“New Queer Cinema” may no longer be “new”—the term for the movement was first coined in 1992 by academic and film critic B. Ruby Rich in Sight and Sound magazine, regarding the preponderance of films made by and for queer audiences in the previous year’s independent film festival circuit—but the ramifications of the movement continue to be felt today. Through the efforts of New Queer Cinema directors, like Todd Haynes, Jennie Livingston, Gregg Araki, and many more, the movement has continued to shape directorial approaches to representing LGBTQ+ themes and characters in film and television, as well broader popular conceptions of why queer media representation matters, well into the modern day.
Key Films and Directors
- The Living End: An Irresponsible Movie by Gregg Araki, dir. Gregg Araki: “Described by some critics as a “gay Thelma and Louise“; “Luke is a restless and reckless drifter and Jon is a relatively timid and pessimistic film critic. Both are gay and HIV positive. After an unconventional meeting, and after Luke kills a homophobic police officer, they go on a road trip with the motto ‘Fuck everything.'”
- But I’m a Cheerleader, dir. Jamie Babbit: “Natasha Lyonne stars as Megan Bloomfield, a high school cheerleader whose parents send her to a residential inpatient conversion therapy camp to cure her lesbianism. There, Megan soon comes to embrace her sexual orientation, despite the therapy, and falls in love.”
- (This film was released in 1999—quite late in the movement and not well-received at the time, but it is retrospectively counted as a notable film of New Queer Cinema today. It’s also just plain fun.)
- Poison, dir. Todd Haynes (also available for electronic streaming): “A boy shoots his father and flies out the window. A man falls in love with a fellow inmate in prison. A doctor accidentally ingests his experimental sex serum, wreaking havoc on the community.”
- Young Soul Rebels, dir. Isaac Julien: “The central story-line is about a murder investigation involving one of the central characters Chris (Valentine Nonyela) and his relationship with his girlfriend Tracy (Sophie Okonedo). The second narrative involves the relationship between a gay punk Billibud (Jason Durr) and a soulboy Caz (Mo Sesay) and the racism and homophobia they face in both West Indian and white British communities. The film is a love story that can be seen as an allegory for racial and class solidarity, as their love transcends class and race barriers.”
- Paris is Burning, dir. Jennie Livingston: “Filmed in the mid-to-late 1980s, [Paris is Burning] chronicles the ball culture of New York City and the African-American, Latino, gay, and transgendercommunities involved in it. Critics consider the film to be an invaluable documentary of the end of the “Golden Age” of New York City drag balls, and a thoughtful exploration of race, class, gender, and sexuality in America.”
Crucial to contextualizing New Queer Cinema is that many key directors, actors, and writers of the movement came directly out of AIDS activism into filmmaking. Not only did the AIDS activist materials strongly influence themes and imagery found in New Queer Cinema films, but the AIDS crisis also provided a deep-seated motivation to promote more nuanced representations of queer relationships and characters on screen. This was in strong contrast to the extremely negative and one-dimensional portrayals of queer populations in the surrounding media and political landscape, which more often than not demonized LGBTQ+ communities for the AIDS epidemic.
Books for Further Reading
- New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut (B. Ruby Rich)
- New Queer Cinema: A Critical Reader (ed. Michele Aaron)
- Coming Out to the Mainstream: New Queer Cinema in the 21st Century (eds. JoAnne C. Juett and David M. Jones)
- Queer Images: A History of Gay and Lesbian Film in America (Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin)
- Queer Cinema: Schoolgirls, Vampires, and Gay Cowboys (Barbara Mennel)
MSUL has a number of resources to get started learning about New Queer Cinema and the film directors, critics, actors, producers, and writers that shaped the movement. We recommend checking out the New Queer Cinema films in our ROVI collection and available for streaming through MSUL, as well as the director interview collections, biographies, and critical theory anthologies in the MSUL catalogue, linked throughout this post.