New York is a mecca for queer culture of all stripes. Set in the heart of downtown Manhattan, just a short walk from the cruising piers of Christopher street and the cocktail lounges of Chelsea, the Tribeca Film Festival is a natural home for LGBTQ creators and projects. From lesser known indie films to highly anticipated studio television shows, experimental VR and new online work from queer up and comers pushing the conversation into new territory, the festival’s 16th edition offers plenty for the queer-minded.
Here is a guide to the five best LGBTQ projects playing the festival this year.
“Tom of Finland”
Now, here is a biopic we can get behind (or underneath, whatever your preference).
The cult icon Tom of Finland is renowned for his homoerotic drawings of beefcakes in leather and sailors in muscle tees, sporting the most succulent bubble butts and packing more heat in their pants than any Hollywood action star could dream of. Originally shunned as a smut artist and censored in the U.S. by laws banning gay pornography, his subversive style developed a way to sneak past heterosexual censors. He gained prominence in the 1970’s as policies loosened during the first wave of the gay liberation movement, and was even welcomed by the art world, striking up a friendship with fellow controversial artist Robert Mapplethorpe. Today, his work lives in the permanent collections of the MOMA, Art Institute of Chicago, LACMA, and MOCA, to name a few.
For his latest feature, acclaimed Finnish director Dome Karukoski dramatizes the lesser known side of Tom of Finland, whose real name was Touko Laaksonen. From the trauma of serving in WWII, to his struggle to hide his homosexuality in Finland, and his introduction to the liberated gay world of Los Angeles, “Tom of Finland” exposes the man behind the myth — and the muscles.
“The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson”
It is time black trans women get their due as the queer activist warriors they are — because they don’t have a choice in the matter. Fighting for queer rights is just what black trans women have to do in order to survive. That’s why, when 2015’s “Stonewall” completely re-wrote history to cast a white, gay, cisgender man as the instigator of the famous Stonewall riots, LGBTQ historians and activists were outraged at the whitewashing of the legendary Marsha P. Johnson — who actually threw the first brick.
The legacy of the self-described “street-queen” will finally reach a wider audience when Oscar-nominated director David France (“How to Survive a Plague”) premieres his documentary at Tribeca. Johnson was a pioneer in the fight for transgender rights, founding Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.) along with Sylvia Rivera, a trans activist group based in the heart of NYC’s Greenwich Village. Tragically, she was found floating in the Hudson river in 1992. The NYPD ruled her death a suicide at the time, a claim those who knew her have always firmly denied. France’s film is framed as a whodunit, following activist Victoria Cruz as she attempts to uncover the truth of Johnson’s death and life. The community will be out in full force for this one, and the opening is sure to be an emotional one with Johnson’s friends and disciples in attendance.
Set in the familiar territory of Christopher Street, this musical film tells the story of a gender-bending teen just beginning to explore his sexual identity, and the community he finds in the safe haven of New York’s West Village, all while dealing with a domineering and disapproving aunt back home. “Maggie’s Plan” producer Damon Cardasis makes his directorial debut with this timely New York coming-of-age story, and it could not have found a more perfect home than Tribeca. With a breakout performance from Broadway actor Luka Kain as the pantyhose-stealing Ulysses, and strong supporting roles for deserving TV actresses Regina Taylor and Margot Bingham (“Boardwalk Empire”), if “Saturday Church” has even a little “Dancer in the Dark” with a pinch of “Hedwig” thrown in for good measure, it’s sure to be a crowdpleaser.
“The Handmaid’s Tale”
Reed Morano’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s feminist sci-fi novel may be one of the most hotly anticipated TV shows of the year, save for the return of “Twin Peaks.” Funnily enough, both projects have much to offer LGBTQ viewers, both directly and in more subversive way. (Note to execs: Queer sells). Morano cut her teeth as a cinematographer on queer projects such as Andrew Haigh’s “Looking,” and “Kill Your Darlings,” the Allen Ginsberg biopic from Killer Films, run by the most powerful lesbian indie film has ever seen, Christine Vachon.
Without going into spoilers, the dystopian society in “The Handmaid’s Tale” infringes on women’s freedom in every way, including queer women. The policing of female sexuality is an obvious metaphor for queerness, of all genders. While less bold projects might leave viewers to read between the lines, “The Handmaid’s Tale” connects the dots and then some. With multiple queer supporting characters, the show is a chilling parable of heteropatriarchy carried out to nightmarish extremes.
“New Deep South”
Tribeca’s N.O.W (New Online Work) showcase gives a prestigious industry platform to young and emerging filmmakers working in what many believe is the future of the medium: Online video. Shorter lengths and lower production budgets mean that filmmaking is more accessible than ever, opening the medium to voices that otherwise might not get past Hollywood gatekeepers, such as LGBTQ creators and people of color. Praised by “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway as her favorite new show, “New Deep South” is a series of documentary shorts about queer culture in the American South that plays against stereotypes. From co-creators Rosie Haber, an Outfest Screenwriting fellow who snagged the plum gig of adapting Leslie Feinberg’s iconic transgender novel “Stone Butch Blues,” and Lauren Cioffi, a Sundance documentary programmer, “New Deep South” takes an intimate view of a side of queer culture rarely seen onscreen.
The Tribeca Film festival runs April 19-30 in New York.