When you’re not a minority, role models are everywhere, particularly in mainstream movies. Heterosexual cis-gender people and their relationships are the basis for romcoms and featured in actioners. If you fall outside of that mainstream definition, it becomes harder to see yourself represented by the media in the embodiment of a fully-realized person who exists beyond tokenism and stereotype. This year, the baseline shifted (somewhat). Each of the main characters in “Monica,” “The Color Purple,” “Rustin,” and “Nyad” are part of the LGBTQ+ community. Their depictions show, concurrently, that gender and sexual identity are significant components o f a life story, while also proving they’re far from the only aspects
The title character in “Monica” comes home to care for her dying mother, someone she hasn’t seen since her gender transition. Writer director Andrea Pallaoro, alongside scribe Orlando Tirado, created a character whose gender identity is integral to her experience, and yet not the only aspect of the film with which audiences may identify.
Existing in a space of misunderstanding and feeling invisible in your own life story is a universal experience. “It is something that is so inherently human, the trauma of not being seen and being abandoned,” says Pallaoro. “It is something that affects not just our identities, but also how we relate to one another and how we are in society.”
Pallaoro based the character on someone he calls a “very dear friend,” so he wanted to take the utmost care with her movie depiction on screen. Life challenges are not relegated only to specific identities. Concurrently, it’s important to acknowledge, as the film does, that Monica (Trace Lysette) is transgender and there are additional trials that go with that existence.
Pallaoro uses Monica to introduce audiences to transgender struggles in a way that they may otherwise never see, while also exploring the shared universal themes of life.
Another relatable life theme, explored in “The Color Purple,” is who and how to love. Director Blitz Bazawule says the complex relationship between Celie (Fantasia Barrino) and Shug (Taraji P. Henson) had to begin in Celie’s imagination due to time period constraints.
“Being out as a queer couple wasn’t something that was acceptable in the context of post-enslavement and the way religion played very heavily in that culture,” says Bazawule.
The characters’ respective identities were both informed by their attraction but that attraction was not the only interesting thing about either of them. Bazawule leaned on music from Ma Rainey, whose sexual identity fell on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, during parts of the film to further build that association.
Celie and Shug’s relationship, during this particular time period, was radical, and Bazawule hopes audiences see it as a component of the characters and not a defining trait. He notes that ultimately the film is about radical forgiveness and empathy, elements audiences have a collective understanding of regardless of gender, sexual identity or culture.
The intersection of these qualities was an important aspect of conveying Bayard Rustin’s story in “Rustin” as well. Screenwriters Dustin Lance Black and Julian Breece recognized as well that though they were telling the story of an actual person, they had to also create a character to live on screen, and one that would ultimately be shaped even further by the director and editors in post-production.
“It’s about how you move the needle towards justice,” says Black of the film. “How you win, even at the ballot box, certainly in moving society towards equality. That necessitates coalition building,” he says, noting that Rustin “embodies these two movements that needed to lock arms if there was ever going to be progress.”
Breece adds that the film didn’t have two separate stories of the Civil Rights movement and Rustin’s sexuality. They were part of the same narrative and needed to be expressed thusly as well.
“His strategic genius came from being queer, came from being Black and gay, because of the dual injustice that he’s lived through,” says Breece. That experience “almost sharpens your view of injustice [since] you’re also able to see things from the outside because you don’t have the privileges that people on the inside have.”
And when it comes to creating a fictionalized version of a very real person, Black and Breece leaned as much as possible on interviews with people who actually knew Rustin, rather than books that represented another layer removed by the author’s interpretations. Black, an Oscar-winner for “Milk,” notes there’s somewhat of a requirement to bend history to fit the parameters of a film, but not to break it entirely in the quest for drama.
Discerning the accuracy of memories can be a tricky business. During roundtables with multiple people who knew Rustin, recollections morphed during discussions, with people recalling different elements and details of their shared experiences.
“Documentaries are fiction, really, at the end of the day,” Breece says. “It’s a perspective, it’s a point of view.” He points out that all history, whether it’s an experience, interpretation or oral re-telling, is shadowed with the storyteller’s own awareness, whatever form it may take.
While Rustin died in 1987, “Nyad” screenwriter Julia Cox had to create a fictionalized version of someone still very much alive today.
After developing a relationship with Diana Nyad, upon whose life experience the film was based, Cox says she was really honest about how the onscreen character version would have to be adjusted for narrative purposes. “The character Diana and the real person Diana are two different entities,” notes Cox. “The character had to go on an arc, on a journey, and she had to grow, so in the beginning she had to have some room to grow.”
While Nyad’s identity as a lesbian is a significant factor in her life experience, her longest relationship as portrayed in the film is with Bonnie Stoll, her one-time romantic girlfriend turned enduring platonic friend, portrayed by Jodie Foster.
Cox explains, too, that in talking to the pair she realized the film became an opportunity to show this aspect of intimacy as well — the bonds of a family not born but chosen. The deep love they have for each other is a different type of affection than is usually shown on screen, let alone for women in their 60s.
Cox aspired to “say something hopefully meaningful about what it is to be a woman in the world, and what it is to be a lesbian woman and a pair of lesbian friends in the world.”
As was the experience of Black and Breece, Cox was choosy about what do include in her screenplay. “It was always going to be a process of paring away, of rearranging for maximum tension and dramatic potency,” she notes.
For all of these films, regardless of the genesis of the characters on screen, the intention to represent fully realized LGBTQ+ characters who audiences could identify with and see themselves in was integral to the process. These are stories filled with love, loss and life. While the characters’ sexual and gender identity matter, their humanity is universal.