Screening Room

Needing inspiration? Movies to get you raging for a good ‘ole gay protest

Another day, another nutty tweet, more Putin enabling, more smoke from the Trump-GOP dumpster fire.

Resisting the forces of oppression can get exhausting, especially when there are most likely two more even worse ones to follow. Why not take some time out to rest and catch a movie, then?

These amazing flicks that focus on the ongoing struggle and history of equality. You may watch these on the couch but they will inspire you back onto the streets.

Grab the popcorn and the Kleenex, pour a stiff drink and get prepared: you'll need them all at some point.

[tps_header] Another day, another nutty tweet, more Putin enabling, more smoke from the Trump-GOP dumpster fire. Resisting the forces of oppression can get exhausting, especially when there are most likely two more even worse ones to follow. Why not take some time out to rest and catch a movie, then? These amazing flicks that focus on the ongoing struggle and history of equality. You may watch these on the couch but they will inspire you back onto the streets. Grab the popcorn and the Kleenex, pour a stiff drink and get prepared: you’ll need them all at some point. [/tps_header]


Director Rob Campillo’s semi-autobiographical story about living as a gay man during the AIDS crisis in France will flare tempers even as it invites tears. Campillo made the film as a sort of personal catharsis for having survived AIDS while so many others close to him did not, and as a message to younger generations: never forget what befell your community…and never let it happen again.

How to Survive a Plague

For more gut-wrenching memories of the specter of AIDS and the government inaction that invited an epidemic, look no further than How to Survive a Plague. David France’s epic chronicle of the crisis in New York and the rise of ACT UP leaves viewers stunned and enraged. With indispensable interviews with key activists and witnesses, raw archival footage and a sense of righteous anger, How to Survive a Plague is one of the best docs about the AIDS crisis. Have Kleenex on hand: footage of gay men casting the ashes of their dead friends and lovers on the White House lawn makes us bawl every time.

When We Rise

Oscar-winning writer of Milk Dustin Lance Black penned this mini-series which traces the development of the civil rights struggle from its origins under Harvey Milk through the dark days of the AIDS crisis, and into the era of marriage equality. Though sanitized in places (thank you, network TV), the miniseries still paints an epic and thoughtful picture of the growth of the community and fight for equal rights that Black continues to this day with his screenwriting and daddy activism.


Also known as the musical of the protest era, Hair only briefly touches on LGBTQ rights by featuring a bisexual character. In a sense, that’s a critique: the hippie/peace movement still had a hostility toward queer people–a hypocrisy which helped doom it. That said though, Hair depicts a special moment in American history when youth rebelled against a warmongering establishment, and life became something to treasure as never before. The film, from two time Oscar-winner Milos Forman captures that era beautifully thanks to some glorious music that will still make audiences want to sing in the streets.

The Celluloid Closet

Protest takes many different forms, including the artistic kind. The Celluloid Closet examines the expunging of LGBTQ people from the movies and the artist that rebelled against that censorship. With interviews from stars like Shirley MacLaine and Tom Hanks, writers like Gore Vidal and Barry Sandler, and acclaimed directors like John Schlesinger and Gus Van Sant, The Celluloid Closet uncovers how filmmakers have helped change the perception of the community, sometimes by just showing that it exists. Related: President Obama Was So Moved By “The Normal Heart” He Phoned Ryan Murphy To Learn More About It

Whose Streets?

The shooting of unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO , incited riots in the streets and helped launch the worldwide Black Lives Matter movement. Whose Streets? examines the community organizers that helped start the movement, including the LGBTQ activists who helped start a national conversation about police brutality.

Stonewall Uprising

The Stonewall Riots have become the stuff of legend, even if details of the actual riots get lost in most retellings. PBS sets the record straight (as it were) in Stonewall Uprising, an in-depth documentary on the factors that led to the riots as recounted by witnesses and participants. Learn why the gay rights movement started when it did, and how the struggle still goes on, to this day.

The Laramie Project

The brutal murder of Matthew Shepard rocked the world in 1998. The Laramie Project reconstructs and dramatizes the aftermath of Shepard’s murder, as experienced by the community of Laramie, Wyoming, and the queer rights activists who channeled their rage into protest. With an all-star cast featuring Peter Fonda, Joshua Jackson, Laura Linney, Christina Ricci and Ben Foster, The Laramie Project captures the spirit and sadness of protest with a simple reminder: lives hang in the balance.

The Times of Harvey Milk

Sean Penn made The Times of Harvey Milk required viewing and he was rewarded with an Oscar. But he no doubt did his research by watching the documentary version of the story, produced just six years after the assassination of Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. A portrait of a shewed, goofy, committed man emerges, which should inspire audiences everywhere to follow Milk’s example: leading by kindness.

The Normal Heart

Larry Kramer’s dramatization of the rise of the AIDS crisis and the transformation of the community packs an emotional wallop, even at its most soapy. That said, the film channels the rage and sadness of the AIDS crisis into a call to action. A cast of Hollywood heavy hitters brings the story to vivid life, including Alfred Molina, Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons and Julia Roberts. The center of it all, though, hangs on Mark Ruffalo as the fictional activist Ned Weeks (a thinly-veiled analog of Kramer himself). In short, Ruffalo gives his best performance as a man trying to find hope while surrounded by decimation.

V for Vendetta

The cinematic adaptation of Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel caused a stir in 2005, galvanizing anti-Bush forces furious over the Iraq War and curbing of civil liberties. It since has become the defining film of the protest hacker group Anonymous, which continues to target perceived tyranny today. In Moore’s dystopian vision, a totalitarian government has impressed harsh rule on the UK, only to meet with incredible resistance from a masked vigilante known as V. Actor Hugo Weaving makes V into a spellbinding character, though the film belongs to Natalie Portman as Evie, a woman swept up in V’s anarchic protests. Portman gives arguably her best performance as an everywoman moved to fight back against oppression. The movie also has a moving subplot about Evie’s friendship with a gay man (played by Stephen Fry) who must live his life in the shadows thanks to anti-gay violence.

Medium Cool

Cinematographer Haskell Wexler made a stunning debut as a feature director with Medium Cool, a film about the 1968 anti-Vietnam protests during the Democratic National Convention. In the movie’s biggest coup, Wexler and his cast—which features Robert Forester and Verna Bloom—actually filmed during the real life protests. In other words, neither the police smashing skulls of student protestors, nor the protesters themselves, are background extras. Medium Cool blurs the line between fiction and reality into a shocking and horrific film about protests and violence. In the era of anti-Trump, Medium Cool reminds those who would fight back against his bigotry and cronyism of the importance of maintaining a peaceful protest atmosphere and that in a moment of crisis, those fighting for justice cannot back down.

8: The Mormon Proposition

Get ready to get pissed off: 8: The Mormon Proposition examines the role of the Church of Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the battle over California Prop. 8, and the shady political involvement of the Mormons in anti-gay politics. Though the movie suffers from low, and at times, crude production value, the revelations uncovered in 8 more than makeup for its flaws. As directors Reed Cowan and Steven Greenstreet uncover a long and ugly history of Mormon abuse of the LGBT community, and how the LDS Church funneled money into the passage of Prop. 8 from outside California. 8 doesn’t chronicle protests so much as become one itself, railing against political interests hiding behind tax-exempt religious status, and raising questions over the legality of the LDS Church’s political dealings.

Malcolm X

Speaking of Angela Bassett, the actress also gives one of her best performances in this drama, a biopic of the title character. It helps, of course, that the movie matches her with Denzel Washington as Malcolm. Washington gives the performance of his career here, as does director Spike Lee, who crafts his finest film to date. That folks, says something.


No list of civil rights movies would be complete (in our view, anyway) without including Milk, the terrific drama about the cut-short live of the LGBTQ rights leader. Sean Penn took home an Oscar for his work, as did Dustin Lance Black for his screenplay. Watch with Kleenex on hand; no matter how many times we’ve seen it, we still get weepy.

The Life and Death of Marsha P. Johnson

Marsha P. Johnson’s name doesn’t get mentioned alongside that of Rosa Parks, Barbara Gittings or Angela Davis as an important activist for the African-American community, but it should. As a transgender woman, Johnson spent her life working as a drag performer, actress and activist in New York. The documentary The Life and Death of Marsha P. Johnson recounts the life of Ms. Johnson, along with her community organizing work and the mysterious details of her death in 1992. Did she commit suicide, or did something more sinister happen? Director David France brings his usual energy and detail to Johnson’s life, tracking down some of her close friends, uncovering some never-before-seen footage of Johnson, and examining the circumstances of her demise. It’s a beautiful tribute to an unsung hero full of joy and live–a contribution every LGBTQ person in America benefits from.

The Lavender Scare

The Lavender Scare delves into the not-entirely secret history of American homophobia, and how a few opportunistic politicians (several of whom were closeted) promoted themselves by encouraging the outing and career ruin of LGBTQ people in the government. President Eisenhower would eventually sign an executive order banning gays and lesbians from government service in 1953 under the assumption that they were susceptible to blackmail by the Soviet Union. The ban would remain in effect for almost 50 years, even after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Director Josh Howard retells the nation’s first battle over gay rights and how, in many ways, its legacy still rages on. With narration by Glenn CloseCynthia NixonZachary Quinto and TR Knight, The Lavender Scare calls out the officials that helped create the modern stigma against gay men and women.

Killing Patient Zero

Director Laurie Lynd examines the story of Gaetan Dugas, a Canadian flight attendant labeled by Randy Shilts in And the Band Played On as “Patient Zero” in the AIDS crisis. Shilts mistakenly believed that Dugas had brought—and purposely spread—HIV to North America. Now, Lynd wants to dispel that myth once and for all. Killing Patient Zero illuminates the story of an unsung hero of the AIDS crisis, and calls into question the motives of Shilts in identifying Dugas to the public. It’s a fascinating story of the chaos of the early days of AIDS, a community in disarray, and a man who became an unfortunate victim twice over.

Paris is Burning

The original cinematic tribute to the fabulousness of LGBTQ culture, Paris is Burning offers more than just the origins of voguing and underground gay culture. Made in 1991, the film also highlights the effect of AIDS on gay culture in New York City, with a particular eye towards the transgendered community and people of color. Several of the subjects interviewed in Paris is Burning make a living as sex workers, and the movie pays specific attention to the dangers they face without proper medical care and in a hostile world dominated by cisgender, heterosexual white men.

P.S. – Burn this Letter Please

History has a way of erasing queer heritage. But sometimes we get lucky.

A chance discovery of an old box in a storage unit would lead to the creation of PS – Burn This Letter Please. Said box contained hundreds of letters to Reno Martin, the alter ego of Hollywood agent Edward Limato, from dozens of his friends. Limato, a gay man, died in 2017 without following requests from his friends to destroy their correspondence. Limato had befriended dozens of gay men and drag queens in 1950s New York. Their letters pulled back the veil of history to uncover life in the queer underground, and a community of friends leading double lives. The resultant film offers a glimpse at pre-Stonewall gay life, drag and living on the absolute edge of society. P.S. Burn This Letter Please saves a delicate moment in history from oblivion, and edifies the people who lived it as the queer heroes they are.

Note: this article contains portions of other articles previously posted here on Queerty.


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