(Previously published at The Gay-Atheist.)
One of last year’s best films was Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, a wonderfully acted, intimate little movie about — get this, now — a girl named Rachel, getting married. It made a lot of end-of-the-year top ten lists, and won praise for Anne Hathaway’s performance as Kym, Rachel’s troubled sister. It was shot and cut in an unobtrusive, naturalistic style, it was full of great music, it was funny and joyous and just all around a great piece of work. And there was something else I noticed about it that made it very interesting. Rachel’s marriage is to be an interracial one. She is a young, fair, waifish white girl, and her fiancé Sidney is a hulking, dark-skinned black man. And the movie never, ever mentions it.
Rachel Getting Married is a movie about an interracial wedding that isn’t about an interracial wedding. To me, this seems quietly revolutionary. I feel like an asshole even bringing it up, since that’s the exact thing the movie didn’t do, but I do because it represents an important step in our culture, and hopefully foreshadows another, similar step we’ll be taking in the not-too-distant future.
In Rachel, Demme made a quietly emphatic post-racial movie. Rachel is white, Sidney is black, and the movie could not possibly care less. Both families get along splendidly, seem to genuinely like each other, are totally comfortable together during the various celebrations they share. Rachel’s father, Paul, treats Sidney as a son, not as an enemy, and — just as importantly — not as an opportunity to demonstrate his own racial tolerance. The issue of race is simply never, ever, ever brought up. It’s not what the movie is about. A white woman marrying a black man is treated as no big deal and not even worth commenting on.
Remember that until very recently there were still laws in much of the United States prohibiting a white woman from marrying a black man, and consider what an amazing thing this film is. Sure, we still have a long way to go. But look at the attitudes embodied by the characters in Rachel Getting Married and see how far we’ve come.
While I smile in appreciation at the long overdue arrival of post-racial cinema, I also have to wonder how long it will be until we see films that handle sexual orientation the same way. How far away is post-gay cinema?
The depiction of gay men and women has already come a long way in a short time in American movies. There was a time within my own life when having an explicitly homosexual character in a mainstream film was almost unheard of. There had been a sort of underground gay cinema almost since the advent of the medium, with writers, directors and actors dealing indirectly with gay themes in their films, and gay filmgoers seeing actors like the androgynous Marlene Dietrich and characters like The Wizard of Oz’s Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion, and Tin-Man as representing them. Just in the last two decades, with TV shows like Ellen, Will & Grace, and The L Word, and films like The Birdcage (a remake of the French farce La Cage aux Folles, which had been made twenty years earlier), Boys Don’t Cry, and Brokeback Mountain, has the frank depiction of gay and transgendered characters become an accepted part of mainstream American film.
A look at those titles I mentioned tells you not only how far we’ve come, but how far we have yet to go. The sexuality of gay characters is nearly always positioned right up front. Stories in films with gay protagonists hinge in some way on their sexual orientation, and they tend to be cautionary tales or tolerance fables, broad comedies or dark tragedies. In a relatively short time, the sensitive gay best friend and the flaming queen have already become clichés. And films that avoid those still fall short of the Rachel standard. I thought Brokeback Mountain was a brilliant piece of work that should have won that year’s Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actor (it lost both, but Ang Lee picked up Best Director), but the response from certain segments of the gay population was less enthusiastic. “Sure, it’s a good movie,” gay folks I know told me, “but it’s nothing we didn’t already know.” What they were really waiting for was a movie about gay people that wasn’t about people being gay.
Things are moving forward toward the acceptance of homosexuality as a normal aspect of our culture. Slowly, in fits and starts, but they are moving forward. The evolution of the depiction of gay characters in cinema reflects that. The current stage, where we see gay men and women in films struggling with issues directly related to their sexual orientation, is a necessary one, and we might need to stay here for awhile before we’re ready for the next step. Maybe there had to be a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? before there could be a Rachel Getting Married. As the ongoing struggle for the recognition of same-sex marriage demonstrates, there are still plenty of people around, colored by bigotry, who have no interest in accepting gays as their equals in society. Hopefully it won’t take too long, and hopefully the movies can help, if only a little.
Even though I think it’s still a way off from the mainstream, if you poke around you can find a few glimpses of what post-gay cinema will look like. The first example that jumps to mind for me is the 1994 Mike Newell film Four Weddings and a Funeral. Among the ensemble cast were the characters of Gareth and Matthew, a gay couple who were depicted no differently than a straight couple would have been. It’s a shame that didn’t catch on.
The second example, weirdly enough, is the most recent episode of Star Trek: New Voyages, a series of fan-produced short films that picks up where the original Star Trek TV series left off in 1969. The latest installment, “Blood and Fire,” was written and directed by David Gerrold, and features Captain Kirk’s nephew Peter, who is gay and in a serious relationship with one of his fellow crewmen aboard the Enterprise. There’s a nicely written and acted scene where Peter, whose father is dead, informs his overprotective uncle that if he won’t be treated as an equal member of the crew, then he will be requesting a transfer off the Enterprise for himself — and his husband. Kirk is surprised, but only because he had no idea his nephew was even in a relationship, let alone in one serious enough to be getting married. He seems excited at the prospect, and readily gives his approval. The message is clear: in Star Trek’s version of the future, gay couples are seen as no different than straight couples.
Sounds pretty good to me. And I’m optimistic we won’t actually have to wait two hundred years to get there.