Gus Kenworthy
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Reflecting on Queer Cinema's Golden Age: The Gay '90s

The Birdcage (directed by Mike Nichols, 1996)

The Birdcage is one of the most beloved family comedies of the ’90s. The film is about a gay cabaret owner and his drag queen companion — and it’s not a tragedy, which is unusual when put up against many of its queer cinema predecessors. The film by Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Working Girl, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf) proved to be a turning point for society's evolving views on homosexuality. Sandwiched between the zenith of the AIDS crisis and Ellen and Will & Grace, the film set the stage for big changes. The film was an acclaimed box-office hit and made a star of out actor Nathan Lane. But it did so much more for the perceptions of gay men and the idea of LGBT people raising children. The Birdcage could have easily been a niche film, but what it had to say was so universal; it demonstrated that a straight family and a queer one could have the same family values and love for their children.

I grew up in a family that was really big on micro-aggressions. As I approached my late teenage years, I was coming to terms with my sexuality. My gay was seeping out. So out of fear I found myself watching a lot of queer films and reading queer literature in secret. I remember watching this film, my family coming into the living room, and debating whether I should keep it on or not. I was going to change the channel, but then my dad began talking about how he loves Nathan Lane. Then my mom chimed in, and not only had she seen The Birdcage, it's one of her favorite films. My whole family stayed to watch the film, and not one negative thing was said about the LGBT characters. It's true what they say — film can bring all types of people together. —Angela Jude

Set It Off (directed by F. Gary Gray, 1996)

The character of Cleo in Set It Off was so unapologetically black, so unapologetically queer, and truly progressive for the time. To this it day it is one of film's most fleshed-out representations of a butch lesbian. Queen Latifah’s character is strong, loyal. and a bank robber, but what is great is she isn’t the hypermasculine-to-a-fault archetype that is often associated with black queer women. Takashi Bufford’s screenplay created breathing room for Cleo to exist authentically in a group of friends who were all straight except for her, instead of a male-dominated space where black lesbians are constantly placed, so that they may sit comfortably among the stereotypes of black men and masculinity. This Los Angeles-set heist flick came out just four years after racially motivated riots tore through swaths of the city. The character of Cleo was a symbol of those poor neighborhoods affected; she was going to live out and proud and do things her way or die trying.

Queen-Fuckin-Latifah in Set It Off — what more needs to be said! I saw her on my TV screen and I was like, I want to be like that, heck, I was already pretty much that: Taller, stronger with a slight attitude and always rocking cornrows. Sure, I was only 7 or 8, but I knew the moment I saw Queen Latifah smoking with that beautiful girl dancing over her, that she was going to be my idol. I didn’t see the full film until many years later, but seeing the character of Cleo being gay before I even knew what that word meant was all it took. Whoopi Goldberg from Sister Act had been dethroned as my idol, and I finally knew there was an alternative to being a girly-girl. —Angela Jude

The Watermelon Woman (directed by Cheryl Dunye, 1996)

The Watermelon Woman is a cult classic feature film from 1996 about a black lesbian who works in a video store (remember those?) and in her free time becomes obsessed with researching and making a film about a queer black actress who played a “mammy” in multiple 1940s films. The actress is only referred to as “The Watermelon Woman” in the credits, and thus Cheryl Dunye, the writer, director, and lead actor in The Watermelon Woman, goes on an adventure to find out everything she can about this woman. Clearly a lover of film, Dunye is disappointed that the medium she adores doesn’t include characters that resemble her — black, queer — so she goes on to make her own stamp on the film world.

What I love about The Watermelon Woman is that it has the same qualities as novels and writers who I love and can’t stop reading or gushing about. There are only certain works of art — novels, movies, music — that make me feel like I’m experiencing something truly revolutionary, truly ahead of its time. It’s something I felt the first time I read Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands and the same thought I had the first time I read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts: "I didn’t know you were allowed to do that?"

Storytellers say there are no new stories, only different ways of telling them, and Dunye does that. She shakes up storytelling in a way that I’d never seen done before. It’s funny to think this, but sometimes as viewers and as creative people, we need permission, or examples to look to, to imagine the height that art can lead us to. I was just an unsuspecting film viewer, sitting in my seat at Outfest, when I was fooled, at first, into thinking I was watching a documentary, before realizing I was watching a fictionalized narrative that introduces itself to the viewer as a documentary, before taking on an adventure of its own.

I think back often to the last scenes of The Watermelon Woman, when Cheryl Dunye’s character breaks the fourth wall and address the viewer to say, “Sometimes you have to create your own history.” As a queer woman, I related to Dunye’s urgency in creating her own history, to see herself reflected back through the eyes of the film industry that she obviously loves, but one that because of prejudices of the time, lacks any positive representation of black characters during the era that is known as “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” I’m not going to spoil the movie for those who haven’t seen it, but I will say that if you have an opportunity to watch The Watermelon Woman, you must. —Yezmin Villarreal

High Art (directed by Lisa Cholodenko, 1998)

Brat-Packer Ally Sheedy playing a lesbian? That was likely 85 percent (this number has not been confirmed) of the draw of High Art for queer women of a certain age. But The Kids Are All Right director Lisa Cholodenko’s first feature dug so much deeper than girl-crush nostalgia. The film, at times, all too romantically explored the intersection of the New York City art world and heroin addiction. Sheedy gives the performance of her life as Lucy, a reclusive drug-addicted photographer poised for a professional rebirth thanks to her beautiful, idealistic neighbor Syd (a sumptuous Radha Mitchell), an ambitious newcomer at a leading art magazine, who pitches Lucy for the cover. Syd and Lucy fall hard and fast over a working weekend during which Syd becomes the object of Lucy’s camera and gaze. Complicating matters is Lucy’s deeply drug-addled German actress girlfriend Greta, played with unforgettable ennui by Patricia Clarkson. Moody and loaded with pathos, High Art is not a feel-good film, but history-making in that it was one of the first lesbian-themed films that circumvented the familiar coming-out narrative.

At the literal dead end of Airport Road in Hartford, Conn., past the cavernous Lobster Pot seafood restaurant, burned-out industrial lots, and a sex toy/video store the size of a warehouse, was Cinema City, a four-screen art-house cinema where I spent the better part of my days off in my 20s and 30s. My girlfriend at the time and I saw High Art there, and despite its downer of an ending, I convinced another lesbian couple to join us when we screened it a second time. Our friends railed at me for taking them to such a “depressing” movie, but my over-identification with the love scene during which Syd cries from being overwhelmed with emotion was so palpable that I couldn’t fathom their tepid response to the film. Sure, the story was maudlin, but the feeling that some aspect of my life had been accurately represented was entirely the bigger picture. —Tracy E. Gilchrist

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Tags: film, Media

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