the Jazz Age. Throughout the majority of Bessie we witness her refusal to bow down to authority, the patriarchy and the white establishment – and even at one point she bravely confronts the KKK. The film Bessie defies conventions in its frank and empowering presentation of her assertiveness and dominant sexuality as a woman who was both black and openly bisexual in the 1920s, when American society was still extremely misogynistic, homophobic and oppressively racist. Although made for TV, the film is still vibrant and cinematic, with hearty musical numbers, opulent costumes and colourful sets. The fact that Bessie was directed by Dee Rees – an out black queer woman, also brings a powerful sense of genuinity and sensitivity to the perspective of the film. The documentation of Bessie’s life is vital in creating visibility and celebrating the black queer women of history who are so often erased, Bessie’s incredible body of work helped shape the sound of the 21st Century and her attitude and influence are still with us today. Watch this film.
Available on Amazon Prime, Youtube and Google Play
THE HANDMAIDEN (2016)
Winner of the 71st British Academy Film Awards, Best Film Not in the English Language category, this South Korean erotic psychological thriller directed by Park Chan-Wook, is arguably one of the most gripping films released in the past five years. Adapted from Welsh queer novelist Sarah Water’s 2002 ‘Fingersmith’, the narrative is shifted from Victorian era Britain to Post-Colonial Korea under Japanese rule. Chan-Wook depicts a spellbinding and sensual tale of dark humour, lesbian desire, betrayal and revenge split into a twist filled triptych. At the beginning of the film we meet Korean orphan and pickpocket ‘Sook-Hee’ (Kim Tae-ri) who is persuaded to join conman ‘Count Fujiwara’ in his elaborate plot to cheat a beautiful and wealthy young Japanese Lady ‘Lady Hideko’ (Kim Min-hee) out of her large inheritance. Sook-Hee is enlisted to become Lady Hideko’s handmaiden in order to encourage her to fall for Count Fujiwara, so he can marry her then have her committed to a mental asylum and steal her wealth. As we see Lady Hideko under the control of her merciless abusive Uncle Kouzuki – collector of rare ancient erotica works – we are granted a glimpse into the cultural history of Japanese erotica, listening parties and sexual powerplay. The cinematography and editing are breathtaking and exquisite which combined with the suspenseful score makes for a thoroughly compelling watch. The narrative is enigmatic, unpredictable and brimming with psychological corruption, but fundamentally its thoughtful depiction of female sexuality and autonomy is what stands out. The Handmaiden was well received by author Sarah Waters as an authentic interpretation of the eroticism in her book, stating that the film remained “very faithful to the idea that the women are appropriating a very male pornographic tradition to find their own way of exploring their desires” whilst at the same time autonomously dismantling those traditions. Chan-Wook’s portrayal of Sook-Hee’s and Lady Hideko’s affair is one centred around sensitivity and female pleasure, that is denied whenever they are in the presence of a man. The Handmaiden both pokes fun at the sexuality of its male characters and critiques the perverse and violating fantasies of submission discussed by Count Fujiwara and Uncle Kouzuki, with the audience feeling Lady Hideko’s palpable revulsion at the male protagonist’s attempts at seduction. As the story unravels it becomes apparent that the overarching theme is one of empowerment and its importance as a film championing Asian lesbian heriones should not be dismissed.
Available on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Google Play and Youtube
25 years after the cultural benchmark of the ballroom scene Paris Is Burning (1990), comes it’s younger successor ‘Kiki’. The 1980s New York ballroom scene has birthed a diverse generation of LGBTQ+ youths of colour who have taken it upon themselves to form a new creative activist subculture called the ‘Kiki’ scene. This documentary follows 7 members of the New York Kiki community across a four year period, utilising their plans for upcoming balls and performances as a framework to explore their socio-economic struggles, their fight for equality, advances with political outreach and triumphs with affirming gender expressions. It also mentions trans issues sometimes overlooked by advocates, such as inadequate access to healthcare, disproportionate rates of homicide and suicide, sexual exploitation and unaddressed mental health issues. In Kiki we are introduced to Twiggy Pucci Garçon, the founder and mother of Haus of Pucci, Chi Chi, Gia, Chris, Divo, Symba and Zariya. Every one of these young queer individuals narrates an inspiring and compelling personal story, shining a light on the Kiki community as a whole and elevating the experience of the LGBTQ youth of colour in America. Much like in the original 1980s ballroom scene, the Kiki community offers performers alternative ‘families/houses’, a safe space to express themselves and solace from the persecution experienced in the communities they grew up or were exiled from. What’s empowering is that the Kiki scene has evolved from its predecessor into an LGBTQ youth of colour organisation with teams, leaders and a governing body with members now extending from New York across the whole of the US and Canada, demanding visibility and political power. The activism side of the scene has taken inspiration in its approaches from Civil Rights, Gay Rights and Black Power movements. This documentary is critical in opening a dialogue regarding the harsh realities of living as a trans woman of colour today, and how despite gay marriage becoming legalised (at the time of the filming) there is still so much left to fight for, such as equality in the workplace, LGBTQ youth homelessness and black trans rights. It’s sad to see that 25 YEARS after Paris Is Burning, society is still so violently oppressive for marginalized people, so if you’re a white ally – the first step is education. Why not make a start by watching Kiki and let it inspire you to take action.
Available on Amazon Prime
APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOUR (2014)
The hilariously deadpan directorial feature film debut of Desiree Akhavan (if you’re not familiar with her work I implore you to check out The Bisexual and The Miseducation of Cameron Post) which Akhavan also wrote AND starred in – we stan a multi-talented queen. Appropriate Behaviour is a British-produced dry comedy set in Brooklyn, New York and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014 to celebrated reviews. Here is a sharp and incisive glimpse into the life of twenty-something bisexual Iranian-American Shirin (Akhavan) navigating her tumultuous love life in Brooklyn. We follow Shirin through a series of gags, blunders and flashbacks as she attempts to piece her life back together following a break up with her girlfriend Maxine. Akhavan also critiques and pokes fun at the young Brooklynite artsy scene through the circles Shirin runs in and the somewhat ridiculous people she encounters. However, perhaps most poignantly we see Shirin’s struggle to reconcile her sexuality with her Iranian heritage giving the film a thought-provoking socio-cultural take, as this theme is returned to repeatedly throughout the narrative. Shirin’s parents are first generation immigrants from Iran where homosexuality is punishable by death and she hides her sexuality from them on numerous occasions, which ultimately takes its toll on her relationship with Maxine. This plot line is a stark reminder of the fact that in some parts of the world queer people are killed for their sexuality and shines a light on dysphoria and familial pressure experienced by LGBTQ second generation immigrants living in the West or queer folks of mixed heritage. Appropriate Behaviour is so valuable in its centering of the bisexual experience when bi visibility is considerably lacking and the bisexual perspective is often overlooked. Akhazan’s writing successfully explores all of these issues in a witty, engaging and highly relatable way, watch if you’re in the mood for some angsty moments and sardonic humour.
Available on BFI, Google Play, Youtube and Amazon Prime
FUNERAL PARADE OF ROSES (1969)
Directed by Toshio Matsumoto this surrealistic arthouse masterpiece offers a vital look into the underground gay culture of Tokyo in the 1960s. Funeral Parade of Roses is a product of the Japanese New Wave movement and influenced particularly by the works of Jean-Luc Goddard but with a more avante-garde queer take. Matsumoto explores important perspectives on gender, sexuality and identity in queer Japanese subculture. Both the subculture and film simultaneously deconstruct the idea of gender and celebrate the body’s expressions both binary and non-binary. Through this delirious protopunk drama we follow protagonist ‘Eddie’ a transgender sex worker caught in a love triangle with the owner of the gay club that she works at and another hostess, through a psychosexual spiral of flashbacks of her mother and father loosely referencing Oedipus Rex. Eddie’s narrative is interlaced with fast-paced kaleidoscopic artful scenes and real-life interviews with the queer people of Tokyo and actors in the film. These interviews create a platform for their nuanced individual journeys, opinions and experiences during the time of a counter-cultural discourse. As the film progresses the narrative becomes even more fractured, we are exposed to frantic hedonism and towards the end it descends into eccentric scenes of shocking violence. In terms of representation, Funeral Parade of Roses celebrates the children of the Tokyo’s queer underground in an innovative and idiosyncratic way but also as a piece of stand alone cinema is extremely skillful and influential. The documentary aspects are educational for the audience, defining terminology used within the scene and dispelling misconceptions in Japan at the time. The rapid whirl of fiction, metafiction and real life make for a thoroughly captivating watch.
Available on Amazon Prime
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MARSHA! (2017)
“During the daytime they call us fags and freaks, but at nighttime, we get even”
This charming small budget short film revolves around a fictional re-imagining of Marsha P Johnson’s day leading up to the Stonewall Riots in New York City 1969, and Marsha P Johnson is played by none other than Tangerine’s (2015) Mya Taylor! It follows Marsha on a hot summer day in June, excited about throwing herself a birthday party, the friends she encounters and the microaggressions, harassment and brutality she suffers at the hands of the police. There are colourful dreamy sequences where Marsha imagines performing at a club in town, interwoven with charismatic archive footage of the real Marsha P Johnson, and the film ends climatically when the police arrive at the Stonewall Inn. The cinematography and shot types are endearingly whimsical and eccentric, perhaps alluding to the ominous ending. ‘Happy Birthday, Marsha!’ could be considered an ode or love letter to Marsha and the cultural and historical significance of Marsha’s activist work for for Gay Rights. Queer transgender activist, writer and filmmaker Tourmaline wrote and produced this short with fellow queer activist and filmmaker Sasha Wortzel. Together they raised over $25,000 to fund the film via Kickstarter. It is critical that we support the works and elevate the voices of black transgender women such as Mya Johnson and Tourmaline, especially since Tourmaline’s work on Marsha P Johnson was apparently stolen by director David France to create the Netflix documentary ‘The Life and Death of Marsha P Johnson’. According to Tourmaline, David France saw a grant application video made by herself and Wortzel, then utilised decades of her archival research and language to obtain funding from Sundance/Arcus, he then poached her and Sasha’s advisor on the film to work as his producer. She stated in a 2017 interview “this kind of extraction/excavation of black life, disabled life, poor life, trans life is so old and so deeply connected to the violence Marsha had to deal with throughout her life”. Follow Tourmaline, Mya Taylor and Sasha Wortzel on instagram to support and keep up with their ongoing creative projects and activism. @tourmaliiine @missmyataylor @sashawortzel