ARTICLE / LONG READ
On PRIDE (2014) and the future of queer cinema.
WHEN actor Charlie Sheen was “outed” as HIV positive by the Sun newspaper in a 2015 article entitled “Hollywood HIV Panic”, the world of liberal media was quick to draw upon the similarities of the 1980s “AIDS crisis”. Although Sheen is heterosexual, the treatment he received both by The Sun’s Dan Wootton and the average reader is incredibly similar to the earlier queer-centric crisis, although with public vilification now in the form of mean tweets and gossip columns.
The previous year saw the release of PRIDE (Matthew Warchus 2014), a film that directly comments on the queer community’s experiences of 1980s media. Set in 1980s England against the backdrop of Thatcher’s reign and the UK miners’ strike, the film follows LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) as they drum up funds for an unlikely ally in the form of a remote Welsh mining community. Based on a true story, the queer collective is fronted by Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer), who comes to the mining community’s rescue following an onslaught of negative press. “If anybody knows what this treatment feels like”, Mark states, “it’s us”.
PRIDE received the “Queer Palm” at Cannes Film Festival in 2014 and a BAFTA award for “Outstanding Debut” for writer/producer duo Stephen Beresford and David Lingstone. Such accolades suggests PRIDE is quite the queer powerhouse but it is not the first of its kind. Earlier films such as PHILADELPHIA (Jonathan Demme 1993), BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (Ang Lee 2005) and DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (Jean-Marc Vallee 2013) engage with queer themes and all went on to win Oscars - including Best Actor awards for Tom Hanks, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto and nominations for Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal - so it should come as no surprise that PRIDE received the recognition it did. The issue that is raised in this celebration of queer cinema is that the recipients of these accolades are almost always heterosexual rather than the sexuality or gender identity that they are portraying.
THE RECIPIENTS OF THESE ACCOLADES ARE ALMOST ALWAYS HETEROSEXUAL RATHER THAN THE SEXUALITY OR GENDER IDENTITY THAT THEY ARE PORTRAYING.
In a 2015 Vulture article entitled “Enough With the Queer and Trans Films That Are Actually About Straight People”, Kyle Buchanan discusses the shifts in narrative, especially those of true stories, to somehow make films about straight people. In THE DANISH GIRL (Tom Hooper 2016), the narrative shifts the focus of the gender identity and revolutionary transition of Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne) from a story of transformation to a tale of loss from her ex-wife Gerda’s (Alicia Vikander) point-of-view. Buchanan points out that the character of Gerda has more screen time than the eponymous Lili and that the story revolves around her, transforming the plight of a transgender woman to that of a heterosexual cisgender one. Many critics including Buchanan were also quick to point out that a transgender actor could have, and arguably should have, been cast in the titular role of Lili Elbe.
THERE IS A SEEMINGLY UNAVOIDABLE PITFALL THAT MANY QUEER FILMS FALL INTO.
The desperation in mainstream queer cinema for a heterosexual perspective is also present in PRIDE. Joe (George MacKay) is a 20-year-old catering student and not yet “legal” by queer standards, as Steph (Faye Marsay) the “L” of “LGSM” explains: “16 for the breeders, 21 for the gays”. It is a nod to the varying ages of consent between sexualities in England, which until 2000 were still divided. Joe is entirely fictional despite the majority of characters being based on members of the real LGSM. The filmmakers were able to tailor-make the fictional character to act as the entry point to the world of queer rebellion for a heterosexual audience. While Joe is in fact gay, his fresh-faced naivety acts as a way in for viewers who experience and learn things about the queer world at the same time as Joe.
At the beginning of the film Joe attends an LGBT rally and is noticeably uncomfortable at being involved in the community, reluctantly holding a banner for Mike (Joe Gilgun) while onlookers, young and old, cast disgusted glances towards the rally. Shortly afterwards, he is invited to a party above “Gay’s the Word”, the bookshop headquarters and safe space of LGSM for the majority of the film. It is here that Joe finally comes into his own, accepting his sexuality and the world of the 1980s queer scene. He reflects the audience’s feelings towards the community as they are slowly submerged into the accepting and positive world presented in PRIDE.
There is a seemingly unavoidable pitfall that many queer films fall into: the “queer tragedy” in which queer characters face extreme hardships such as illness or death, regardless of the context and mood of the film. Even in PRIDE, a largely “feel good movie”, there is an undercurrent of HIV/AIDS throughout. As the film closes and the group lead the 1985 Gay Rights parade, we are informed that only two years after the events of the film Mark has died as a consequence of contracting HIV. There are multiple shifts in tone throughout and no other scene stirs up a stranger change in the mood than the brief interaction between Mark and Tim (Russell Tovey) in the stairwell of a gay club. Implying a past between the two, it becomes apparent that Tim is on a farewell tour. “Where are you going?” Mark naïvely asks. But the audience already knows that Tim’s fate is etched into stone, much like the haunting gravestones of AIDS awareness adverts that featured on British televisions in the 1980s with slogans like “Don’t Die of Ignorance”.
Rowan Ellis in a 2015 YouTube video “Bury Your Gays: Why Do LGBT Characters Always Have to Die?” suggests that in the world of cinema, a queer life is inherently tragic and this corresponds with the inescapable threat that HIV and AIDS have upon the queer community in PRIDE. It is a film that reminds viewers that “any deviancy from heterosexuality will ultimately result in death by suicide, murder or AIDS”, as James Rawson noted in a 2013 Guardian blog. While Rawson was discussing BEHIND THE CANDELABRA (Steven Soderbergh 2013), this comment rings true for most queer cinema, including PRIDE, which is unable to escape the trap of queer tragedy in the form of HIV and AIDS.
PRIDE IS UNABLE TO ESCAPE THE TRAP OF QUEER TRAGEDY.
While the UK queer community now faces a less turbulent social climate in the 21st century, the majority of mainstream films with a queer focus are still stuck in the past, such as BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN’s queer story of generations gone by. In a 2014 Guardian article “Out of the Past: Gay Cinema and Nostalgia”, Ben Walters shares equally worrying thoughts about the current state of queer cinema, suggesting that “the past has returned” with the most prominent form of queer media being the period piece. Walters believes that period stories benefit from the safety of distance, at least in a commercial sense, as most audiences will be on the side of the queer community in times of struggle as they look back on PRIDE where characters are routinely spat at and beaten up.
This historical empathy is clear when Joe is chastised by his parents after being outed against his will. He returns to the safety of the London queer community, spending the night at Steph’s flat. As the two lay together in bed she turns to him and says “if we were normal this is the part where we’d kiss”. This breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience, simultaneously calling out the heteronormative implications of cinema regarding romance between a man and a woman. This lack of “normality” clearly emphasises the exclusion that queer people felt in the 1980s and arguably still feel today. Again, this presents a queer tragedy as the characters are aware how outside of typical society they are, aware that the conventional Hollywood motifs of romance are very rarely applied to queer characters in mainstream cinema.
Considering the future of queer cinema, Walters believes the recent advent of same-sex marriage has brought the queer cinema world into unknown territory. Yet, after centuries of culturally ingrained abjection, the queer community will still be playing catch up for years to come. A predominant theme throughout PRIDE is that of unity, unity among members of the queer community and unity between LGSM and the mining village of Onllywn. The Welsh mining village’s symbol is that of two hands linked together in a handshake. It appears multiple times, most notably between miner Dai (Paddy Considine) and Mark as the two figureheads of their communities unite. It could also be a sign of things to come between the queer community and cinema who, in the near future, may finally exist together and beyond the realms of historic and tragic narratives.