Friday Flicks: PRIDE Version

Tangerine  (2015)

Tangerine (2015)

Happy PRIDE Weekend, New Haven! Here are a few flicks to kick off your celebrations.

LGBTQ cinema has often been a cinema of outsiders. Which makes sense, considering that mainstream movie culture has long been dominated by a conservative, narrow, and overwhelmingly normative heterosexual understanding of gender and sexual identity.

But in the nearly 50 years since the Stonewall rebellion and the Gay liberation movement of the early 1970s, movies by and about LGBTQ people have flourished as a substantial and diverse subgenre of American cinema. From the experimental, abstract lesbian cinema of Barbara Hammer (Dyketactics) to the lyrical character studies of Ira Sachs (Love is Strange), LGBTQ cinema in this country has and continues to explore life, love, gender, sexuality, and identity, all too often formed in the face of broader societal prejudices.

In celebration of the start of New Haven PRIDE Weekend, here are three recommendations for movies that explore LGBTQ life in this country, focusing on stories and characters that refuse the limitations that American cultural norms around gender and sexual identity may try to foist upon them.

The Watermelon Woman

Cheryl Dunye’s 1996 movie The Watermelon Woman is the first feature film directed by a black lesbian, and is one of LGBTQ cinema’s most powerful examples of a director refusing to let her story disappear into the yawning gap of mainstream American suppression.

The movie follows a young black, lesbian video store clerk in Philadelphia named Cheryl Dunye, played by the the director herself, who aspires to be a filmmaker.

Dunye is fascinated by the black actresses who played nameless Mammy characters in classic Hollywood melodramas from the early 1930s, and longs to make her first movie about a woman from one of these early Hollywood films credited only as The Watermelon Woman.

A narrative film in the style of a documentary, Dunye the filmmaker literally writes Dunye the actress and and the actress who played The Watermelon Woman into cinematic history, refusing to let the indifference, oversight, and humiliation of years of movie history unjustly disappear black lesbians from existence.

To quote LGBT Studies professor Ron Gregg, LGBT cinema after the 1970s saw female filmmakers assert: “We’re going to represent ourselves. We’re going to find a language that represents an interiority that men, who don’t experience the world through a lesbian life, community, desire, or subjectivity, just don’t get.” Coming 20 years after that initial efflorescence of lesbian cinema in the 1970s, The Watermelon Woman is a perfect example of a story told by a black lesbian, about black lesbians, for black lesbians, that revels in a history and cinematic artistry that must not be forgotten.

Click on the below audio player to listen to a 2015 interview on the radio show Deep Focus with LGBT Studies professor Ron Gregg and Yale graduate student Lena Eckart-Erdheim about six groundbreaking lesbian films.

Benjamin Smoke

Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen’s singular 2000 music documentary Benjamin Smoke follows a singer-songwriter, drag queen, speed freak, and folk oddity named Benjamin who lives in a rundown, post-industrial stretch of of Atlanta, Georgia called Cabbagetown.

Benjamin is a consummate storyteller, a thoughtful, depressed, and gimlet-eyed outsider who is utterly transformed by the power of music. Patti Smith described him as having a “throat smooth as a lamb / yet dry as a branch not snapping,” and that description of his haunting, rasping singing and guitar playing applies as equally to the tragic, idiosyncratic persistence of his life as a whole.

Cohen and Sillen’s movie is a lyrical assemblage of odds and ends, cutting together over 10 years of footage of Benjamin’s cluttered and ramshackle home along with concert recordings and interviews in which he winds his way through sexuality, HIV-AIDS, alternative folk music, and the difficulties of life as an outspoken drag queen in rural Georgia.

Click on the below audio player to listen to a 2016 interview on the radio show Deep Focus with New Haven filmmaker Brendan Toller (Danny Says) about his love for the movie Benjamin Smoke, as well as for the 1993 documentary Silverlake Life.


Sean Baker’s 2015 Tangerine is an energetic, frantic, electrifying movie about two transgender prostitutes from Los Angeles and their quest to track down a duplicitous pimp on Christmas Eve.

Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor play Sin-Dee and Alexandra, two women who work the sun-baked, decidedly less glamorous end of the Hollywood strip. Sin-Dee is combative, loquacious, and indomitable, Alexandra is a calmer, sweeter presence, but the relationship between the two is founded on an honesty, loyalty, tenderness and affection required of any worthwhile friendship. That trust is particularly important for these two, because seemingly everyone in their lives is trying to exploit them for as much as they can get and, to Sin-Dee and Alexandra’s credit, these are two women who do not go down without a fight.

Tangerine was filmed on tricked out iPhone 5’s, and is just bursting with vitality at every seam, exemplified by high-speed sidewalk tracking shots that look as if the cameraman sprinted at his subjects, swooping alongside them, imbuing each strut and petty argument with an unpredictable intensity.

But the emotional core of this movie lies with Rodriguez and Taylor’s performances, playing two women who are funny, feisty, ruthless, and true friends despite the most harrowing of circumstances.

Click on the below audio player to listen to an episode of the radio show Deep Focus about the Best Movies of 2015, which features Tangerine as number 7 on my top 10 list.