Pride is a Riot

Writer and festival programmer Shayna Maci Warner says no to corporate slogans and yes to twenty films that celebrate queer joy, crime and chaos.

See the full ‘Pride is a Riot’ list—from John Waters to Jamie Babbit, and Gregg Araki to Miranda July—on Letterboxd.

During every Pride, and ever more frequently, there is an aggressive push from corporate sponsors and political interests alike to broadcast their participation in the acceptance of LGBTQ+ people.

We see you, wave the triple-decker ROYGBIV sandals, available for a limited time only. We want to be in you, sing the multi-hued photoshops of signature dishes from fast food franchises. We will write off our taxes to *one* charity and work throughout June to not let you know we sponsor bills against trans kids, blare countless icons of patent-hoarding pharmaceuticals, selectively arms-stocking department stores, and trans healthcare-incompetent insurance companies halfheartedly. And in my personal favorite bold PR move, screw you, we’re taking away the rainbow altogether, says the temporarily monochrome packaging of a candy brand.

My friends and fellow movie lovers, I am tired. The double consciousness of knowing a company wants my income and sanitized image, while actively doing harm to those it deems most exploitable, had my broken brain sighing in relief when I walked to my local 7-Eleven and noted that they did not bother to paste up rainbow anything. Is this internalized homophobia? No.

The problem is not that I hate being gay in June, it’s that companies would like to limit my desire to material representation during one month out of every year, and they’re so loud about it this month. You could almost believe that being gay is about looking like you stepped out of an ad—not sex, drugs, or god forbid, healthcare for all.

Luckily, I’ve consumed enough media throughout my life (and lived through my home state of California voting to repeal same-sex marriage in 2008) to know that any sudden embrace of palatable queerness is for one thing only: to distract us from fulfilling our destiny of being gay and doing crime. As The Living End and Kajillionaire remind us, we’re ill-adjusted vagabonds!

Following our ancestral history of breaking man-made laws, Set it Off and By Hook or by Crook instruct us to rob the banks that hand out ill-fitting plastic sunglasses at the parade on June 30 and make billions off overdraft fees by July 1. And as any of John Waters’ oeuvre drawls, if someone finds us digestible enough to sell our own aesthetic back to us at a marked-up rate, well, we will simply have to try harder to be downright disgusting.

I hardly have to remind anyone that the first American Pride was in commemoration of an uprising against law enforcement. Some corporate slogans have caught on to that language, thanking “brave trans folks” with pastel flag merchandise. However, the phrase “pride was a riot” is mired in the past, thanking symbolic faces obscured into legend for fighting for all of us, and exempting our own lack of cause. Pride is still a riot, if you want it to be. You can still challenge corporate and institutional interests in erasing erotic identity, forcibly upholding white supremacy in and out of queer culture, and targeting the most vulnerable for perpetual incarceration of both body and spirit. You, too, can fuck shit up!

In honor of the ongoing choice to accept our own monetized and dulled image, or as Born in Flames, Ema, or Bloodsisters would trumpet, to join with fellow queers in refusing to reign it in under capitalism, here is a list of twenty films, in no ranked order, that exemplify queer principles of anti-assimilation, collective strength, and/or straight-up crime for this Pride season.

These are films that deviate from a Hollywood norm of queer people victimized solely for their orientation (like the effortlessly-named Victim) or playing a queer-coded villain (sorry, Rope fans, we’ll get you next time!), and instead favor the notion of queer characters choosing, and often relishing, an act of crime, a more metaphorical life of an outlaw, or joining the ranks of a rebellious queer community.

Ranging from documentary to narrative feature to experimental, shoestring-budget hybrid, I hope you find something you love to help you celebrate pride in your own way—even if it’s not by starting a fire or robbing a bank.

Ema (2019)

Directed by Pablo Larrain, written by Pablo Larraín, Alejandro Moreno and Guillermo Calderón

Flushed with the adrenaline of a fresh act of arson and backed by her cult of devoted dancers/criminals/orgy partners, Mariana Di Girólamo’s titular Ema is an arbiter of chaos. In Pablo Larraín’s contemporary fable of maligned motherhood and unrest fomented by the mistreatment of Chile’s working class, brashly bisexual Ema moves through the world as an outlaw—both repulsive to and desired by those who consider their own moral compasses beyond reproach. In answer, Ema leads her band of queer chaos-makers to a new world—one thrumming with an EDM-reggaeton beat, forged by the fires of their own literal flamethrowers.

Set It Off (1996)

Directed by F. Gary Gray, written by Takashi Bufford and Kate Lanier

In Set It Off, F. Gary Gray’s tale of four women who decide the only way out of their immense financial and societal burdens is to turn to bank robbery, Queen Latifah shines as Cleo, an equal-parts goofy and ultra-cool, bonafide Black queer action hero whose love for her mood music is only matched by devotion to her girlfriend.

The gang of aspiring robbers, also comprised of Vivica A. Fox, Jada Pinkett Smith and Kimberly Elise, have their hands full of adversaries in face offs against scheming bosses, Child Protective Services, and an inept, murderous LAPD, but the adrenaline and occasional silliness (planning their next heist like a scene from The Godfather! Ramming through a display of teddy bears with the getaway car!) with which they navigate tense situations makes you root for them all the more.

By Hook or by Crook (2001)

Written and directed by Silas Howard and Harry Dodge

A one-of-a-kind film of gender-fuckery, queer companionship and trans masculine found family, Silas Howard and Harry Dodge’s San Francisco-based masterpiece has long deserved its due. With a zany, energetic, DIY-feel and open-hearted performances from Howard and Dodge as odd couple and aspiring criminals Shy and Valentine, By Hook or by Crook takes on poverty, institutionalization and isolation with incisive wit and sincerity.

With good gay humor, the film presents a picture of the determination needed to take care of one another when no one else will do the job, and includes inventive, incredibly funny “heist” scenes to boot.

Bound (1996)

Written and directed by Lilly Wachowski and Lana Wachowski

Bound is a sultry, shadow-dipped escapade of lust and danger that your run-of-the-mill, formerly incarcerated gay mafia-affiliated plumber Corky (played to the teeth by a leather-clad Gina Gershon) might not expect out of her day. Gershon and Jennifer Tilly create one of the most iconic cinematic romances of all time as they form a precarious plan to free Violet (Tilly) from the grasp of her controlling, abusive mob-entrenched boyfriend. By parts harrowing and hot, the Wachowski sisters’ neo-noir is a brilliant, cathartic example of the power of unabashed queer love to successfully pick the greatest getaway vehicle known to man.

La Leyenda Negra (2020)

Written and directed by Patrícia Vidal Delgado

One of the more under-the-radar releases of the movie-going year that wasn’t, Patrícia Vidal Delgado’s narrative debut is a compassionate, unassuming portrayal of two girls falling in love under an encroaching reign of terror. In La Leyenda Negra, the brilliant, new-to-town baby anarchist Aleteia (Monica Betancourt) is taken under the wing of soft-spoken but determined popular girl Rosarito (Kailei Lopez), who spends her time trying not to look too hard at her classmates’ butts.

Together, they navigate schoolyard bullies, quinceñeras and the looming presence of ICE in East Los Angeles, in a film somehow simultaneously sweet, and burning with the rage of a teenager who can’t understand why an unjust country hasn’t already been torn to shreds.

Pink Flamingos (1972)

Written and directed by John Waters

The first entry of John Waters’ much beloved and reviled trilogy of trashterpieces, Pink Flamingos stars perpetual inspiration Divine as herself-in-hiding, furtively holding the title of “filthiest person alive” while living under a pseudonym—that is, until someone else attempts to one-up her reigning notoriety. Debauchery, de-balling and reckless chicken-handling ensue.

The film is full of characters and imagery that Waters hoped would offend the very audience he had accrued with his previous works. Love it, hate it or regard it with a sense of shock and admiration, there’s no denying that Divine’s portrayal of a murderess at large is a successful “screw you” to any expectations of an acceptable homosexual aesthetic.

Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria (2005)

Written and directed by Susan Stryker and Victor Silverman

Susan Stryker’s self-reflexive documentary is part historical investigation, part recreation of the drag queens, gay hustlers and trans women who threw the first cup of hot coffee at Compton’s Cafeteria, three years before Stonewall’s infamous brick. As she trawls the archives and interviews those who could still tell the tale, Stryker shapes a lost picture of San Francisco’s attitude toward their trans inhabitants of the ’60s.

Even with the violence of law enforcement and discriminatory businesses alike, Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria stitches together a community that found a wonderland, a glittering land of “Oz”, in pageants, sex work, each other and a 24-hour diner.

D.E.B.S. (2004)

Written and directed by Angela Robinson

Despite its initial bomb, director Angela Robinson’s first feature, adapted from her short film of the same name, is a perfect girls-in-revolt viewing experience. The ultra-2000s espionage spoof chronicles the meeting of star-crossed lovers: a hot super-villain and the head of a squad of young women recruited by the FBI for their Discipline, Energy, Beauty, and Strength (hence D.E.B.S.).

When the twain do indeed meet, respectability and responsibility fly out of their heads, but their two worlds still have a vicious grasp on them. Of course, love conquers the FBI, and the stacked cast, including supporting turns by Devin Aoki, Holland Taylor and Jimmi Simpson, conquers the rest, in a tale that flouts every rule in the pursuit of fun and flirtation.

Born in Flames (1983)

Directed by Lizzie Borden, written by Lizzie Borden and Ed Bowes

Lizzie Borden’s guerrilla-shot, mockumentary-style dystopian tale of a future just slightly sideways from our own present is both a warning and an instruction manual: solidarity or bust! In the wake of the “Social Democratic War of Revolution” that turned out to be just another transfer of power unto the mighty, underground radio networks of lesbians and their allies start to whisper: another revolution must come, if all people are to be free. As the FBI, once again proving to be the enemy of all queer people, circles the “terrorists” of the Women’s Army for extermination, everything in Born in Flames falls into place, broadcasting a message loud and clear that the power of the people united isn’t to be trifled with.

The Itty Bitty Titty Committee (2007)

Directed by Jamie Babbit, written by Abigail Shafran and Tina Mabry

Directed by But I’m a Cheerleader’s Jamie Babbit, this comedy of tiny proportions follows a renegade group of queer women opposed to just about everything touted by the mainstream—including gay marriage. While mired in some dated feminism and patterns of casting cis actors in trans roles, The Itty Bitty Titty Committee takes its pleasure in letting queer and trans siblings-in-arms literally blow up everything that resembles patriarchal values. Add a riot grrrl soundtrack, suspend some disbelief, and you’re in for an exhilaratingly good time.

The Living End (1992)

Written and directed by Gregg Araki

Almost any of Gregg Araki’s New Queer Cinema tales of punk youth riot and existential teen despair could make this list, but perhaps the most challenging is his road-trip-to-perdition movie, The Living End. When the aimless, self-destructive Luke (Mike Dytri) kills three violent homophobes in self-defence, fate brings him a quick escape in the form of deadpan, pretentious film critic Jon (Craig Gilmore). As Luke convinces the newly diagnosed-with-HIV Jon to give in to his own “screw it” attitude, the two embark on a codependent romance fueled by horniness, rage, and a killer soundtrack and score by Los Angeles shoegaze and metal disco greats.

Kajillionaire (2020)

Written and directed by Miranda July

In Kajillionaire, Miranda July’s off-kilter, bubblegum-pink portrait of a family being strangers to themselves, the crime may be petty, but the consequences are life-altering. Raised into a family of distrusting, conspiracy-theorist conmen, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) has learned that the only way to garner praise or something resembling love is to play her part in scamming anything that breathes. When an outsider in the form of ultra-charming, any-way-the-wind-blows Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) flirts her way into Old Dolio’s life, she begins to question her upbringing, and look for the people who will love her the way she needs, not the callous ways in which they demand.

BloodSisters (1995)

Directed by Michelle Handelman

With a raucous, queercore soundtrack, pummelling MTV-style editing, and thoroughly informative and entertaining interviews, Michelle Handelman’s documentary BloodSisters captures a scene reviled by straight society and upwardly mobile gays alike. Through protest and performance, the leather dykes of San Francisco take the camera on a magical and consensually dangerous journey that pisses on censorship, broadcasts the still-relevant urgency of collective political action and illuminates the inextricability of queer autonomy to unhindered sexual expression. Including interviews with legendary pioneers of the scene like Patrick Califia, Tala Brandeis and Queen Cougar, this is one history lesson you won’t sleep through.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

Directed by Marielle Heller, written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty

Based around the true memoir of Lee Israel, Marielle Heller’s quiet, by turns dryly funny and heartbreaking exploration of isolation, fading relevance and friendship, centers Lee (Melissa McCarthy) as an author who turns to forgery as a last grab for her dying career. As the stakes get higher and the game of composing fake correspondence between literary celebrities of yore gets riskier, the unlikely criminal partnership between Lee and her old, flamboyant friend Jack (Richard E. Grant) stands out as a perfectly-matched feat of the actors’ chemistry, and a rare fictional depiction of platonic love between a gay man and a lesbian. Though Lee’s own queer identity is somewhat under-utilized, Can You Ever Forgive Me? succeeds in giving a finger to ideas of celebrity and placing monetary value on authenticity.

Major! (2015)

Directed by Annalise Ophelian

Serving as a biography of the innumerable accomplishments and extended matriarchy of living legend Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Annalise Ophelian’s documentary, Major!, follows the Black trans activist as she unwaveringly cares for her daughters, other Black trans women so often the aim of police brutality and incarceration. The documentary gives a glimpse into Miss Major’s joy in her community-building under the TGI Justice Project, as well as the physical and emotional toll it takes to work ceaselessly for the abolishment of the prison industrial complex. The work is never over, but as Miss Major’s recounting of her own accidental study under the leaders of the Attica Prison riot shows, there will always be teachers handing out tools to tear down the walls.

The Handmaiden (아가씨, 2016)

Directed by Park Chan-wook, adapted by Park Chan-wook and Chung Seo-kyung

What’s not to love about the Sarah Waters Cinematic Universe? Endlessly complex schemes, real danger, twists upon twists, and endings that somehow manage to be both completely unexpected and earned populate both filmic adaptations of the Welsh author’s most widely recognized lesbian crime novel.

Whether you prefer The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook’s lush, slickly erotic masterwork of cinematography and envious costume design, or 2005’s Fingersmith, the more understated, soft-lensed deviousness of the BBC miniseries directed by Aisling Walsh, hell and all her tricks await in this densely packed narrative. To explain too much of the premise is to destroy the fun for the uninitiated, so I’ll leave you with encouragement and a warning not to trust what’s before your very eyes.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

Directed and adapted by Anthony Minghella

Truly a classic of the genre, the filmic adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel is an evil romp for its insidiously charming anti-hero, one Tom Ripley (Matt Damon). Through fraud, impersonation, seduction and murder, Ripley bullets his way to the upper echelon that would never accept him for who he truly is, all the while enjoying the benefits of a homosexual thief-chic wardrobe from legendary costume designer Ann Roth and long-time collaborator Gary Jones. And unlike René Clément’s earlier Purple Noon, director Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley sticks to its source material, refusing to mete the strong hand of the law for that messy moral deviance.

Bad Education (2004)

Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar

What would this list be without an entry from one of the mightiest purveyors of psychosexual desire this side of the ’70s? Like The Handmaiden, to explain the plot of Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education would be to take the sting out of its many double-crosses, but I can tempt you with its display of subversive sex during the fascist anti-sex Franco era of Spain, movies within movies and people within people, noirish blackmail and, of course, the immense talents of Gael García Bernal.

Kate Bornstein is a Queer and Pleasant Danger (2014)

Directed by Sam Feder

Self-proclaimed “Gender Outlaw” Kate Bornstein is an author, activist, sadomasochist, performance artist, trans dyke, lapsed Jew and outlandish Twitter personality who scares the hell out of people. In Sam Feder’s personal documentary, we also get to know Bornstein as a parent, cancer survivor, partner and ex-member of the Church of Scientology, who hopes to craft her legacy as a pillar of strength and compassion for those cast out for their own gender or desire. As Bornstein makes her way through their latest book tour, Feder attempts to capture just a fraction of the fairy godmother/energizer bunny that simply can’t stop until every young queer rule-breaker feels like they have a real connection to someone who loves them.

Looking for Langston (1989)

Written and directed by Isaac Julien

In a space and time where queerness is often scrubbed from history, Isaac Julien’s poetic montage recreates the true fantasy of Black gay life during the Harlem Renaissance. Through evocative black-and-white photography, Julien sets the stage for the ultimate joys of dance, merriment and cruising, powerful enough to supernaturally defeat the police forces that would put an end to their effervescence. In dream sequences and archival footage alike, Looking for Langston mesmerizes, promising the existence of a place beyond the law or suppression of desire that will someday flourish once again, even brighter than before.

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