LGBTQ Films of the 90s: Queer Film Defined the Indie Film Boom of the Decade


Week of the 90s: from “Paris Is Burning” to “Boys Don’t Cry”, the history of independent cinema is the history of queer cinema.

Invented by film historian and critic B. Ruby Rich in 1992 to give voice to the explosion of queer cinema she witnessed on the burgeoning film festival circuit, New Queer Cinema’s influence on the independent cinema cannot be overstated. The 80s saw movies like Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise” and Steven Soderbergh’s “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” explode the idea of ​​what film could be, in turn, inspiring a new generation of radical queer filmmakers to take to the camera and bring it all out in the open.

As Hollywood churned out blockbusters like “Terminator 2” and “Jurassic Park,” anyone paying attention could see that the real fun was way under budget. Sundance was yet another small gathering in Park City, where someone fresh out of film school could show a movie and meet like-minded artists. Throughout the decade, Sundance steadily established itself as the epicenter of the American film market, and suddenly independent films had a real shot at playing in theaters around the world.

Documenting queer life

Filmed in the mid-to-late 80s, “Paris Is Burning” is one of the greatest titles that defined the genre. Premiered in 1990 and released in theaters in 1991, Jennie Livingston’s seminal documentary launched the decade of queer cinema with an explosive bang. The bold characters, fabulous fashion and gravity-defying dances were unlike anything most moviegoers had ever seen. Although the brilliance made people sit up, Livingston foregrounds the humanity of his subjects, sharing the discrimination, stigma, and alienation that created the need for a ballroom community.

Turning the camera to the fabulous people society has tried so hard to hide, the film also celebrated the beauty and bravery it takes to protect and uplift each other through music, dance and self-expression. self.

Paris is burning

“Paris is burning”


Without being overly didactic, “Paris Is Burning” laid bare the burgeoning concept of “intersectionality,” the overlapping effects of oppression based on race, class, and gender. For her understanding of these issues, Livingston was undoubtedly influenced by the films of Marlon Riggs, whose evocative portrayals of black gay men living through the AIDS crisis are unparalleled in scope and artistry. While Riggs’ early work came out in the late 80s, ‘Color Adjustment’ (1992) and ‘Black Is…Black Ain’t’ (1995) left an indelible mark on queer cinema and the representation of communities. marginalized on screen.

Scrappy lesbian comedies, from “Go Fish” to “But I’m a Cheerleader”

As the first film sold to a distributor at Sundance in 1994, you could say the independent film market was kickstarted by a little lesbian rom-com called “Go Fish.” Directed by Rose Troche and written by Troche and Guinevere Turner, this rambling black-and-white comedy features her modern romance among a smart group of lesbian friends in Chicago. “Go Fish” cost $15,000 to make, sold to Samuel Goldwyn for $450,000, and grossed nearly $2.5 million.

It was as if the world suddenly discovered the existence of lesbians in 1994. “Go Fish” was celebrated for proving the commercialization of lesbian movies, but Troche has another view.

“I don’t think ‘Go Fish’ launched a thousand queer filmmakers as much as it did a thousand independent filmmakers,” she said in 2016.

the watermelon woman cheryl dunye

“The Watermelon Woman”

Seemingly one of a pair, Cheryl Dunye’s “The Watermelon Woman” arrived two years later in 1996, starring Turner as the love interest. If “Go Fish” made white lesbians cool, Dunye was there to remind everyone that black lesbians have been around for this long.

Set in Philadelphia, the film follows Dunye’s attempt to make a documentary about Fae Richards, a fictional black actress from the 1930s. Struck by her beauty and her desire for a cinematic story that reflects someone like her, Cheryl embarks on a journey which, though fictional, yields more fruit than the real Dunye ever had. When the director’s archival search for black women on screen turned up nothing, Dunye made up his own. With the involvement of Turner as well as photographer Zoe Leonard, “The Watermelon Woman” embodies the collaborative spirit of independent cinema at this time, particularly in the small world of queer cinema.

While filled with big ideas, these comedies made the most of a minimalist approach, relying on a few characters and clever writing to tell engaging stories. Each paved the way for something a little more ambitious, and the decade of queer comedy ended on a high with Jamie Babbit’s “But I’m a Cheerleader.” Set in the present with a bold retro aesthetic, the film stars a young Natasha Lyonne as a cheerleader sent to rehab for gay and lesbian teens.

The kind of film for which the terms “quirky” and “quirky” were coined, this wild ensemble comedy included delightfully goofy performances from Cathy Moriarty, Clea DuVall, RuPaul, Melanie Lynskey, Michelle Williams, and even a cameo appearance. by Julie Delpy. Indie film lovers, devour your heart.

Shakespearean punk tragedies

While queer comedies shed light on the loneliness and alienation that marked queer life too much in the 90s, a subgenre of gritty epic tragedies about rebellious teenagers spoke to disaffected 90s youth. began with Gus Van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho” (1991), which featured teen idols Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix as young street hustlers fleeing broken homes. Loosely based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV Trio, Reeves plays a cheeky Prince Hal defying the influence of William Richert’s scheming Falstaff. Marrying the deep and the profane, he delivers stage-worthy soliloquies against a grimy Portland grunge-era backdrop.

Released the same year, “Young Soul Rebels” by Isaac Julien explores the tensions between the British skinhead, punk and soulboy movements of the 1970s. class and race. Featuring music from Parliament, Roy Ayers, X-Ray Spex, Sylvester and the O’Jays, the film uses an eclectic soundtrack to underscore the culture shock its story so brilliantly exteriorizes.

THE LIVING END, Mike Dytri, Craig Gilmore, 1992, (c)Strand Release/courtesy Everett Collection

“The Living End”

Strand Release/courtesy Everett Collection

More punk rock than epic tragedy, Gregg Araki’s “The Living End” (1992) heralded him as the ultimate wild child of queer film, establishing his style of queer punk cinema. (For more on Araki’s contributions to ’90s cinema, check out his conversation with Andrew Ahn.) Ignited by an industrial post-punk soundtrack, “The Living End” follows two HIV-positive gay kids as they go on the run after murdering a homophobe. cop.

Inspired by runaway couple movies like “Bonnie and Clyde” and goofy comedies like “Bringing Up Baby,” “The Living End” is a raucous road movie born out of Araki’s experience living through the AIDS crisis as a that young queer man.

Coming late in the decade but hugely influential, Kimberly Peirce’s “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999) tells the true story of the life and death of trans man Brandon Teena. Where previous queer tragedies have dramatized HIV, family rejection and homelessness among queer youth, “Boys Don’t Cry” offered a haunting and humanizing portrait of the effects of violent transphobia. Featuring an Oscar-winning performance from Hilary Swank, the film marked the first time most Americans were forced to view trans people as worthy of dignity and respect.

The long-lost mid-budget studio film

Speaking of “Thelma and Louise” (which, let’s face it, was pretty weird), the ’90s were also defined by a slow but sure trickle of LGBTQ characters and themes in mainstream hits. While it’s impossible to imagine a major studio supporting a film like “My Own Private Idaho”, even today the success of New Queer Cinema films has led to a softening of the idea of ​​seeing homosexuality in the screen. Although dramas like “The Crying Game” and “Basic Instinct” offered less than ideal portrayals of queer characters, more celebratory portrayals abounded in mid-budget comedies, the genre franchise-obsessed studios simply don’t do. more.

“Mrs. Doubtfire” (1993) saw Robin Williams in full drag, reminding Hollywood – in the tradition of Tony Curtis – that cross-dressing can be a major source of slapstick comedy. A San Franciscan native, Williams once again blessed the fans of gay comedy with “The Birdcage” (1996), which saw him play gay opposite the mighty Nathan Lane in a fabulous Americanized “La Cage Aux Folles” by Mike Nicols and Elaine May. The decade ended with the more down-to-earth “In & Out” (1997), which saw Kevin Kline play a teacher discovering his sexuality after a student assumes he’s gay. All three were huge financial hits that could easily be seen in any theater in the United States.

Editorial use only.  No use of book cover.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Lorey Sebastian/United Artists/Kobal/Shutterstock (5880005e)Nathan Lane, Robin WilliamsThe Birdcage - 1996Director: Mike NicholsUnited ArtistsUSAScene StillComedy

“The Birdcage”

Lorey Sebastian/United Artists/Kobal/Shutterstock

A Sundance staple of the ’90s, Jonathan Demme’s “Philadelphia” owes a huge debt to New Queer Cinema, which paved the way for its extremely hard-hitting HIV/AIDS drama. Starring Tom Hanks as an HIV-positive gay man suing his former employer for wrongful termination, “Philadelphia” is widely considered the first mainstream gay film and the first to portray a gay character in a positive light. Hanks won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal, starting the unfortunate trend of straight actors playing gay for awards.

There isn’t enough time to spend on all the wonderful and hard-hitting queer films of the 90s. Derek Jarman, Todd Haynes, Tom Kalin, Lisa Cholodenko, Ang Lee, Wong Kar Wai, Maria Maggenti, Lukas Moodysson, Deepa Mehta , Alain Berliner, the Wachowskis and even David Cronenberg have made immense contributions to the genre. All of their work deserves to be seen, celebrated and preserved.

Tracing the legacy of these films is learning how the history of queer cinema is the history of cinema itself.

This article was published as part of IndieWire’s 90s Week Spectacular. Visit our 90s week page for more.

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