10 protest movies that inspire change in these scary times

David Reddish

 

As the United States enters into an era of pants-crapping political insanity, no doubt queer folk, along with just about anybody with a shred of sanity, will wonder how best to end the madness. Time will tell, though in the meantime we here at Queerty have assembled some inspirational viewing that will no doubt make you want to get back into the streets after some post-marriage equality complacency.

The movies included here all provide different examples of effective protest—both fictional and not—in hopes of offering not just some comfort that things do get, but a call to action as well. Given that Vice President Mike Pence is, without question, the most anti-LGBTQ person to ever hold high office, and his proximity to the power of the Presidency, we must fight back, fight Pence.

After of course, we’ve watched these great films.

1. Milk

Gus Van Sant’s magnificent biopic of LGBT rights leader Harvey Milk won Sean Penn his second Oscar, as well as the golden trophy for Dustin Lance Black. One of the best bio-films, Milk traces the rise of its titular hero from nerdy queer man to full-on national celebrity and civil rights activist, while still managing a good deal of sympathy for Dan White, the gunman who murdered Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone. As White, Josh Brolin gives a career-best performance, injecting White with enough angst and frustration that the actor deepens the mystery behind his murderous behavior. The film belongs to Penn as Milk though, who creates a portrait of a man both sweet and shrewd, totally unafraid to fight back against oppressive political forces.

2. Selma

While not a biopic of Martin Luther King, Jr. per se, Ava DuVerney’s Selma shines a light on the private life of America’s defining civil rights leader. As played by David Oyelowo, King is a brave and heroic man, while also plagued by insecurity, and philandering to boot. The movie’s best scenes involve King’s confrontations with his wife Coretta (a magnificent Carmen Ejogo), as the two struggle with their own imperfections, rather than systemic political issues. The film also features moving recreations of the Selma marches, in which African-American men and women joined forces with conscious white Americans to fight back against racism. Understand, Selma does not white-wash its subject the way that a movie like The Help needs a plucky white girl to save its black protagonists. Rather, the movie presents a portrait of unity and courage—the kind of understanding the nation still fights to reach today among all its classes, LGBTQ folk included.

3. How to Survive a Plague

For shockingly real images of protests, look no further than the documentary How to Survive a Plague, director David France’s examination of the AIDS epidemic, and the rise of activist groups like ACT UP. France intercuts archive footage of activists like Peter Staley and Larry Kramer raising Hell over government inaction to fight HIV with eyewitness accounts from fellow protesters, as well as scientists studying the disease. Stirring and educational, How to Survive a Plague recalls the LGBT community’s most dire fight. While the film does not make a point of it, the stark contrast between Reagan and H.W. Bush’s dismissal of the disease strikes a horrifying contrast with contemporary panics over single cases of diseases like Zika or Ebola will churn viewers’ stomachs. How to Survive a Plague looks at a community staring death in the face, and refusing to back down.

4. V for Vendetta

The cinematic adaptation of Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel caused a stir in 2005, galvanizing anti-Bush forces furious over the Iraq War and curbing of civil liberties. It since has become the defining film of the protest hacker group Anonymous, which continues to target perceived tyranny today. In Moore’s dystopian vision, a totalitarian government has impressed harsh rule on the UK, only to meet with incredible resistance from a masked vigilante known as V. Actor Hugo Weaving makes V into a spellbinding character, though the film belongs to Natalie Portman as Evie, a woman swept up in V’s anarchic protests. Portman gives arguably her best performance as an everywoman moved to fight back against oppression. The movie also has a moving subplot about Evie’s friendship with a gay man (played by Stephen Fry) who must live his life in the shadows thanks to anti-gay violence.

5. Medium Cool

Cinematographer Haskell Wexler made a stunning debut as a feature director with Medium Cool, a film about the 1968 anti-Vietnam protests during the Democratic National Convention. In the movie’s biggest coup, Wexler and his cast—which features Robert Forester and Verna Bloom—actually filmed during the real life protests. In other words, neither the police smashing skulls of student protestors, nor the protesters themselves, are background extras.

Medium Cool blurs the line between fiction and reality into a shocking and horrific film about protests and violence. In the era of anti-Trump, Medium Cool reminds those who would fight back against his bigotry and cronyism of the importance of maintaining a peaceful protest atmosphere and that in a moment of crisis, those fighting for justice cannot back down.

6. Hair

The excellent film version of the stage musical classic often goes overlooked. That’s a shame: Hair preserves the power of the stage version while bringing a new sense of reality and gravitas to the story. As directed by Milos Forman (Amadeus, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), Hair captures the youthful energy and anger of the 60’s, all set to the unforgettable music of the stage show. The movie also features a pivotal queer character: the bisexual Woof, played with sensitivity and charm by Don Dacus. More than anything though, Hair reminds audiences that anger alone can’t fuel a protest movement—they require love too. The characters in Hair don’t protest over minutiae of policy or politics, but rather out of love: love for life, love for each other, and love for the nation too.

7. Norma Rae

Queer rights advocate Sally Field took home her first Academy Award for Norma Rae, a film about formation of a textile union. With a demagogic kleptocrat poised to take up residence in the White House (when he actually feels like doing his job, anyway) Norma Rae resonates louder than ever with the American working class. The film revolves around the poor working conditions and pitiful wages for textile workers in the 1970’s south. In a “freelance economy,” trade unions have lost some of their political clout. Norma Rae reminds us all that if a woman could organize a union against all odds 40 years ago, even the most seemingly insignificant folk could do it again today.

8. Stonewall

No, not the embarrassing, white-washed outing from Roland Emmerich in 2015. This is the real, criminally overlooked narrative film from 1995, the last film from queer British director Nigel Finch before his death from AIDS. Stonewall recreates the days leading up to the famed Stonewall Riots, which kicked off the LGBT rights movement. Finch intercuts the narrative portion with interviews from witnesses to the riots, who recall the atmosphere and events that helped ignite the movement. Though historians quibble with a few of the film’s insinuations (did Judy Garland’s death really play a role in the riots?), Stonewall features a multi-ethnic cast that represents just about every facet of the LGBT subculture. Stonewall has its shortcomings, but as a reminder of the inception of the queer rights movement, it still packs a wallop.

9. 8: The Mormon Proposition

Get ready to get pissed off: 8: The Mormon Proposition examines the role of the Church of Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the battle over California Prop. 8, and the shady political involvement of the Mormons in anti-gay politics. Though the movie suffers from low, and at times, crude production value, the revelations uncovered in 8 more than make up for its flaws. As directors Reed Cowan and Steven Greenstreet uncover a long and ugly history of Mormon abuse of the LGBT community, and how the LDS Church funneled money into the passage of Prop. 8 from outside California. 8 doesn’t chronicle protests so much as become one itself, railing against political interests hiding behind tax-exempt religious status, and raising questions over the legality of the LDS Church’s political dealings.

10. The US vs. John Lennon

Sometimes protests take unusual forms, and for John Lennon’s, his opposition to the Vietnam War took the form of music. The US vs. John Lennon features extensive interviews from Lennon’s friends, family, and various other political figures of the time, including wife Yoko Ono, queer author Gore Vidal and civil rights leader Angela Davis. The film ties Lennon’s anti-war stance to his latter day career woes, as well as attempts by the CIA and Nixon White House to publicly embarrass the singer, and have him deported. While the movie probably overstates Lennon’s involvement in turning public sentiment against the war and indeed, his political involvement in general, it does paint a fascinating portrait of a man who protested through unconventional means. John Lennon, if nothing else, proved that men and women could find peaceful and clever means to fight oppression, including humor, art and some simply great music.

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