Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Peter Knegt
December 17, 2012 1:29 PM
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Que(e)ries: Was 2012 a Good Year For LGBT Representation in American Film?

On a notable aside, "Atlas" directly related to what was perhaps the closest thing the film world had to a Frank Ocean. The film's co-director, Lana Wachowski, decided to speak publicly about being transgendered for the first time leading up to the film's release. The incredibly powerful, well-articulated and widely distributed video of the speech she delivered at an Human Rights Campaign event was a milestone for the visibility of transgendered people (watch it here). But that wasn't in movie theaters.

In movie theaters, the vast majority of respectable, prominent representations of LGBT people came from filmmakers working largely independently and thus creating films that did not -- to varying degrees, at least -- make it into the mainstream conversation. Certainly there has always been much more quality LGBT-themed film coming from outside the studio system, but the gap has widened in the past decade or so. 

Since 2000, forty-one films with perhaps arguably central LGBT-themes have grossed over $1 million at the domestic box office, only three of which came out since 2010. Very significant is that fact that, in the 1990s, fifty LGBT-related films grossed over $1,000,000, including five films ("The Birdcage," "In & Out," "The Talented Mr. Ripley," "Philadelphia" and "The Crying Game") which grossed over $50 million (and that number jumps to seven if you adjust for inflation). Only two did in the 12 years to follow -- "Brokeback Mountain" and "Bruno" (the latter of which some considered to actually be downright homophobic).

This is not to say all of these films are great examples of LGBT films (some of them have quite questionable representations, see "Bruno"), but the point is that no matter the quality, the quantity of LGBT films in mainstream American cinema has declined despite the fact that "general acceptance" of LGBT people has significantly increased in society as a whole.

This is a drastically different situation than television, where comparatively remarkable inroads have occurred with respect to LGBT inclusivity in popular media that far exceeds film. This past fall's new television season saw a record number of LGBT characters. Between the five broadcast networks, a truly impressive 4.4 percent of regular TV characters identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (up from 2.9 percent last season, as per this GLAAD study). Add this to a sizeable presence on cable (regular LGBT characters on scripted cable television rose this year from 29 to from 35), and these numbers are pretty impressive (now, this too begs a quality vs. quantity discuss, but considering that a) I'm no television connoisseur and b) the primary topic of this column has derailed itself enough already, I'll direct you to this imperative read about one extraordinarily problematic issue regarding some of the noted TV examples and move on).

So why has mainstream film lagged behind not just television but its former self? Perhaps the 1990s simply represented a time when it was new and trendy (and, optimistically, "important") to release "gay films." Now, as LGBT people come more of an established minority within both culture and media, films focusing on LGBT people have simply become as disproportionate in the studio system as films focusing on women or racial minorities. Which one could peg as a consequence of the greater economics involved in making studio films (compared to TV or indie films) and that its "safer" to make films built to attract vast audiences, particularly young, white, straight males (though as far as I'm concerned that's a bullshit excuse disproven time and time again with regard to women, racial minorities and LGBT folks).

But whatever the case, we thankfully still have independent film, which has always been far better at telling queer stories anyway (namely because the stories are often unapologetically told both by and for LGBT people). And 2012 was no exception. Building off a year that saw extraordinary voices in queer cinema emerge with Andrew Haigh's "Weekend" (which is admittedly British, but premiered at SXSW and is just too good -- and likely influential -- not to mention), Rashaad Ernesto Green's "Gun Hill Road" and Dee Rees' "Pariah," the past twelve months continued a burgeoning new wave.

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  • anonymous | December 19, 2012 2:55 PMReply

    Mainstream films, even independent films, are way behind mainstream television when it comes to this kind of diversity. I don't see much progress.

  • F.P. | December 18, 2012 2:18 PMReply

    If there is a new GLBT cinema renaissance occurring, it's occurring without the Ladies or the Bisexuals or Trangenders being present, if we look at this year's offerings. When MOSQUITA Y MARI is the only relevant non-gay-male narrative in a three page article on an entire year of cinema, I humbly disagree there's a big movement happening, and that's not a knock on the author necessarily, in so much as a comment on what was released or even made well this past year. At least WISH ME AWAY made the airwaves on Showtime this year after winning a number of doc awards in 2011, and not banished to DVD or VOD for only niche audiences to seek out. As for the end-of-year love for KEEP THE LIGHTS ON, sadly it's just another example of the tragic love story in queer cinema history, in a very long list of such depressing examples of queer 'love' on film. The acting is admirable, but given how he lived this film or a version of it, I don't think even Ira Sachs himself would call it a film to feel good about, beyond the ability to survive such a strained, ill-fitted relationship. Two hours of watching another gay relationship quagmire doesn't exactly make for a great date movie or a new movement in the genre; it's no wonder it didn't find a theatrical audience, whereas the scene-stealing Ezra Miller in PERKS is a big part of that movie's success, creatively and monetarily. So while this year's specifically queer films may influence future filmmakers in some vague way (less so than last year's much better and all-inclusive narratives), narrative directors and producers and financiers would do well to remember the last major queer release's key line of dialogue - "You gotta give 'em hope" - if they want to have truly creative or audience breakthroughs. All of the docs in the first Queeries piece were far better films than any narrative this year, in message and expression and execution.

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  • rubi | December 17, 2012 5:52 PMReply

    You could argue Lincoln's a gay or bisexual character based on history, though the movie Lincoln doesn't deal with Lincoln's sexuality at all really.

  • F.P. | December 18, 2012 1:43 PM

    Actually Rubi, not only does Sally Field's first scene in LINCOLN indicate a rather sexless relationship between her and her husband, the Joseph Cross character of Lincoln's assistant has a rather curious late-night bedroom conversation with Lincoln. While neither are explicit - who would expect as much in a Spielberg film? - they can be read as sly nods to the rumored Lincoln sexuality in Kushner's excellent script.

  • Peter Knegt | December 17, 2012 8:40 PM

    Nowhere in this article does it say it does.

  • Jake H. | December 17, 2012 5:39 PMReply

    Thanks for such an extensive, well-written take on this!

  • jeremy wilker | December 17, 2012 4:04 PMReply

    Thanks for the recommendation, Bob, I'll seek that one out. Certainly "Keep the Lights On" was one of the best, most-powerful, films of the year regardless of LGBT "status." Not an easy watch, but damn good.

  • bob hawk | December 17, 2012 3:53 PMReply

    One film which should definitely be part of this discussion is Travis Mathews' I WANT YOUR LOVE. Not only was it an artistic achievement in its evocative visualization of San Francisco locations at various times of day and night and its accurate depiction of a certain slice of a gay milieu found not only in S.F. but around the world (the old specificity/universality syndrome) -- but it incorporated explicit depictions of sexual acts in a natural, sometimes off-hand way. In some ways, a milestone. [Full disclosure: I was a consultant on I WANT YOUR LOVE, but Travis certainly had all the goods in hand before I came on board.]

  • bob hawk | December 17, 2012 5:20 PM

    Peter: Thanks for the clarification. Although IWYL is a 2012 film, I hope more people will have a chance to see it on the big screen in 2013. DP did a great job. And yes, Jeremy, KEEP THE LIGHTS ON -- like WEEKEND before it -- was one of the year's best, "regardless of LGBT status"!

  • Peter Knegt | December 17, 2012 4:27 PM

    Bob: I generally focused on theatrical releases from last year (which hopefully I WANT YOUR LOVE is next year), and more over -- as you know -- I myself was involved in I WANT YOUR LOVE and that made me feel like I couldn't exactly be objective when discussing it critically...

  • Kristian Lin | December 17, 2012 3:37 PMReply

    I just finished watching "Chely Wright: Wish Me Away," an absorbing portrait of just how much harder the coming-out process is when you're famous and your fanbase is full of right-wingers who disapprove of homosexuality and the whole process is dragged out over two months. In her private moments, the singer seems to be losing it on a constant basis, and how many of us would not be under similar circumstances? Would be interested to hear the author's thoughts on that.

  • Christianne Benedict | December 17, 2012 2:45 PMReply

    I was also pleased with The Wise Kids and Tomboy, though both of these are also technically 2011 films. A case could be made for Richard Linklater's Bernie, as well. In the Family was awesome.

  • Peter Knegt | December 17, 2012 2:56 PM

    @Christianne: I ended up removing a whole paragraph about "Bernie" that just didn't fit the rest of the article (did the same with The Paperboy, for what thats worth). It's a very curious case of representation (one I personally quite enjoyed) that perhaps begs its own column.