There’s that text that appears on the screen at the end of biopics and other films based on true stories, to tell you, selectively, what the characters you’ve been watching went on to do. It’s often accompanied by photos of the real people juxtaposed with footage of the actors impersonating them, as a last-minute effort to convince you that what you just watched was important, grounded in people’s real struggles with harsh realities, despite being endowed with artificial sentimentality and engineered to make you weep. This week, I watched both Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall and Peter Sollett’s Freeheld, the latter of which is based on the true story of Laurel Hester, a New Jersey detective fighting to ensure that her domestic partner gets her pension so she can keep their house when Laurel dies of cancer. This double feature was… a lot to take.
Considering all the supposed inspiration, uplift, and (ugh) “feels” Freeheld and Stonewall wanted me to experience, and all those vindicating credit sequences, should I not be brimming with brick-throwing, pension-demanding inspiration to fight… anything? Instead, they’ve brought me to the conclusion that I’m done with teleologic gay characters, whose purpose in a movie can be summed up by the change they wrought. As a gay person, I do not have any interest in being merely “inspired” by another gay person onscreen for a while — because I don’t want to be inspired by characters, generally. In fact, I’d love to be angry at gay characters, disappointed in them, intrigued by them, in love with them — anything but inspired.
In Freeheld, Laurel (Julianne Moore) and Stacie Andree’s (Ellen Page) courtship has the potential to become interesting, because it almost seems like the courtship isn’t just there to set up the Moving Drama chapters of the film. While Laurel is an older, closeted detective, Stacie is a young, out, and comfortable mechanic. The power dynamic between them shifts as Laurel tries to compartmentalize her life based on her perceptions of the prejudices around her, but realizes that Stacie won’t happily respect the structures she’s built to avoid confronting internalized shame.
This almost works on its own, but feels condensed to serve the plot that finds Laurel, her partner on the force (played by Michael Shannon), and a talking-head gay marriage activist played by Steve Carell fighting the Ocean City freeholders and archaic domestic partnership laws so that Stacie can get Laurel’s pension. Made in early 2014, just before gay marriage was widely legalized, the film does serve as a point-by-point rebuttal to anyone who questioned its importance. (In this vein, it confronts both homophobic straight people and LGBT people so progressive that they oppose the campaign to join an archaic institution.) But it also, thankfully, if a little heavy-handedly, questions the monolithic vehemence about marriage within gay activism: In an underdeveloped subplot, Laurel herself is unwilling to reduce her cause to what she sees as a myopic struggle. She refuses to say that her fight is about marriage and adamantly emphasizes that it’s “equality” she’s after.
Films mining social movements, eventual culture-wide shifts, and the personalities that push for them can be fascinating, especially if they’re executed with a minimum of sanctimony (see: Milk). But as New York Times critic Manohla Dargis wrote, Freeheld “is as generic as the bullet points in a gay rights brochure.” I don’t, in the abstract, mind that there are gay characters who are human embodiments of messages — they can serve their purpose of revivifying the stories of indispensable historical figures in their respective message films. It’s just becoming boring.
If you’re queer, and if these are the messages you’ve always known to be true, there is so little reason for you in particular to see them revisited — years after the fact — through a series of recognizable faces playing tragic dress-up. Freeheld happens to be based on an Academy Award-winning documentary short. If we’re talking about memorialization, that format is obviously far less removed from the real-life story of Laurel Hester; what’s gained by putting Julianne Moore in a “brave” bald wig to retell it? It is key to remember the figures that helped incite policy changes — but to render them through tired, formulaic biopics does them a disservice.
We seem to have reached a turning point, where audiences who aren’t totally homophobic — audiences who wouldn’t expressly avoid movies with gay characters — seem exhausted by the subgenre of feel-bad-feel-good dramas that have latched on to LGBT identities. One line of thinking that’s particularly frustrating is that LGBT people shouldn’t be so hard on the films representing them, lest they accidentally deter everyone else from seeing them and convince Hollywood that nobody is interested in characters who aren’t straight and cisgender. But these films wouldn’t get so tiresome if they weren’t all that was being offered — so it seems necessary to fight our way out of this strange American cultural ghetto of safe, mainstream LGBT cinema about heroic figures fighting and/or dying for their rights.
This year, mainstream American films (which is to say, movies not made on iPhones, à la the excellent Tangerine) centering on LGBT characters include About Ray, The Danish Girl, Freeheld, and Stonewall. Though About Ray and The Danish Girl have not yet seen theatrical release, early reviews suggest that they belong in the same category as Freeheld and Stonewall: safe, diluted narratives of resistance to oppressive forces. (About Ray, The Danish Girl and Stonewall have also all been accused of pandering to straight and, in the case of Stonewall, white audiences with their casting choices.) It’s not that we don’t need revolutionary LGBT films — but it’s absurd that the films being made about supposed revolutions, both personal and large-scale, are among the most nauseatingly vanilla you’ll encounter. The goal of both Freeheld and Stonewall seems to be to placate rather than incite.
So, what would make a revolutionary LGBT film at this point? Well, how about simply and unquestioningly giving LGBT characters central roles in worlds otherwise (falsely and insidiously) thought of as straight. Show me an LGBT superhero. Show me an LGBT James Bond. Better yet, show me an insinuating psychological drama with an LGBT character whose psychological drama isn’t derived from their sexual orientation or gender identity. Show me an LGBT person who is a lead character, and whose story has to do with something else — anything else — in their lives besides the fact that cisgender, straight people have, in the past, often really sucked. A lot of them don’t suck anymore: show me that!