Lets not beat around the bush, American cinema has some serious diversity issues. The ratio of people of color to white people is, and has always been, appallingly uneven. There's a lot of great commentary discussing the lack of appreciation for people of color working in film—most recently, when I recently reviewed the entire Netflix lesbian and bisexual lady film canon, a reader pointed out the lack of films about queer women of color available on Netflix. Thus I've compiled a list of a few recommendations of films that center on lesbian and bisexual women of color.
This is in no way a complete list, it's just a few of my favorites. Please feel free to suggest your favorite films about queer women of color in the comments!
Director: Dee Rees
The Story: Pariah follows the teen Alike, who is coming to grips with her identity as a butch lesbian. Alike meets a girl named Bina, who is femme. She flirts with Alike, who awkwardly learns how to reciprocate a crush. Her mother is in extreme denial of her sexuality, and actually attacks her at least once. Bina seduces Alike, and then breaks it off immediately in the morning.
The Good: This movie is extremely realistic in its portrayal of a teenager whose sexuality is rejected by her parents. Alike is an amazing and likeable character and I think most queer people could relate to her pretty well. This is Dee Rees' first film, so I'd say it's a fairly promising glimpse into what we might come to see from her in the future.
The Bad: Bina's a jerk.
Director: Maryam Keshavarz
The Story: Atafeh is a rich teenager with a penchant for parties and drug experimentation. While her obsessive ex-addict brother Mehran turns into an absolute creep, she cares for her orphaned girlfriend Shireen.
The Good: Although it is absolutely heartbreaking, this is a gorgeous movie. Your eyes never get tired of watching the subtle changes in scenery, and the expressions in the faces of the actors, who were under a significant amount of stress during filming. Although shot in Lebanon, it was based on Maryam's experiences growing up in Iran, where it is illegal to make a movie like this. The making of "Circumstance" is an incredible story—it involved sending false scripts to the Lebanese government, actors accepting that they might not see their families for years due to their involvement in the film, and working in a constant state of anxiety for what might happen if they were discovered. That sounds like a movie in and of itself.
The Bad: Many of the scenes with Mehran are genuinely unsettling.
Director: Angela Robinson
The Story: Four young women attend a paramilitary academy where they train to be spies. That seems like it might be enough of a plot, but D.E.B.S goes the route of following main character Amy's love life. She's just broken up with her boyfriend and soon meets Lucy Diamond, a wanted criminal that wears all black and makes good jokes. The best military trainee and the best criminal hook up, and it's just about as dramatic for everyone as you'd think it would be.
The Good: This movie so cute that it becomes almost impossible to criticize its obvious flaws. Lucy is by far the most dynamic character of the film but all of the characters are great. The character Max, Amy's intensely ambitious fellow D.E.B.S. trainee, definitely deserves her own movie.
The Bad: I get the feeling that Lucy Diamond's life was a lot more interesting right before this story started. Suffers from the shoddy writing.
Director: Deepa Mehta
The Story: It's easy to allow this film to be eclipsed by the protests, discussions, and cultural impact of its release. This was one of the first movies featuring homosexuality ever shown in India, and the reaction both for and against it was heated. It's hard to see what the fuss was about when you actually watch the film itself, a quiet and tender love story based around the emotional and physical emancipation of women. The commentary on the effect that intense religious ritual can have on a family isn't particularly favorable, which is part of why fundamentalists rejected its release.
The Good: The two main characters are terribly endearing, and their attraction to each other comes across quite naturally. They are incidentally the only likeable characters in the film, so that makes it easy to root for them. The soundtrack is also pretty great.
The Bad: It gets repetitive.
Born in Flames
Director: Lizzie Borden
The Story: Lizzie Borden's cult classic Born in Flames explores how a socialist utopia could very well fail to bring equality to women or people of color and observes that revolutionary action is often what is required to create real political change. The movie follows two feminist groups that are mobilized by various pirate radio broadcasters. An important activist dies under suspicious circumstances, and the groups eventually merge to better combat the regime.
The Good: Born in Flames has a great soundtrack. As if it needed to try to win my love after that, it also features a girl gang roughing up guys on the street for catcalling women. This the oldest film on the list and is easily worth watching if only to gain context on the time period during which it was released.
The Bad: You can't possibly fit as much societal commentary into a 90-minute film as Born in Flames attempts. And yet, I admire the attempt so much.
Mosquita Y Mari
Director: Aurora Guerrero
The Story: Stop me if you've heard this one before, the straight-laced honor roll student collides with a high school rebel, begins tutoring her, they develop a mutual crush, their differences tear them apart, and wind up on journeys of self-discovery. What could be a fairly standard coming-of-age tale instead becomes a beautifully rendered return to the uncertainty of adolescence in the capable hands of director Aurora Guerrero.
The Good: The characters are solid, the dialogue is legit, and the actors are top notch. Mosquita Y Mari demonstrates a level of tenderness and empathy towards its characters that is rare to find, while offering the observation that, for many under-privileged youth, upbringing and class status leaves little in the way of choices.
The Bad: I'd be hard pressed to criticize this film. It does exactly what it intends to do.
The Fish Child
Director: Lucia Puenzo
The Story: The story begins with the a teen girl, Lala, lusting after her family's maid, Ailin... and that is quite honestly the least dramatic revelation of the story. Ailin is sexually abused by Lala's father, she's accused of murder, she's put in prison at some point—she has a rough time, to say the least. The story mostly follows how Lala, evolves from a shady politician's daughter into a warrior priestess to free her girlfriend from prison. If that line doesn't sell you on a movie, what will?
The Good: The love story between the two main characters is enchanting, but the interjection of classic noir elements, commentary on the class system, and the complicated emotional aftermath of sexual assault all feature just as prominently in this powerful film. Lucia Puenzo is an incredible storyteller and I highly recommend following her work. Before this, she directed the equally acclaimed XXY.
The Bad: This movie is just brutal. I loved it, but if you're looking for something light, this is probably the last movie on this list that you should watch.
Director: Nisha Ganatra
The Story: The film revolves around the character Reena, who is a photographer that spends most of her free time riding around on a motorcycle with her girlfriend, living your standard carefree, leather-jacket-lesbian lifestyle. One day, Reena's sister, who is trying to have a baby with her husband, discovers that she can't bear children. Out of the middle of nowhere, Reena offers to have the baby for her. Reena's mother, friends, girlfriend, and brother-in-law freak out about the pending arrival of the baby.
The Good: There aren't a lot of lesbian movies that don't at least partially rotate around one of the characters being really distressed about her sexuality. Half of this list alone has a character panicking, shutting down, or breaking off a relationship due to their inability to fully accept their attraction to women. In Chutney Popcorn, sexual identity is intertwined with other elements of the plot rather than being the focus focuses of the drama. This allows Ganatra to tell a story that is a more consistent portrayal of the reality of gay lives, while communicating the often culturally alienating experience of being the child of immigrants.
The Bad: The acting is... not always the best.
The Watermelon Woman
Director: Cheryl Dunye
The Story: The Watermelon Woman follows a young filmmaker who, much like the writer and director of this film, is named Cheryl Dunye (stay with me, here). Cheryl works at a video store and runs a part-time business with her friend Tamara, who has the worst attitude problem of all time and therefore has most of the best lines of the film. Cheryl watches a classic film, and becomes obsessed by a "mammy" style character who is billed only as "Watermelon Woman." Most of the story rotates around her trying to find out more about the actor behind the role. Spoiler alert, she does.
The Good: Constant references to VHS rental that nobody born after the year 2000 will understand. Also, you HAVE to see the "alternative" girl that they hire at the video store. Piercings, purple hair, black t-shirt, ripped jeans, dog collar. If someone asked me what 1997 was, I would show them a picture of this character.
The Bad: It has all of the flaws you might expect of a low-budget venture of the late 90s, and there's a scene with Camille Paglia that I couldn't really get behind.
I Can't Think Straight
Director: Shamim Sarif
The Story: Layla is a writer. Tala is a rich person who likes to argue. Therefore, they have an affair. There's a lot of the requisite questioning of one's orientation from Tala, because she's, you know, engaged to a man (SIGH). It turns out that she's actually been engaged to a few men, but left them all... mostly because she's gay, but also for some other reasons. Meanwhile, Layla is busy finding her voice as a writer and setting personal boundaries, like a boss. When Tala screws up, Layla does not hesitate to kick her to the curb, and it is rad. As usual, everything works out in the end. Shamim Sarif previously directed the stars in the more somber The World Unseen. The two are different in tone, but there are a lot of similarities. If you like one, you'll probably like the other.
The Good: Cute stuff happens between the two actors for 90 minutes. It's pretty great.
The Bad: I don't want to make a big deal out of it, but this film has one of the worst gay-pun titles of all time.
Sara Century is the Joan Crawford of the avant-garde underground. You can follow her multi-media art experimentation at saracentury.wordpress.com.