6. The Laramie Project (2002)
Character: Matthew Shepard
In 1998, Laramie Wyoming became drew national spotlight but for all the wrong reasons. A young man named Matthew Shepard was kidnapped from a local bar, beaten and brutally murdered. Hearing the details, witnessing the violence, (his face and body were wailed upon and his body left hanging on a fence) you might’ve expected this to a hate crime in the deep south in the 50s. Instead it was a hate crime against a gay man in late 1990s. More importantly… It was a HATE crime.
The Laramie Project is the film done by the Moises Kaufman and his theatre group that uses documentary news footage, actors, and information drawn from over 200 interviews to tell Matthew’s story. The story turned Matthew from a horrible victim into a martyr. Until this incident, many didn’t know and were completely unaware the similarities between gays’ fight for rights and African Americans and Civil Rights.
People who never paid attention, were homophobic and ignorant were suddenly awakened to the horrors many members of the gay community live through; the reasons why many stay in the closet. 15 years after Matthew’s death, the film and the surrounding media storm led to the passing and signing of a bill, the Hate Crime Prevention Act which officially added gays to the hate crime list.
For many, Matthew Shepard’s murder and subsequent film was the modern rebirth of the gay rights movement in the United States. Jason Collins (America’s first openly gay pro-athlete) wore and will continue to wear #98 in his career as a homage to Shepard’s memory.
5. Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
Ezra Miller gave a performance deserving an Oscar in this coming of age future classic directed by Stephen Chbosky, based on his own best seller. Miller plays Patrick the flamboyant senior who befriends lonely main character and freshman Charlie.
Charlie is scarred by unknown family issues involving his aunt, and the suicide of his best friend. He feels totally lost before being swooped up into the friend group headed by Patrick and his sister Sam (Emma Watson), who Charlie instantly falls madly in love with. We find out lots of secrets at a post-homecoming house party.
High after eating a pot brownie, Charlie confesses to Sam about his friend’s suicide and then sees Patrick kissing Brad, the star of the school’s football team. Patrick tells Charlie to keep it a secret because Brad’s parents wouldn’t approve. Later in the film we find out Brad’s father caught them in the act.
When Brad shows up at school with a black eye and story to cover it up, Patrick encounters him at lunch. Brad can’t show his true self in the school cafeteria surrounded by jocks, so he calls Patrick a “faggot”. This leads to huge brawl where Charlie comes to Patrick’s aide. Charlie is deeply troubled by Sam’s leaving for college and his repressed memories of his aunt’s sexual abuse come back. He has a suicidal meltdown requiring his friends to help him through it.
Perks is a wonderful film, detailing how all troubled youth, whether gay or straight, cool or geek could find love and compassion with the right people around them. Patrick, while not the film’s main character, is for most of it the ship that helps sail Charlie through the toughest periods in life.
4. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Characters: Ennis Del Mar & Jack Twist
Two well established big money young actors playing gay cowboys? Ang Lee won a directorial Oscar, and both Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal were nominated in one of the best recent depictions of men struggling with their sexuality especially in places and times where homosexuality is NOT part of the mainstream.
The setting is 1963 Wyoming. Ennis is a ranch hand and Jack a rodeo cowboy along for some extra money. To stay warm on a freezing night they spoon together for warmth. Jack makes the first move and Ennis resists before giving in. Summer ends and they go off. Ennis gets married and has two daughters because that’s what he’s supposed to do in 1960s Wyoming.
Jack ends up hitched to a rodeo girl with a rich daddy. They meet up for “fishing trips” and soon Ennis’s wife is on to the situation and filing for divorce. For almost 20 years they keep their relationship hidden, seeing each other a few times a year. Once the divorce is finalized, Jack thinks they can finally be together, but Ennis can’t due to fear of being “caught”. Jack grows impatient and gets more promiscuous and dangerous, stomping off to Mexico to hit up seedy gay bars.
Their story comes to the inevitable sad conclusion as Ennis receives one of his letters back labeled “deceased”. We see Jack’s death, a brutal beating at the hands of a group of thugs. It’s eerily similar to the murder of Matthew Shepard for being “a queer”, also in Wyoming in 1998. By 2005, the gay rights debate had shifted to the gay marriage debate. Brokeback was a critically acclaimed Oscar winning film that reminded the country that gay rights issue was nowhere near complete.
3. Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
Character: Brandon Teena
Boys Don’t Cry, like the Laramie Project tells a painfully true story of the nightmares some people face because they don’t fit in traditional America’s view of the status quo. Hillary Swank won an Oscar for her portrayal of Teena Brandon. Born female biologically, she never felt the part. She cut her hair, taped down her breasts and even wore a prosthetic penis. She became he, and Teena Brandon became Brandon Teena.
Brandon lives life like a normal young man, he cruises bars, drinks with his buddies, and looks for girls to hit on. He forms a relationship with Lana, and his secret eventually comes out. What happens then is the expected horrors that many LGBTs fear when their secrets are exposed. Brandon goes from being a popular “one-of-the-guys” to the sideshow outcast and in gruesome fashion he is beaten, raped, and murdered.
This film shed light on another real story of what America’s fear and irrational hatred towards “the opposite” or “unnatural” can breed. At the same time, it explains why many closet their true identities from even their closest friends and family; but also shows why you need to be true to yourself.
2. Milk (2008)
Character: Harvey Milk
For many, Harvey Milk was their first remembrance of an American gay rights activist. He was also the first openly gay person elected to public office in the US. Gus Van Sant’s film works as a timeline of the early gay rights movement in the 1970s. The star is Sean Penn who deservedly won his second Academy Award. He becomes Harvey Milk.
The film starts with Milk in New York having just come to terms with his homosexuality and turning 40. Soon, he and lover Scott Smith (James Franco) move out to San Francisco, open a camera shop in the Castro neighborhood, and deal with constant threats and attacks from the police, and other local businesses.
Van Sant chooses to tell the film from Milk’s perspective, and in a great decision, utilizes Milk’s own “Read in case of assassination” audio tapes. Milk’s famous line, “My name is Harvey and I want to recruit you” serves as the film’s hook. While closed minded right wing Christians like Anita Bryant would suggest he’s trying to recruit young people to become homosexuals; the more open minded viewer knows Milk just wanted to recruit to the crusade of gay rights.
The film contains scenes of such poignancy, such as when Milk receives a call from a suicidal teen whose parents want to ship him to a conversion center. When Milk receives a phone call from the same young man later in the film after the defeat of Prop-6, it shows the importance of what one great human being can do to this world. When California politician John Briggs brings the anti-gay Prop-6 law to the people, Milk becomes the number one defender and helps fight it down.
The saddest part of the film is the main character’s inevitability. We know from frame 1, Harvey Milk will be killed tragically. We know this and yet we get drawn into his fight and his crusade for total human rights. His passionate and eloquent battle against bigotry and hate defined an entire people. His name will never be forgotten in the LBGT community and in American history. Dare I say, in many ways Milk was the LGBT’s version of Martin Luther King.
1. Philadelphia (1993)
Character: Andrew Beckett
Philadelphia tells the story of an up-in-coming lawyer named Andrew Beckett (played by Tom Hanks in his first Oscar winning role). Beckett is the hot rookie at one of Philly’s most prestigious law firms. He gets sick and while away from the office an important file goes missing and he gets all the blame. After getting fired he quickly puts two and two together; he was fired because he has AIDS, but more, is he is a GAY man with AIDS.
The film covers the year and half in Andy’s life since his firing. He hires another attorney, a personal injury lawyer (“Hey, you’re the TV guy”) played by Denzel Washington. He is NOT gay, and he will proudly tell you that. The film seamlessly presents two transformations of the main characters: Andy is obviously going from healthy lawyer to dying patient.
Washington’s Joe Miller is undergoing a far more important transformation; from homophobic bigot to empathetic, genuine human being. When Joe first finds out Andy has AIDS he takes off from work to see his doctor, ignorant to how AIDS is even transmitted. When he ends up on the news, saying things like “all men are created equal, not all straight men” he is mocked by his legal friends at the bar. The bartender chimes in that “tooty-fruities” make him sick too. When a good looking young athlete sees Joe at the pharmacy, a greeting turns into a proposition for a date; Joe is disgusted and lashes out.
Later in the film, Joe and his wife attend a party at Andy’s he stays to go over their testimony. Instead Andy puts on an aria by Maria Callas, and in the film’s most famous scene, Andy translates her lyrics to Joe, which mirror his life and situation and finally Joe sees Andrew Beckett the man who wants to live on and loves his life. My personal favorite scene is when Joe visits Andrew in his dying hospital and attaches an oxygen mask to Andy, making sure to embrace his face.
Philadelphia marked the first major Hollywood to thrust AIDS into the spotlight and mainstream. Director Jonathan Demme banked on two of the most marketable stars, Hanks and Washington, and brought in mega-star musician Bruce Springsteen to sing the title song. Hanks and Springsteen won Oscars, and the star power of those three likely drew millions to the theatres to see a movie focusing on AIDS and gay rights.
Author Bio: Dan Torkel grew up in Brooklyn, NY and has been watching movies since age 2 when his parents took him to see Sesame Street’s Follow that Bird. His first job was an usher at a UA theatre where he used his $5.15 an hour salary to stockpile a huge DVD collection and see all the free movies he could see. He currently teaches history at Abraham Lincoln (NOT Vampire Hunter) High School in Brooklyn, and is happily married with 2 kids.