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Stonewall
Photograph: Philippe BosseStonewall

10 essential movies about gay rights

With a new drama, Stonewall, restaging the 1969 riots in Greenwich Village, we choose the films you should start with

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Written by
Joshua Rothkopf
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Some of the best and most controversial documentaries and dramas of the last 30 years have emerged from the evolving issue of gay rights. This fall, Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall casts back to the explosive origins of gay pride, spilling onto the streets of a recreated 1969 Greenwich Village. But for viewers who want the facts (and a little more depth), we can think of 10 worthier films.

Essential movies about gay rights, A–Z

Angels in America (2003)
  • Movies
A landmark HBO miniseries that should have been the movie event of the year (had it played in theaters), Mike Nichols’s staggering adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer-winning epic play articulates the limited, nightmarish options for gay people in Reagan’s America—while never losing sight of a flickering sense of hope. These characters don’t have rights, but witnessing their struggle leaves you feeling armed.
The Case Against 8 (2014)
  • Movies
  • Documentary
This inspiring courtroom documentary, about California’s landmark fight against the same-sex-marriage-banning Proposition 8, deserves a wider viewership. Constructed like a nail-biter, the film’s biggest surprise is the arrival of high-powered right-wing attorney Theodore Olson, who throws his considerable clout behind the gay-rights cause. As Olson plainly puts it: “Marriage is a conservative value.”
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The Celluloid Closet (1995)
  • Movies
  • Documentary

Giving its viewers the power to see with new eyes, this well-researched exfoliation of Hollywood’s LGBT stereotypes raised awareness of longtime onscreen representations. At its heart is a issue that became a clarion call for organizations like GLAAD—the right of a community to see itself accurately rendered, not slandered or mocked for our entertainment.

How to Survive a Plague (2012)
  • Movies
  • Documentary

A self-filmed chronicle of AIDS activism pitched at a dramatic wail, director David France’s devastating montage is built wholly out of ’80s videography. Here is Jesse Helms, railing in Congress against “revolting” gay people. Here is playwright Larry Kramer, erupting in an ACT UP meeting with biblical fury (“Plague! We are in the middle of a plague!”). And throughout are the pink-triangled young people, hounding Bill Clinton on the campaign trail, chaining themselves to buildings, learning the viral science and making their cause an emblem.

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Laurence Anyways (2012)
  • Movies
  • Drama
This three-hour French-Canadian export isn’t especially well-known, but it belongs on this list for several reasons. First, it’s an epic commitment to a trans story of unusual nuance—about a male professor’s journey toward his deeper identity as a woman. Second, it positioned wunderkind director Xavier Dolan, then 23, as a filmmaker of substance. Finally, in one instantly iconic scene set in a diner, it gave voice to a group that refuses to be silenced.
Paragraph 175 (2000)
  • Movies
  • Documentary
During the Nazi regime, more than 100,000 homosexuals were arrested under the titular statute of German penal code. This documentary gathers testimony of five Holocaust survivors whose resilience toughened their identity. Early on, the film evokes Cabaret’s sexually liberated Berlin before the crackdown—later, Paragraph 175 shows those partiers were made of stronger stuff than even they knew.
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Paris Is Burning (1990)
  • Movies
  • Documentary
A thrilling exposé of the drag-ball subculture that invented voguing, Jennie Livingston’s documentary still splits viewer opinion: Does the film celebrate these proud strutters or does it exploit them? It’s a question worth asking yourself—and twice as complex as any episode of I Am Cait.
Philadelphia (1993)
  • Movies
Spending the political capital he earned on The Silence of the Lambs, director Jonathan Demme made an emotional plea for tolerance in Hollywood. The film features Tom Hanks’s finest work, as a young closeted lawyer penalized for his lifestyle after he gets AIDS. In a moment that will wreck you, Hanks’s Andrew talks us through his love of opera, a heavenly aria swelling on the soundtrack as his earthly body fails him.
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Poison (1991)
  • Movies
Todd Haynes's seething drama is filled with Jean Genet quotes (his three interwoven tales are all inspired, to a degree, by the radical poet's writing) and a prickly sense of sexual transgression. Hopefully, a young person would watch Haynes’s film today, get ruffled by it and know that it represented a battle worth fighting. So much more than a signpost of New Queer Cinema, the movie is an invitation to be bold, to be artistic, to be defiant.
The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
  • Movies
  • Documentary
You’ve seen Sean Penn bring Milk’s story to life in his Oscar-winning performance, but as is always the case, the actual documentary footage is better. Filmmaker Rob Epstein shapes the narrative of San Francisco’s first openly gay official with zest, smarts and an ominous sense of doom that’s fitting to Milk’s trajectory. It’s a political career worth remembering.
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