Only in recent years have schools begun to teach any kind of queer history in classes.
For those of us who have already passed our graduation date, that makes connecting with our history challenging. But where school fails, movies succeed, and without the homework. Since the 1980s filmmakers have used their cameras to uncover the hidden–or at times, lost–history: our struggles, our triumphs, our tragedies and, well, our awesomeness.
This Oscar season (or any other), anyone wishing to have a crash course in gay history might start with these 10 acclaimed films.
So, pour a glass of wine, get the Kleenex and start microwaving the popcorn. These movies strike a chord any season.
1. The Times of Harvey Milk
The treasure trove of documentaries kicked off with this 1984 Oscar winner, which tells the story of Harvey Milk’s political career and legacy through accounts of his friends and associates. Narrated by Harvey Firestein, the film preserves Milk’s spirit and goals for future generations. It also finds the source of his drive: he was, pure and simple, a nice guy.
The Times of Harvey Milk streams on YouTube, iTunes, Amazon and Vudu.
2. The Stonewall Uprising
PBS produced this documentary which tries to separate legend from fact when it comes to the Stonewall Riots, the protests which helped usher in the gay rights movement. Featuring eyewitness accounts, Stonewall Uprising re-characterizes the protests as a revolution, forever changing worldwide perceptions.
Stonewall Uprising streams on PBS.org.
3. How to Survive a Plague
Unfortunately, no list of docs on gay history can claim authority without including at least one entry on the tragedy of the AIDS crisis. We submit How to Survive a Plague, the harrowing film about the AIDS crisis, founding of activist groups like ACT UP!, and the utter indifference (and sometimes outright contempt) by the Reagan administration to abating the plague in any way, shape or form. Viewers will come out of the film devastated, furious, probably both.
How to Survive a Plague streams on YouTube, iTunes, Hulu and Vudu.
4. Paris is Burning
What more can we say about Paris is Burning, the seminal documentary on the drag ball scene and ways in which gay culture entered the pop culture after the AIDS era. With special emphasis placed on the role (and plight) of transgender characters, Paris is Burning plays as relevant now as when it debuted in 1990.
Paris is Burning streams on Netflix.
5. Broadway: The American Musical
The United States has only created a handful of true art forms: comic books, jazz, mystery stories and the Broadway musical among them.
Broadway: The American Musical takes a look at the evolution of the musical genre over the course of six hours–and how gay people became the driving force behind it. Narrated by Julie Andrews, and featuring interviews with key artists, including Harvey Fierstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Arthur Laurents and Tommy Tune, the film embraces the stereotype of the “Broadway Queen,” wearing it as a badge of honor.
Broadway: The American Musical is available on DVD.
6. 8: The Mormon Proposition
The fight for marriage equality has played a vital role in the gay rights movement in recent decades. 8: The Mormon Proposition examines the struggle in the context of California Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage rights in the state, and how the Church of Latter-Day Saints helped fund the initiative. As much a film about religious money in politics as LGBT rights, 8 spotlights how the movement turned a corner, and how the threat of religious oppression still looms.
8: The Mormon Proposition is available on DVD.
7. The Celluloid Closet
History has an unfortunate way of erasing the existence of the oppressed. So do the movies. Based on the groundbreaking work of cinephile Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet examines the history of how film has portrayed gay and transgender people. With interviews from stars like Tom Hanks, Whoopi Goldberg and Shirley MacLaine, The Celluloid Closet seeks to rediscover what time forgot, and some hope for the future.
The Celluloid Closet streams on YouTube.
Directed by legendary TV producer Linda Bloodworth-Thompson (creator of Designing Women and Evening Shade), Bridegroom features the story of Shane Crone, a man deprived of all spousal benefits after the death of his life partner—including attendance at his funeral. Another doc that helps explain the importance of marriage rights, Bridegroom memorializes the tragedy of a death and discrimination in hopes of avoiding others in the future.
Bridegroom streams on Netflix, YouTube, iTunes, Amazon and Vudu.
9. Silverlake Life
Told mostly through a series of home movies, Silverlake Life documents the final days of a the couple, Tom and Mark, as they lay dying from AIDS. Besides recording the horror of the AIDS crisis, the film also testifies to the power of love in the face of tragedy. Harrowing, raw and moving, this is one of the most emotional docs you will ever see.
Silverlake Life streams on YouTube.
10. Gay Sex in the 70s
On a lighter note, for those wishing to see a celebration of sex, look no further than Gay Sex in the 70s, director Joseph Lovett’s homage to the disco and debauchery of the eponymous decade. Long before Grindr and chat rooms, gay people only had one way to meet: in person. Gay Sex in the 70s records the dynamic of the community at the time, and how liberation led to broader sex-positivity for all people.
Gay Sex in the 70s streams on iTunes.