From 'Bessie' to 'Rafiki' and 'The Skinny,' these films are an indelible part of the queer canon.
Black LGBTQ+ stories have become more visible in recent years, as daring creatives and unforgettable characters continue breaking through a white-dominated movie industry. From documentaries and biopics, to romantic comedies and dramas, this unranked list of films are a testament to the beauty and complexity of the Black LGBTQ+ experience, all of which we consider a part of the queer film canon.
Moonlight made history at the 2017 Academy Awards, becoming the first LGBTQ+-related film and the first with an all-Black cast to win the Oscar for Best Picture. The three-part narrative follows a young Black man's coming of age in an impoverished Miami neighborhood, where he grapples with his sexuality, manhood, and the abuse he suffered at the hands of bullies and a single mother addicted to drugs. It was based off of the play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, written by Tarrell Alvin McCraney.
The "Empress of Blues" not only fought against racism, sexism, economic inequality, and violent white supremacists, but she also subversively made music that captured aspects of what it means to be bisexual. Queen Latifah stars as Bessie Smith in this film that highlights the legendary Blues singer's family life, internal struggles, and industry battles, demonstrating the resilience that makes Smith a true trailblazer.
This film explores the secret tribal ceremonies practiced amongst the Xhosa people in South Africa, where boys become men after undergoing circumcision, and receive spiritual and cultural mentoring from male elders. Two of the mentors have a romantic history, and one of them unwittingly gets assigned to a boy who is gay, presenting something of a complex dynamic as the rituals continue at a remote camp.
Paris Is Burning
This iconic 1990 documentary looks at the ballroom scene in New York City during the 1980s. The featured interviews brought ball culture to greater mainstream consciousness through lessons on vocabulary, as well as painting an intimate portrait of the scene and its members. Paris Is Burning highlights the importance of chosen families, as well as creativity and community borne amid struggles with poverty, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and access to health care.
Naz & Maalik
Two Muslim, gay, and closeted teenagers in New York's Bed-Stuy neighborhood have a secret love affair that gets swept up amidst the surveillance of mosques. The film highlights the many twists and turns within a single day in the life of Naz and Maalik, as their petty schemes and alleyway kisses catch the haunting eye of an FBI operative.
This 2014 film follows a gay high schooler raised in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, as he reconciles his sexuality and Christian faith, as well as a complex family dynamic. The teen's sister has gone missing, and experiences affirmation from one parent, while the other (portrayed by Oscar-winner Mo'Nique) lashes out upon realizing her son is romantically involved with a slightly older filmmaker.
Portrait of Jason
Jason Holliday is the title subject of this 1967 documentary where the Black and gay cabaret performer, hustler, and sex worker shares various tales from his life, edited down from a 12-hour interview. Throughout the film, Holliday sounds off on being a Black, gay man during the Civil Rights era, all while casually enjoying drinks, weed, and cigarettes on camera.
Tangerinefollows the lives of two trans women who are close friends and engage in sex work, after one of them gets released from a month-long prison sentence. Sin-Dee (Kitana Rodriguez) learns that while she was in prison, her boyfriend and pimp cheated on her with a cis woman. Sin-Dee and her friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) embark on a revenge-fueled mission during Christmastime in Los Angeles.
In director Dee Rees' debut, a 17-year-old Black girl comes to terms with being lesbian while navigating friendshps, a complicated romance, and her relationship with a mother that doesn't approve of her butch aesthetic. As she prepares to go to college, she's faced with decisions about coming out and whether it's best for her to change who she is or move on with her life.
The documentary Difficult Love captures the many challenges of being Black and lesbian in South Africa, told from the perspective of activist photographer, and Out cover star Zanele Muholi. Difficult Love features many of Muholi's colleagues and friends, who collectively attest to the harsh environment for creatives and others within their community, which faces pressure to remain silent. The film can be watched here.
Black Is, Black Ain't
In what would be Black gay documentarian Marlon Riggs' final film, Black Is, Black Ain't illustrates how there's no singular, monolithic way for people to be Black within a community that's diverse in its own right. Riggs blends various artforms, scholars, interviews and his own direct addresses to the audience, as he hurries to finish the film while dying of complications from AIDS.
Gun Hill Road
After returning home from prison, a father arrives to a family dynamic that's changed while he was incarcerated. He learns that his wife cheated on him, and that one of his children has transitioned. Together, they navigate various life decisions in an environment that isn't affirming of LGBTQ+ people.
Brother to Brother
After his parents kick him out for being gay, a young Black painter enters a homeless shelter, where he meets an older Black gay poet. The elder character is based on the life of Bruce Nugent, who made important contributions during the Harlem Renaissance, and imparts that he endured some of the same hardships that the younger artist has come to encounter.
After his boyfriend dies, a Black gay drag queen (Ving Rhames) becomes friends with a single mother and her daugther. He unwittingly becomes a father figure to the young girl after her mother (Alfre Woodard) relapses with a drug addiction, and makes an effort to build with the family.
Set It Off
Four friends set out on a bank robbery spree in search of financial freedom, after one of them gets wrongfully terminated from a banking job. The scheme gets devised by a rebellious queer woman, Cleo, portrayed by Queen Latifah. She stars alongside Vivica A. Fox, Jada Pinkett-Smith and Kimberly Elise.
PUNKS, a 2000 film made by Noah's Arc creator Patrik-Ian Polk, follows four Black gay men who are all close friends searching for a fulfilling romantic relationship. The comedic take (which is quite difficult at actually viewing as there were distribution issues) explores what it means to be Black and gay while also shedding light on the everyday struggles shared as part of the human experience.
The Watermelon Woman
In the first feature film directed by a Black lesbian (Cheryl Dunye), Watermelon Woman depicts a lesbian woman and movie enthusiast who works in a video store. After discovering and taking exception to how Black women are uncredited or depicted as stereotypes in films throughout history, she makes it her mission to learn more about one actress who was only noted as "The Watermelon Woman."
Mississippi Damned features three siblings who each confront their family's generational traumas and whether or not they'll choose to lead lives that break the cycle. The movie takes a look at their lives as children in 1986, and then skips 12 years into the future. Among the characters is Leigh, a lesbian who isn't out and struggles with the news that her girlfriend is marrying a man. Tessa Thompson also stars in Mississippi Damned, which is directed by Black lesbian film maker and screenwriter Tina Mabry.
Two young Kenyan women enter a budding romance despite the fact that their fathers are running against each other for local political office. Together, they build a relationship that must remain secret because homosexuality is illegal.
The Skinny depicts five college friends, including four gay men and a lesbian woman, who get together for Pride in New York City. The otherwise pleasant reunion turns into a wild weekend that brings out the best and the worst in the group's friendship dynamics in this Patrik-Ian Polk-directed film. Jussie Smollett stars in the movie.
If you loved Paris Is Burning, there's a solid chance you'll also fall in love with Kiki, a 2016 documentary that focuses on a group of young LGBTQ+ people in New York City that are a part of a subset of the ballroom community. While the film highlights the beauty in what ballroom presently looks and feels like, Kiki also examines the systemic injustices experienced within the community, such as homelessness, prejudice in policing, and lack of access to vital resources.