As rainbows begin flooding your social media, branded content starts to wish you a happy pride and corporate sponsorships continue to flaunt their commitment to LGBTQ causes, it does well to remember that Stonewall was a riot. The 1969 events that have since become the so-called origin myth of the modern gay rights movement began not as a pride march but as an anti-police riot that lasted days. The mafia-run gay bar in the West Village in New York City played backdrop to a heated and violent confrontation between drag queens, gender non-conforming individuals (many of them black and brown) and the NYPD when the place was raided by police officers.
The prejudice and brutality that sparked the 1969 Stonewall Inn riots is not, alas, a thing of the past — especially when one remembers that there continues to be an epidemic of violence against trans women of color. And so, in the spirit of that pivotal riot we have come to celebrate (and sanitize) every year since, and given the current series of protests across the country rightfully calling out police brutality and systemic racism in the wake of the killing of George Floyd (and too many others), we’ve compiled a list of LGBT films that celebrate activism and the power of protests. Because the fight for equality needs to be an intersectional one, equally attuned to homophobia as to racism, to transphobia as to sexism, taking on gentrification and immigration, mental health and labor laws — issues these films tackle in ways both didactic and entertaining.
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson
Academy Award-nominated director David France’s (How to Survive a Plague) new documentary centers on self-described “street queen” Marsha P. Johnson, legendary fixture in New York City’s gay ghetto, who along with fellow trans icon Sylvia Rivera, founded Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.), a trans activist group based in the heart of NYC’s Greenwich Village. Mysteriously, Marsha was found floating in the Hudson River in 1992. At the time, the NYPD pegged her death as a suicide, a claim that Marsha’s comrades have always firmly rejected. Structured as a whodunit, with activist Victoria Cruz cast as detective and audience surrogate, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson celebrates the lasting political legacy of Marsha P. Johnson, while seeking to finally solve the mystery of her unexplained death.
The makers of Mala Mala hit the streets and clubs of Puerto Rico to film a joyous and often raucous look at the lives of trans women (mostly performers) in San Juan. Though they travel the road to transition differently, they are united in their fight for equality. The trans spokeswomen engage in street-level activism and march in support of an anti-LGBTQ discrimination legislation. But the film is careful not to define its subjects by their struggle, so there’s plenty of glitter and double-stick tape to go along with the blood, sweat, and tears.
Espero tua (re)volta
Lucas “Koka” Penteado, Marcela Jesus, and Nayara Souza were three ordinary high school students whose lives suddenly changed when the state of São Paulo announced plans to close 94 public schools. In response to corruption and inefficiency in their government, the teens started to organize. Beginning with protests in which local students occupied their schools for weeks on end, the student labor movement reached extraordinary heights in 2015 and 2016, bringing awareness to numerous injustices in Brazil and remedying widespread problems for the country’s poorest residents. That was, until 2018, when Jair Bolsonaro was elected with 55% of the popular vote. As the tides shift against activists and social justice movements, Koka, Marcela, and Nayara are faced with a jarring reality. As they put it, their political fight is physical: feminism, LGBTQ issues, sexual freedom — all need to be addressed if they are to move forward. Charting the country’s recent history through casual voiceover narration, gorgeous archival footage, and intimate interviews, Your Turn is a passionate championing of young activists and the future of progressive advocacy, in Brazil and beyond.
In the early 1990s, ACT UP—in France, as in the U.S.—was on the front lines of AIDS activism. Its members, mostly gay, HIV-positive men, stormed drug company and government offices in “Silence=Death” T-shirts, facing down complacent suits with the urgency of their struggle for life. Robin Campillo depicts their comradeship and tenacity in waking up the world to the disease that was killing them and movingly dramatizes the persistence of passionate love affairs even in dire circumstances. All the actors (including Argentine Nahuel Pérez Biscayart who plays half-Chilean and half-French ACT UP founder Sean Dalmazo) are splendid in this film, which not only celebrates the courage of ACT UP but also tacitly provides a model of resistance to the forces of destruction running rampant today.
Before Night Falls
This is the film that earned Javier Bardem his first Oscar nomination really putting him on the map here in the States. Based on Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas’ autobiography of the same title, the film details the openly gay Arenas’ arrest for his sexuality, his eventual escape to New York, his life there with his friend and partner, and his death as a victim of the AIDS crisis. Before Night Falls is a beautiful movie with a triumphant performance from Bardem – who we love – and shows just what living in New York means to so many.
Black Brazilian transgender singer Linn da Quebrada weaponizes the trans body and music for political protest. Linn and childhood friend Jup do Bairro use extravagantly costumed performances to dazzle audiences while opposing their country’s white heteronormative order. Figuring her embodied existence as resistance, Linn eschews the role of cis woman, instead choosing a fluid gender identity. Full of funny and intimate moments, the film advocates for personal choice against a society that imposes static gender identity.
All We’ve Got
Since 2010, over 100 queer women’s spaces — from dive bars to bookstores and dance halls to health centers — have shuttered across the United States. As concern grows over the death and dearth of these essential social hubs, this documentary takes inventory of those that continue to thrive across the country, inciting a powerful conversation about the importance of community. Whether at Alibi’s Club in Oklahoma City or WOW Café Theatre in New York City, queer women are tirelessly making room for one another on bar stools, stages, and activism’s front lines. Intrepid first-time director Alexis Clements takes us on a far-flung journey through American herstory and resilience, including the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center in San Antonio, which was founded in 1987 by a group made up of mostly Chicana activists and continues working tirelessly to create safe spaces for women.
This uplifting and rollicking documentary follows the Ovarian Psycos Cycle Brigade, a new generation of women of color in East Los Angeles who are building a queer and trans inclusive community together by putting their feminist ideals in motion with raucous, irreverent activism, fighting the violence they’ve lived with all their lives, and hoping to make a difference. Through the personal stories of the crew’s rabble-rousing founder, Xela de la X, activist, poet M.C., and single mother; street artist and original Ovarian Psyco, Andi Xoch, and a bright-eyed young woman from the neighborhood, Evelyn (Evie), the film traces how the “Ovas” emerged from the diverse, youthful, Latino, working class, immigrant neighborhoods of Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles, a community situated within the historic legacy of the Chicano/a Civil Rights Movement that emerged from L.A. in the late 1960s.
We Are The Radical Monarchs
A group of tween girls chant into megaphones, marching in the San Francisco Trans March. Fists clenched high, they wear brown berets and vests showcasing colorful badges like “Black Lives Matter” and “Radical Beauty.” Meet the Radical Monarchs, a group of young girls of color at the front lines of social justice. Set in Oakland, a city with a deep history of social justice movements, the film documents the journey of the group as they earn badges for completing units including being an LGBTQ ally, preserving the environment, and disability justice. Started by two fierce, queer women of color (Anayvette Martinez and Marilyn Hollinquest) whom we follow as they face the challenge to grow the organization, the film tracks the moment right before and soon after the 2016 election.
Read Remezcla’s review.
Kiss of the Spider Woman
Based on Manuel Puig’s glittering Hollywood-obsessed novel by the same name, Hector Babenco’s Kiss of the Spider Woman is both a love story and a political parable. Luis Molina (William Hurt) and Valentin Arregui (Raúl Julia) find themselves together in the same cell in 1970s Buenos Aires, the former for presumably corrupting a minor (a euphemism for those with homosexual proclivities), the latter for his connections to a revolutionary group. Having lived worlds apart they slowly find common ground as Molina imagines and daydreams for the two of them about the Hollywood films he loves, including his obsession with the titular character (played by Sônia Braga). But their ever growing relationship is rife for exploitation as they must figure out who and what they stand for.
Esto no es Berlín
As Mexico anticipates the 1986 World Cup, 17-year-old Carlos is less interested in soccer and more interested in listening to his record collection and admiring Rita, the older sister of his best friend, Gera. Carlos and Gera’s suburban, juvenile monotony is interrupted when Rita’s goth band introduces them to an underground nightclub, the Azteca. The teens are instantly seduced by the Azteca’s regulars and their exhilarating world of performance art, sexual fluidity, and prescription drugs. Carlos and Gera’s friendship is tested as the two explore new identities and face the consequences of adult decisions. Infused with a post-punk soundtrack and brimming with enchanting performances from a promising young cast, Esto no es Berlín delivers an energetic portrait of a clandestine sanctuary propelled by youth fleeing the societal repression of their time.
Forbidden: Undocumented and Queer in Rural America
When Moises Serrano was a baby, his parents risked everything to flee Mexico in search of the American Dream. Growing up in the rural South as an undocumented gay man, forbidden to live and love in the country he calls home, Serrano sees only one option — to fight for justice and equality. Driven by a deep love for his family, who have come to accept being treated as invisible, Moises seeks to change the world.