Movements need their movies. Sidney Poitier's 1967 trifecta To Sir, with Love; In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner helped put a human face on the U.S. Civil Rights struggle. Films such as An Unmarried Woman (1978), Norma Rae (1979) and Nine to Five (1980) pushed the conversation on feminism and gender equality. Now a trio of fall films are doing their part to further LGBTQ+ rights: Love Is Strange, Pride and The Imitation Game.
Love Is Strange, which premiered in late August, begins with a wedding: Ben and George (John Lithgow and Alfred Molina – both excellent), a couple for 40 years, are overjoyed they can finally legally marry. Their happiness lasts a day: George's employer, the Catholic Church, fires him. Because he's the sole breadwinner, they lose their apartment; because they live in New York, they have to bunk separately with friends and family. The ordinariness of their plight, the love they evince as they deal with it, and the way their love affects people in the generations below theirs make a case for equality in the subtlest, least preachy way. Which only enhances the movie's power and charm.
Writer-director Ira Sachs, who is gay, married and a father, said in a phone interview that for him, his film is about "simply being attentive to other people. It speaks to what institutions, educators, parents and neighbours can teach each other. We could have called it Do the Right Thing."
Appearing in the film makes Lithgow feel like he's on the side of the angels. "I didn't feel this way about being in Cliffhanger," he said, laughing, in a separate phone interview. "Ben and George are a gay couple who've been together for 40 years. They've endured second-class citizenship, the AIDS crisis, the death of many friends way too young. Bit by bit, they've seen the blossoming of justice, equal rights and the dignity that had been withheld from them. Getting married is their reward after a lifetime of embarrassment and shame. They're allowed to be proud of each other. There's something so uplifting about that."
But Lithgow knows the battle for LGBTQ+ rights is far from won. "If you go down the street of a Midwestern U.S. city and ask every person you meet how they feel about gay marriage, half will be scornful," he said. "Minds are changing, but not all minds. I was just in Chicago, and there was a story exactly like ours, a choir director who was fired by a Catholic archdiocese. It's simply wrong, and people are beginning to see it as wrong, and courts are beginning to see it. The church is starting to look medieval. Movies like this play some little part in that. It feels great to all of us that we're a tiny part of the solution."
Pride, which opened last month, is based on a true story: In Margaret Thatcher's Britain in the summer of 1984, miners were vilified for striking against pit closures, and gays and lesbians were marginalized and victimized by the tabloids and police. A mixed bag of Londoners decided the two groups should support one another; they formed Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM), and sponsored a tiny, tough Welsh mining town (Bill Nighy plays one of its citizens). Hearts and minds – and laws – were changed. The Brits know how to be winsome without being smarmy, and this is the kind of heartfelt, intelligent dramedy at which they excel.
"I was desperate to be in it," Nighy said at a press conference during September's Toronto International Film Festival. "If I were to be asked by my grandkids, 'What developments in your lifetime made you most proud to be around for,' one of them might be the civil rights movement in America, and the other would be the emancipation of gay men and women."
When Nighy was young, he said, people of the same sex went to jail for any display of affection; now that he can stand in a town hall in London and watch two male friends marry, "I find it almost overwhelmingly moving. I've never understood any resistance to acceptance, and I still don't. I think Pride is one of the most, if not the most, important British films in recent years."
Its director, Matthew Warchus, and its screenwriter, Stephen Beresford, gave their young cast a short history lesson, so they would know the import of what they were appearing in. "We were amazed how omnipresent homophobia was in day-to-day life," said Ben Schnetzer, who plays LGSM's leader. "We take for granted a lot of liberties that are present today. That's why I want to act, to make these movies – to encourage people to ask questions; to encourage them, if they're on the edge of fighting for a cause, to give them a little nudge."
Beresford has seen many films in which gay people come out or are attacked. He wanted to tell a different story, "the very common story about the ordinary people – decent; perhaps socially or politically conservative – who find they have a gay child or neighbour or colleague, and in that instant, their attitude changes," he said. "There are no fireworks. But something incredible happens: Their prejudice melts away. I hope one of the things that this film does is to let those people see themselves represented on screen, as decent people. I hope it galvanizes them."
The Imitation Game, which won the coveted audience prize at TIFF, and will be released on Nov. 21, goes further back in time, to the Second World War and the decade following. It begins as the story of how the English mathematician Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch, perfect) invented the computer to crack the German Enigma codes and win the war. But as the film unspools, another story rises up: To escape persecution for being gay, Turing tried to play his own imitation game, to pass as straight. Eventually he was arrested, punished with chemical castration, and committed suicide.
"Any buzz or success this film may have is important because of how unknown this extraordinary man is in comparison to his achievements," Cumberbatch said in an interview during TIFF. "He was a war hero, a gay icon, the father of the computer age. There should be statues of him in important parts of London. Yet he, and many thousands of gay men like him, were prosecuted and persecuted in England's embarrassing and shaming recent history.
"And it's still happening, right under our noses," he continued. "Any time fascism rears its ugly head, in the form of finding scapegoats in times of hardship, any kind of deviation from the norm is viewed as punishable – be it the credit crisis in Greece, the nationalism in Russia, or fundamentalism in the Middle East. The situation is far from over."
Art alone can't fix it, of course. But it can do its part. At the end of our conversation, Lithgow audibly choked up. "I had dear friends in the eighties, a gay couple, both of whom died, one of AIDS," he said. "It means so much to me that I'm able to make a film which I think is important for them. It's important for young gay couples, for middle-aged and older gay couples, and even for dead gay couples. It's a terrible injustice that anyone should be made to feel second-class because of their sexual orientation. I'm not a fighter by nature, but being in this film" – his voice broke – "makes me feel like a fighter."
"Art can give people strength," agreed Mike Jackson, one of the real members of LGSM, during the Pride presser. "We're all just one word: human."