The 10 Best Documentaries About LGBT History

First Run Features

Once again, Happy Pride Month! Last week we featured a list of the 10 Best Documentary Portraits of LGBT Culture, films that celebrate the lives and loves of their diverse subjects. Today’s list is entitled “The Best Documentaries About LGBT History.” What’s the difference?

The distinction is, in a word, politics. Obviously when dealing with something like LGBT civil rights, culture and politics are often very closely connected. Yet the following 10 films are more consciously political, narratives of the struggle for freedom and equality over the course of history. It might be a misnomer to call all of them “activist” documentaries, and the “issue film” moniker seems reductive.

Therefore, we’ll call them history films, built from a century-long struggle against discrimination. They feature the earliest days of the Gay Liberation movement in the United States, the fight to respond to the AIDS epidemic, and the international scope of the pursuit LGBT civil rights around the world today.

10. Fig Trees (2009)

Fig Trees is an experimental, musical portrait of the work of two AIDS activists. Zackie Achmat works with the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa, Tim McCaskell with AIDS Action Now! in Canada. The film has a broad, international scope from the very beginning. Yet director John Greyson pushes the boundaries even further, placing his work in dialogue with Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts. The complexity of its images deepen the power of its message, enriching rather than confusing.

9. Paris Was a Woman (1996)

Speaking of Gertrude Stein and her longtime companion Alice B. Toklas, the most celebratory film on this list is Paris Was a Woman. Greta Schiller’s 1996 portrait of the Paris of the 1920s is a chronicle of a much-ignored period of French history, one which involved many artists from the United States as well. By shining a light on the community of creative lesbians that flocked to the City of Lights between the World Wars, Schiller asserts that queer women do in fact have a history, something so often robbed of them by patriarchal readings of the past.

8. We Were Here (2011)

The most important word in the title of this film is its first: “we.” David Weissman and Bill Weber’s chronicle of the early years of the AIDS crisis in San Francisco begins with an invocation of community. The advent of what was then known as a “Gay Plague” was a disaster, but it was mitigated in this particular city in part because of the strength of its institutions and its neighborhoods. We Were Here captures that collective, powerful spirit.

7. Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989)

The documentary is the ultimate elegiac art form. Whether it’s Wim Wenders memorializing a beloved artist in Pina or Sebastian Junger remembering Tim Hetherington, nonfiction cinema is uniquely equipped to simultaneously honor, remember and vindicate those we have lost. Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt is a collective elegy for those who lost their lives to AIDS, focusing on five individual stories and then concluding with the creation of the AIDS Quilt itself. It’s heartbreaking and beautiful.

6. Call Me Kuchu (2012)

This documentary is both an inspiring tale of activist bravery and a requiem for a departed hero. Ugandan LGBT civil rights advocate David Kato was murdered in 2011, a fact that comes as a shock in Call Me Kuchu even if you know it going in. Directors Malika Zouhali-Worrall and Katherine Fairfax Wright have crafted a marvelous sense of life, a spirit of defiant optimism in the face of horrifying governmental and social oppression. It is also perhaps the best example of the recent surge of documentaries looking at LGBT rights around the world, alongside Born This Way, An Abominable Crime, Mala Mala and others.

5. Silence = Death (1990)

Rosa von Prauheim’s 1990 cry in the dark is both a stunning documentary and a powerful historical document, paired with the unforgettable ACT UP slogan. It’s a fiery collaboration of artists including Allen Ginsberg, Keith Haring, David Wojnarowicz and an unforgettable opening performance by Emilio Cubeiro. To call it a relic would be only half-true, as it continues to ignite the soul of its audience today.

4. Beyond Hatred (2005)

There is an almost tranquil sadness to this French documentary, the story of a young man murdered because he was gay. Director Olivier Meyrou chooses to focus almost entirely on the aftermath, examining not only the crime itself but the subsequent prosecution of those accused of perpetrating it. Beyond Hatred is a story of a family’s grief and a justice system’s responsibility, with a verite approach that underlines the unfortunate universality of this particular kind of violence and hatred.

3. Stonewall Uprising (2010)

This is the revolution and the revelation, the symbolic birth of a movement and perhaps a people. Directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner do an excellent job characterizing the silence of the closet that dominated America before the Stonewall Riot, but the film really shines in its chronicle of the event itself. This is a history made in the streets, presented with exhilarating style and a commitment to the diversity of the participants.

2. The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

Something of a crossover moment for LGBT documentary cinema, The Times of Harvey Milk won Rob Epstein his first Best Documentary Feature Oscar. Narrated by Harvey Fierstein and built from the ever-inspiring footage of Harvey Milk at work, this is the chronicle of a hero and the tragic end to his life and career at the hands of a country that lagged behind his message of acceptance. Thirty years later it’s remarkable how well this film has held up, a testament not only to the power of its narrative but the means with which it tells such an essential story.

1. How to Survive a Plague (2012)

The most exciting thing about How to Survive a Plague is how new it is. As was the case for the list of LGBT culture documentaries from last week, there is a sense here that the best LGBT films remain ahead of us. David France’s debut feature is a triumph of what Shola Lynch has called “historical verite,” the crafting of a narrative out of archival footage. As a history of ACT UP it is peerless and as a portrait of heroism it is among the best of nonfiction cinema in general.

This list was originally published on June 25, 2014.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.