Since the early 1900s, films have transformed their status as a source of entertainment and a force for social change. Being powerful agents of storytelling, films captivated audiences across the world. The Oscars – cinema’s most prestigious awards brought around recognition for cinematic gems whose storytelling prowess played an essential role in bringing queer history into the light. For decades, Hollywood and other foreign film industries have showcased groundbreaking portrayals of queer characters and celebrated queer culture through love and identity, ultimately pushing the boundaries of queer representation.
Over the century, as films explored these narratives, they shined a light on many key issues the LGBTQ+ community were facing. These accolade-winning films broke stereotypes and challenged societal expectations through the intersection of film, art and activism.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Brokeback Mountain was a groundbreaking film portraying the same-sex love story of two Wyoming cowboys, Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) and how it affected the lives of people near and dear to them. The movie, directed by Ang Lee, received critical acclaim, winning 3 Oscars (Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score) and led a widespread cultural conversation on gender stereotypes, love, identity and homosexuality. Its success also fostered greater acceptance and understanding of the struggles faced by the LGBTQ+ community and helped legitimize the same narratives which paved the way for more stories and representation of the queer community in mainstream cinema.
Call Me By Your Name (2017)
This 2017 Oscar Winner was a poignant coming-of-age’ film that explored the love and desire between two young men, Elio and Oliver played by Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer respectively. The film’s portrayal of a same-sex relationship in an ideal Italian setting helped normalize LGBTQ relationships on screen, emphasizing that love is a universal emotion. Winning critical acclaim through an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, Call Me By Your Name sprung into mainstream consciousness and won the hearts of everyone globally.
Moonlight tells the story of a young black man named Chiron who grapples with identity and sexuality in a tough Miami neighborhood, while experiencing the daily struggles of childhood, adolescence and adulthood. The film revealed the remarkable and challenging stereotypes around masculinity and sexuality in contemporary African-American life. It also characterized the effects of crime and drug abuse in modern-day America, especially on people of color. Mahershala Ali delivered a stellar acting performance that earned him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor along with 2 other awards for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Motion Picture. This movie played a vital role in sparking conversation about marginalized communities in the USA, right about at the time same-sex marriages were legalized in the country.
Harvey Milk was one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States who became an icon for LGBTQ+ rights due to his unwavering fight for equality. Starring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, the film chronicled his life and activism and his foundation at the grassroots of the movement for equal rights. Sean Penn’s Best Actor Oscar-winning performance brought Milk’s story to a wider audience and inspired a generation of advocates fighting for the rights of gay people. This movie also celebrated Harvey Milk’s legacy as a beacon of hope and empowerment in a stigmatized and conservative world.
Starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, Philadelphia is about a lawyer, Andrew Beckett (Hanks) and his termination from his law firm on the grounds of his HIV diagnosis, and how he hires a homophobic African American lawyer, Joe Miller (Washington) to represent him. A groundbreaking film to fight society’s most avid fears in the 90s – AIDS and homosexuality, Philadelphia humanized the experience of people living with the HIV/AIDS virus and shed light on the discrimination and stigma faced by homosexual individuals and earned Hanks his first Oscar as The Best Actor in a leading role. The film went on to portray Beckett’s character as “just as any other individual” who deserves to be treated equally, despite his sexuality. The film evokes many emotions related to justice, discrimination and compassion as it highlights a tense discourse on equal rights.
A Fantastic Woman (2017)
A Chilean movie directed by Sebastián Lelio tells the story of Marina, a transgender woman who is mourning the loss of her older boyfriend while fighting for basic human respect and grasping the hatred towards her. The film was an empathetic and powerful storytelling experience that highlighted the struggles of transgender individuals, their acceptance and inclusivity in society. Daniela Vega, who plays Marina, became the first transgender woman to be an Academy Awards presenter in 2018, the same year that her film A Fantastic Woman won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. After the film’s critical acclaim, Daniela Vega emphasized the need for understanding and acceptance of the transgender community and that parents, just like hers, play a pivotal role in helping their kids transition into who they are.
The Danish Girl (2015)
A groundbreaking movie on the compassionate portrayal of the life of Lili Elbe, a Danish transgender woman, one of the first known individuals to have undergone a gender transition. Eddie Redmayne, who plays Lili, delivers a transformative and powerful performance that won him the Best Actor Academy Award in 2016. The film contributed to the visibility and normalization of transgender issues, educating audiences worldwide about their fight for identity, equality and freedom from hate and discrimination. In later interviews, Redmayne would go on to describe his inspiration for this role as the countless transgender men and women whom he interviewed to understand their plight and struggle for identity.
Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
Boys Don’t Cry earned Hilary Swank her first Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role. A film renowned for its unflinching real-life portrayal of Brandon Teena, a transgender man in rural Nebraska, who finds himself in and love then falls victim to a brutal hate crime by two men. The gruesome end to the movie led to it being rated R by studios. After its release and critical acclaim, Boys Don’t Cry inspired advocacy and activism within the LGBTQ+ community, sparking conversations about the need for legal protections, societal acceptance, and improved support systems for transgender people.
All About My Mother (1999)
Pedro Almodovar’s masterpiece was celebrated for its nuanced portrayal of transgender characters all while challenging gender identities and stereotypes. All About My Mother is a unique story of a nurse Manuela, who travels to Barcelona in search of her recently dead son’s father, who is a tranvestite named Lola. The film was critically acclaimed and praised for highlighting key issues of motherhood, gender identity and the complexities of human relationships. Some heart-wrenching performances and strong writing won Almodovar his first-ever Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2000.
The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert (1994)
TAOPQOTDis a vibrant celebration of queer culture, drag queens and transgender women. The film portrays two transgender women travelling the Australian Outback to perform their famous drag shows. Engulfed with a lot of humour and great musical numbers, the film promotes a nature of self-acceptance and empowerment and challenges primitive gender norms and societal insecurities. The film was also pivotal in highlighting the exquisite creativity of drag shows and how drag queens influenced fashion, entertainment and arts. Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, who were at the helm of the kaleidoscopic and colorful costume design won an Oscar in the same category.
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of famed author Truman Capote is a testament to the importance of authentic representation of queer storytelling. It also highlighted the significance and contribution of gay authors like Capote to literature and arts.
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
A real-life story about Sonny (Al Pacino) who desperately attempts to rob a bank in order to fund his partner’s gender reassignment surgery. In real life, Sonny’s partner does get the surgery she needs.
Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
This 2013 biographical drama tells the story of Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) who is diagnosed with HIV/AIDS and struggles to procure medication for not his treatment but for other people riddled with the disease. The film also showcases his friendly relationship with a transgender prostitute, Rayon (played by Jared Leto).
Throughout the history of film, there are movies that have proved to be catalysts for change and empathy for the queer community. Each of the above films has not only entertained but also informed audiences that the struggle against injustice and discrimination is real and it requires every human’s support despite their gender identity. These films have not only highlighted conversations around LGBTQ+ issues and gender norms but have also broadened horizons and impacted society, history and culture in an ever-lasting narrative of LGBTQ+ history. These films remind us that through the lens of art and storytelling, society can truly shape queer history.