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Movies that expand the evolution of LGBTQ+ representation in film

A man hand holding a Lgbt rainbow flag and movie clapper board.
Hanna Budzko
The rising visibility of each group shines a greater spotlight on the presence of all, writes movie critic tt stern-enzi.

When representation meets intersectionality as audiences and cultural writers turn their gazes to the past, we find ourselves engaged in conversations about works that focus on the notion that a particular film couldn't be made today as it was decades before. Greenlighting projects comes with an understanding that how characters are seen and recognized matters, which challenges a long-established status quo that has benefitted certain performers (and forced others to remain invisible, even in the telling of their own narratives).

We have set a standard — stretching all the way back to the earliest days of live theater (let's just posit it, for the sake of this conversation, to the Shakespearean age) — that allowed white men to play all roles: male, female, people of color, different sexual identities. The cultural norms of this period informed and maintained an ongoing system of not only deliberate erasure, but a celebration of one group's (cis white men) portrayal of others as the privileged end goal.

The question that emerges is what type of effort is required (and for how long) to change the situation and when will we ever know if the gradual evolution has had a lasting impact? In some ways, I have been asking this question each month I have considered a month of identity representation, acknowledging that each group is at different phases of this long journey. More importantly, each has the opportunity to study and learn from the others and at some point, unite to support one another. The rising visibility of each group shines a greater spotlight on the presence of all.

Happy Pride.

The past

Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)

I could have started anywhere in cinema's past, so why kick this discussion off with a film released in 1985 that, at the time, was little more than an indie project based on a 1976 novel written by Argentinian author Manuel Puig? Well, from an awards season perspective, the film was nominated in four major categories — Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Director and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium — with William Hurt claiming the Leading Actor Award. Going back to the celebration concern, Hurt's win earns problematic scrutiny because he's playing both a gay man and a man of Hispanic descent. Remember, we were still extolling performers for not just playing against type, but overcoming cultural challenges, rather than casting someone who was gay and Hispanic.

Bound (1996)

A little more than 10 years later, the beginnings of a cultural shift seemingly emerge. Writing and directing siblings Lilly and Lana Wachowski bum rush the scene with a fun and sexy indie movie that upends expectations for neo-noir at a time when the genre was exploding out of the box (from Killing Zoe and Pulp Fiction to Following and Memento). But nothing had the same wicked sensuality as Bound, which dared to present Gina Gershon as a tough ex-con who teams up with her lover Violet (Jennifer Tilly) to steal money from and frame Violet’s crooked boyfriend (Joe Pantoliano) for the crime.

The Watermelon Woman (1996)

Somehow 1996 became the year of subversiveness, in the conception and execution of narratives exploring sexual identity in new ways. As the co-writer (with Douglas McKeown), director and star of The Watermelon Woman, Cheryl Dunye took command of a fictional history of the world she created, setting her sights on a "legendary" Black actress from the 1930s who played stereotypical mammy roles, while connected both professionally and personally with a white woman who was also one of the few female directors in Hollywood at the time. Dunye's character has a similar relationship dynamic with a white woman, but the writer-director spoke, at the time of the film's release, of how the mythic Watermelon Woman was invented, because there was a "real lack of information about the lesbian and film history of African American women.

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My Best Friend's Wedding (1997)

Julia Roberts plays Julianne Potter, a woman whose best friend Michael (Dermot Mulroney) announces that he's engaged to Kimberly (Cameron Diaz), which triggers Julianne to consider that maybe she's been in love with Michael and has to do whatever it takes to stop his impending marriage. What's missing? The sassy sidekick — or more appropriately here — the droll gay friend (Rupert Everett) who steadfastly guides Julianne to making the right decision for herself and Michael. Everett, a handsome performer with leading man potential, faced diminishing opportunities once he came out in 1989, but he earned both BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations for his supporting role in this major box office draw.

Actor Asia Kate Dillon
CJ Rivera/AP
Actor Asia Kate Dillon attends the premiere of MGM+ limited series "A Spy Among Friends," at the Crosby Street Hotel, Monday, Feb. 27, 2023, in New York.

The one to watch

Asia Kate Dillon

Known for roles in Orange is the New Black, Billions and John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum, Dillon truly seized attention as the first gender nonbinary character on American television in Billions. An important and meaningful conversation has begun thanks to Dillon's three Critics Choice nominations for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series (Billions, from 2018-2020). When submitting themselves for Emmy consideration for acting, they were afforded the right to choose which gendered category they wanted and settled on "actor," which is a gender-neutral word. This has prompted several awards groups to combine or reconsider their gender-segregated categories.

The present

The Inspection (2022)

Writer-director Elegance Bratton daringly decided to tell a version of his own story in The Inspection, casting Jeremy Pope as Ellis French, a young, gay Black man living on the streets and dealing with rejection from his mother (Gabrielle Union), who enlists in the Marines to challenge the system to see and accept him for who he is. Once upon a time, if this story had been told, it would have featured a non-gay (and likely non-POC) lead, who would have been honored for helping us to find the humanity and universal truth of the character, which would have been code for offering a reflection that spoke to white audiences.

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Knock at the Cabin (2023)

A same-sex couple, played by Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge, find their idyllic retreat with their daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) interrupted by four strangers (Dave Bautista, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abby Quinn, and Rupert Grint) who hold them hostage in their cabin and attempt to force them to sacrifice a member of their family to avert an approaching apocalypse. That was the same basic premise of Paul Tremblay's novel, which the film is based on. The film springs to life thanks to director M. Night Shyamalan — without his requisite twists, but change is obviously coming with audiences welcoming the shift.

Strange Way of Life (2023)

Who else but Pedro Almodóvar would dare to give audiences a dramatic short Western revealing the story of Silva (Pedro Pascal), a cowboy who crosses the desert to visit his friend Jake (Ethan Hawke), after 25 years apart. Jake, now a sheriff, realizes this encounter is more than a friendly reminder of their past exploits as the proceedings veer toward a campier version of Brokeback Mountain. The short premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May and will likely ride into other festivals with its guns a’blazing.

Good Grief (anticipated in 2023)

Following his amazing multi-hyphenate success with Schitt’s Creek, Emmy award-winning showrunner, writer, actor, director and producer Dan Levy is set to make his feature film debut as the writer, director and star of the upcoming Netflix release Good Grief. The story follows a man seeking to distance and distract himself after his mother's death through his marriage to an older wealthy man. Unfortunately, he loses his husband soon after and then embarks on an adventure with his two best friends to deal with this run of grief. Rarely does film create opportunities for men to open up in such emotional ways, but Levy might be providing a revolutionary template for male grieving, laughing and loving like never before.

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Rustin (anticipated 2023)

Representation requires an understanding of history, so the story of gay Civil Rights activist Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo) is the perfect conclusion for this monthly installment. Rustin was one of the key organizers of the 1963 March on Washington and a close advisor to Dr. King. Directed by George C. Wolfe, the film arrives with the support of producing partner Higher Ground Productions, headed by former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. During his time in the White House, President Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom, presenting the honor to Rustin's longtime partner Walter Naegle.

tt stern enzi has spent 20 years as a freelance writer and film critic in the Greater Cincinnati region covering the film industry and film festivals while also earning distinction as an accredited critic on Rotten Tomatoes and membership in the Critics Choice Association.