The 10 Best Documentary Portraits of LGBT Culture

LGBT culture Paris is Burning
Off-White Productions

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Happy Pride Month, everyone! The best way to celebrate is to watch documentaries, as is true of all festive occasions. Especially films showcasing LGBT culture.

In this case, there are plenty to choose from. The LGBT community, as a distinct social group, is arguably about as old as cinema itself. It’s something of a 20th-century phenomenon. The moving image has always had a crucial role in the construction of gay identity, whether mediated through the icons of Classic Hollywood or the more recent manifestations of queer people in popular culture.

After all, the most recent active attempt to help queer youth define themselves, the “It Gets Better” Campaign, was made up of YouTube videos that directly address an entire generation. The subsequent debate over its unintentional highlighting of the success of upper-middle-class, predominantly white gay men was also very much about its image.

And so, with that said, it’s important to take some time this month and watch honest and celebratory cinematic representations of queer people. The following 10 films span more than 50 years of creative LGBT filmmaking. They represent the great variety of perspectives within the vast umbrella of queer experience, a diversity that is central in what we are all supposed to be proud of in the first place.

Finally, a programming note. This list features documentaries centered on LGBT culture. Next week we’ll be posting a list made up of much more explicitly political documentaries on the subject of LGBT rights. In a way, this is a false distinction. Identity sits on a blurred line between the personal and political, and this is especially true when it comes to the struggle for civil rights for LGBT people. However, dividing things this way is an excellent excuse to recommend 10 more films. Stay tuned for the next installment.

10. Party Monster: The Shockumentary (1998)

Brash, bizarre, and sorta trashy, Party Monster is a unique little distillation of the makeshift Club Kid aesthetic. It’s a hard-boiled crime movie for the Honey Boo Boo generation, an ambitiously low-rent documentary built from what would become the riotous and slapdash style of contemporary reality television. It’s no surprise that Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s production company now makes RuPaul’s Drag Race, something of a theoretical mountaintop for the genre.

9. Forbidden Love: Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives (1992)

Running quite the emotional gamut, this Canadian documentary is built from the testimony of nine women speaking from all over the northern nation. Touching on everything from police harassment to pulp literature, it draws its strength from the diversity of experience it features. It’s also wonderfully funny and eminently charming.

8. The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye (2011)

Deeply romantic and thoroughly surprising, The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye is a tonal triumph of tribute to a relationship, to art, and to the art of the relationship. And perhaps more than anything else, director Marie Losier has shown that LGBT nonfiction cinema is in such an exciting place that the best films are very likely still ahead of us, to be discovered as the 21st century unfolds.

7. Nitrate Kisses (1992)

Barbara Hammer’s Nitrate Kisses is something of a thematic omnibus film, addressing a number of related issues of LGBT representation and discrimination. Ageism within the lesbian community, the oppression of the Hays Code, the possible repression of novelist Willa Cather and a wide variety of other themes are coupled with the warmly presented love-making of four couples. It’s provocative in the best, most intriguing way.

6. The Mouth of the Wolf (2009)

In the Mouth of the Wolf is an unlikely love story set on the windswept coast of Italy. The beautiful romance at its center shines past the darkness of prison and addiction and its images are simultaneously breathtaking and heartbreaking. With a quiet honesty that evokes the fiction films of Joao Pedro Rodrigues and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Pietro Marcello’s award-winning documentary is one of the most intriguing films of the last decade.

5. Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives (1977)

Storytelling and biography are turning out to be an obvious theme of this list. After all, what is culture if not storytelling? Word Is Out is significant enough because of its age, presenting a breadth of LGBT experience all the way back in 1977. Yet its virtue is not merely in the mere act of breaking the silence. These voices have only become more powerful with time, an important connection to a community trying to define itself even before the rupture of the AIDS crisis.

4. The Celluloid Closet (1995)

Both immensely entertaining and crucially eye-opening, The Celluloid Closet is a universally accessible entry point for seeing the world with a set of discerning, intelligent queer eyes. It should be required viewing in every high school in the country, not simply because it teaches media literacy but because it remains compelling proof of the necessity of multiple perspectives on everything from the already queer films on this list to the monoliths of mainstream American culture.

3. Tongues Untied (1989)

Marlon Riggs’s masterpiece of honest provocation and staggering poetic fire holds up both artistically and socially, as the issues raised in its critique of racial politics within the gay community and our society at large have lost none of their resonance. Alternating between aggressive beauty and magnificent softness, Tongues Untied is as essential now as it ever was.

2. Portrait of Jason (1967)

Shirley Clarke’s unlikely documentary, filmed one night at the Chelsea Hotel in 1966, is a revelation. The titular Jason, something of a picaresque hero and hustler interrupted by Clarke’s camera, is perhaps the single most interesting character ever captured on film. Portrait of Jason builds, deconstructs, and celebrates both his identity and the very idea of identity itself, along with all of the particular trappings of the United States of the 1960s and its relationship with concepts of race, gender and sexuality. It is, simply made and simply put, the power of nonfiction cinema distilled.

1. Paris Is Burning (1990)

What left is there to say about Paris Is Burning? Jennie Livingston’s portrait of Harlem ballroom culture in the late 1980s is the classic that, alongside Todd Haynes’s Poison, marked the arrival of New Queer Cinema back in 1991. Its merits are instantly recognizable, only surpassed by its overwhelming persistence in the memory of everyone who has seen it. Its influence, and through it the influence of its subjects, has reached far out into American culture. With each successive viewing, it becomes more electric, more emotive, more legendary.

This list was originally published on June 19, 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.