The Best LGBT Documentaries of 2017

Whitney Can I Be Me?

Whitney: Can I Be Me

Whitney: Can I Be Me frankly explores the many problems that plagued the brilliant singer, including drug use, homophobia, and the pressure not to sound “too black.” Among those featured in the Showtime documentary is Robyn Crawford, a close friend and possibly romantic partner of Houston’s, and the film suggests that Crawford’s love could have saved her. “I really feel that if Robyn was accepted into Whitney's life, Whitney would still be alive today,” says Houston’s husband, Bobby Brown — and several subjects interviewed in this revealing documentary agree.

Chavela

This documentary on Chavela Vargas is a moving love letter to the lesbian Mexican singer, a pioneer who began as a street performer and rose to international stardom. A rare 1991 interview provides the basis of this film directed by Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi, who show the audience the intensity of Vargas's performances as well as her life, which included relationships with famous women like Frida Kahlo and Ava Gardner. 

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson

In July 1992, Marsha P. Johnson's body was found floating in the Hudson River. The police called it a suicide. But friends and witnesses provided a different story. Some reported seeing the LGBT rights pioneer being chased by unknown pursuers in the streets of New York City that same night. Did Johnson fall through the boards of the West Village Piers? Was she pushed? Did she jump to escape pursuers with possible Mafia ties? Did she take her own life due to fear or depression?

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, a Netflix documentary by David France (How to Survive a Plague), asks these very questions. The film follows Victoria Cruz  — a transgender activist from New York City's Anti-Violence Project — as she investigates what really happened to the late activist. In this journey, Cruz interviews friends, family, and acquaintances of Johnson, who, in addition to providing clues, attest to her role in shaping the modern LGBT rights movement. The documentary itself has sparked its own questions and controversy over Johnson's legacy, after trans activist Reina Gossett claimed France appropriated some of her ideas and research. France denies the claim, which has left many in the community divided.

Kevyn Aucoin: Beauty & The Beast in Me

Kevyn Aucoin was one of the first celebrity makeup artists — a pioneer whose work with Cindy Crawford on her 1986 Vogue cover helped launch him to stardom. Throughout his career, he painted the faces of the most famous women in the world, including Whitney Houston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Janet Jackson, and Cher. Many of these women appear Kevyn Aucoin: Beauty & The Beast in Me in order to honor their late friend, who died as a result of an undiagnosed case of acromegaly. Predating social media, Aucoin routinely filmed his behind-the-scenes interactions with these stars, and this footage, included in the film, is fascinating to watch. The documentary also captures Aucoin's personal life. An adoptee from Louisiana, the gay figure would spend much of his life trying to win the acceptance of his family, while being a mentor to LGBT youth.

Rebels on Pointe

New York City's all-male ballet company, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo (a.k.a. the "trocks"), jeté to the big screen in Rebels on Pointe. Founded after the Stonewall Riots, the company has combined drag, politics, and dance to delight fans around the world for over four decades. The documentary shows this history with reverance through archival fooage and interviews with performers, who started, according to Advocate editorial director Diane Anderson-Minshall, a "queer revolution in a tutu."

The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin

You've read (and seen!) Tales of the City. But do you know all about the author of the acclaimed San Francisco-set series, Armistead Maupin? A new documentary by Jennifer M. Kroot (To Be Takei) traces Maupin's surprising life, from his upbringing in the South to his writing career as a chronicler of the gay rights movement. And what an upbringing. The documentary delves deep into the gay writer's surprising family history: Maupin grew up in North Carolina with a father who regularly used the n word, and was the descendant of a Confederate general who was a proponent of slaveowner rights. Maupin also worked for the anti-LGBT Sen. Jesse Helms, interviewed the imperial wizard of the KKK, served in the Vietnam War, and shook hands with President Richard Nixon before coming out as gay at 25. Essentially, a lot happened before Anna Madrigal came along — and a lot happened after.

Whose Streets?

The documentary Whose Streets? chronicles the uprising in Ferguson, Mo., in reaction to the police shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in 2014. But it also accomplishes so much more. Fulfilling the promise of its filmmakers, the movie is “a powerful battle cry from a generation fighting, not for their civil rights, but for the right to live." It's a must-see account of the beginnings of Black Lives Matter and a global movement for justice.

Strong Island

Transgender director Yance Ford created one of the year's most moving and personal documentaries, Strong Island. In it, Ford turns the lens on his own family, which is still reeling from the death of its eldest child, William Jr., a 24-year-old black teacher who was killed by a 19-year-old white mechanic in 1991. A grand jury refused to indict the killer, delivering an additional blow. Thorough this story, Ford tells a broader tale about systemic racism in America, from the Jim Crow South to the modern-day suburbs of New York City. It's an important, mesmerizing, necessary production.

Bayard & Me

Bayard & Me tells the story of Bayard Rustin, the organizer of the March on Washington, who in the 1980s adopted his partner, Walter Naegle, in order to obtain the equivalent rights of marriage. The winner of the Outfest Grand Jury Prize for Short Film, the production is a fascinating look into an untold chapter of the civil rights movement, centered on interracial gay love. Watch the full film above.

Lady Gaga: Five Foot Two

Lady Gaga's new Netflix documentary, Lady Gaga: Five Foot Two, provides a fascinating glimpse into the everyday life of the "Born This Way" singer, who is one of the world's most prominent members and advocates of the LGBT community. She keeps busy. The doc shows the production and release of her latest album Joanne, her filming on American Horror Story, and her preparation for her Super Bowl halftime performance — a milestone for any artist, but also a political moment in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. In between, the viewer sees her struggles with pain, her love of fans, and a few delicious diva moments.

Tags: film

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