According to IndieWire‘s annual examination of the movie industry, “White men still account for over 80 percent of film directors, even though they make up only a third of the U.S. population.” That explains how Green Book won Best Picture, and why Hollywood has had a “bad movie problem” for years — think of all the diverse stories that are being left untold. The odds are stacked against any non-white male getting a film financed and distributed, but it’s especially tough for black LGBTQ+ filmmakers. With the Black Lives Matter global network expanding every day and June being Pride Month, now’s an excellent time to watch these five movies from black LGBTQ+ directors.
Mississippi Damned (2009)
Run Time: 120 min | IMDb: 7.4/10
“I am my own worst critic. But this is the first time I was able to sit down and not to nitpick at everything,” director Tina Mabry told GLAAD about Mississippi Damned in 2010. She was right to not be hard on herself: Mississippi Damned is a difficult, but rewarding watch about a black family living in small-town Mississippi, with a focus on a closeted lesbian, a high school basketball star, and a burgeoning pianist in 1986, and their grown-up selves in 1998 as they attempt to either confront or give in to cycles of neglect and abuse.
The exquisitely-shot drama (which, fair notice, depicts rape and domestic abuse) was honored with multiple accolades, including an audience award at the New York Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender Film Festival, and the American Black Film Festival was prophetic when they gave Best Actor to one of the ensemble film’s stars: Tessa Thompson, who would go on to play the first LGBTQ superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She had a remarkable presence even then.
Run Time: 86 min | IMDb: 7.2/10
“I am not broken, I am free.”
Six years before she was nominated for an Oscar, Dee Rees made her best movie. Pariah is a self-autobiographical film that follows Alike (played by Adepero Oduye), a 17-year-old African-American girl growing up in Brooklyn “who knows that she loves women; that’s not the question,” as the Mudbound director said. “The question is how to be.” She’s torn between identities: she dresses butch at the club, where she’s surrounded by other empowered black women, but changes into “girl-y” clothes around her parents. The performances are exquisite; the script, sometimes funny, always authentic; the cinematography from Oscar nominee Bradford Young, stunning.
If you only have time for one movie on this list, make it Pariah.
Run Time: 91 min | IMDb: 5.3/10
There’s often an expectation that queer and female filmmakers have to make Works That Matter, but white males shouldn’t have a monopoly on nonsense; look at D.E.B.S. Based on director Angela Robinson’s short film of the same name, the action-comedy is about four high schoolers who become super-spies after being recruited by the government through a test concealed in the SAT; one character’s name is “Lucy Diamond,” there’s talk of a plot to “sink” Australia, and a prominent scene includes a sing-along to Erasure’s timeless ’80s jam “A Little Respect.” It’s very silly and very fun, a winking satire of spy films (“the perfect lesbian spy movie that puts lesbianing first and spying second,” as an excellent Letterboxd review puts it) the way Josie and the Pussycats skewers the music industry.
D.E.B.S. has built a cult following over the years, but it was a dud at the time, only making $97,446 at the box office (on a $3.5 million budget). The entertainment industry has an abhorrent history of not giving female filmmakers, especially queer female filmmakers, multiple chances if they have a supposed “bomb” in their filmography, unlike male directors who are allowed to plop out turd after turd. Robinson would make Disney’s Herbie: Fully Loaded the next year, becoming only the third black woman ever to direct a feature-length film for a major studio, but it would take another 12 years before her next feature, 2017’s quietly powerful Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. She became an in-demand television director in that time, but hopefully it’s not another 12 years before her next movie. The people (me) demand a D.E.B.S. sequel.
The Watermelon Woman (1996)
Run Time: 90 min | IMDb: 6.7/10
The Watermelon Woman is not only historically significant, as it’s the first feature film directed by an out black lesbian; it’s also really good. (History and quality do not always go hand-in-hand — there’s a reason you probably can’t name the “first photorealistic computer-animated feature film.”) Directed by Cheryl Dunye, who also stars and wrote the incisive screenplay, The Watermelon Woman is a “black lesbian masterpiece” about a video store employee who wants to make a documentary about Faye Richards, the titular “watermelon woman,” a 1930s actress who was often cast in the “mammy” role.
The setting and wardrobe couldn’t be more ’90s, but The Watermelon Woman is a timeless “piece of art that allows us to think about who has access to representation, who has access to archives, and why women, people of color, and queer people have not had access to these powerful instruments,” producer Alexandra Juhasz told IndieWire.
Run Time: 101 min | IMDb: 7.1/10
Like so many film festival hits before it, Punks is almost impossible to find on the internet. But if you’re lucky enough to live near an indie theater that hosts a screening, like Brooklyn’s Nitehawk Cinema last year, do yourself a favor and go. I somehow saw the romantic-comedy, directed by Patrik-Ian Polk and produced by Babyface, in college, and while the details are fuzzy, I remember having a tremendous time. It’s the “gay male counterpart to Waiting to Exhale“ or “Sex and the City with black, gay men,” depending on which comparison you want to go with, although both should sound intriguing.
“It was a gay, black film, and we’re talking about the year 2000. I mean, you know how kind of it’s still kind of taboo in certain things in pop culture. But back then, it was a different time, so no major distributors made offers on the film,” Polk told NPR about Punks in 2019. It finally found a small distributor, but they couldn’t afford the rights to the Sister Sledge songs in the movie, “and then people forget, and then you just move on and do other things,” Polk added. People did move on, but they didn’t forget Punks.