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History of New Queer Cinema From Paris Is Burning to The Watermelon Woman

In 1992, author Ruby B. Rich changed the world of cinematic discussion forever by introducing a new term for a then-fresh wave of movies focused on LGBTQIA+ perspectives: New Queer Cinema. The crux of her essay revolved around the explosion of queer cinema at high-profile film festivals. While not all these new films about queer lives were carbon-copies of one another, there were broad similarities across various titles in this canon, particularly regarding how they took hallmarks of older movies and reconstituted them for queer points-of-view. The New Queer Cinema movement didn’t last forever, but throughout the 1990s, a wave of fresh filmmakers arrived redefining what kind of roles and stories queer people could occupy in the world of cinema.


As Rich herself notes throughout her essay, the New Queer Cinema movement was not the first time in history that cinema with an LGBTQIA+ perspective had existed. Dating back to the days of Different from the Others and Madchen in Uniform, released in 1919 and 1931 respectively, queer cinema has always had some role in global cinema. That presence grows only larger when one considers closeted filmmakers from the first half of the 20th century who made features that have ended up resonating profoundly with the LGBTQIA+ community. The New Queer Cinema movement was building off of these contributions rather than being the inaugural foray into queer cinema.

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It was also a response to other, more tragic elements of the past. The 1980s had been a horrific decade for the queer community all over the planet. In the United States, the era of Ronald Reagan’s presidency adversely affected this marginalized group in numerous ways but was most felt in how it exacerbated the AIDS epidemic, which claimed countless lives across the LGBTQIA+ population. Many in high positions of power outright cheered on these demises. Similarly, the United Kingdom had Margaret Thatcher and her track record of homophobic legislation further stigmatizing queer people. These were just two of the endless prominent examples of the 1980s being a tremendously cruel and harrowing era for the LGBTQIA+ community.

In a new decade, queer voices were about to be loud, proud, and challenge the conventions of society that had condemned them to death in the 1980s. Queer cinema of the 1990s kicked off with a bang with the lastingly influential documentary Paris Is Burning. A depiction of New York City ball culture and the most marginalized of identities (including trans and queer people of color) who are lifted by this experience, Paris is Burning isn’t considered a part of the New Queer Cinema movement by scholars. However, its critical and even financial success at the outset of the decade redefined what kind of popularity queer documentaries could achieve. It was a precursor for the much more experimental movies that could come to define this new age of queer artistry.

While there does appear to be debate over what movie specifically kicked off the New Queer Cinema wave, it appears that the 1991 feature Poison from director Todd Haynes is widely credited with helping to jumpstart this era of queer storytelling. Poison would make sense as being the quintessential originator of the New Queer Cinema movement. Its story, broken up into three segments, involves pastiches of old film genres (seen most notably in a plotline about a deformed scientist shot like a 1960s horror movie) and explicit depictions of same-sex attraction. To boot, it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 1991, its presence there being a rebuke against the idea of where or when indie queer cinema could premiere. Poison would begin a trend of queer cinema premiering at high-profile film festivals while Haynes would be the first of many notable queer cinema auteurs to emerge in the early 1990s.

That same year, Gus Van Sant would explode onto the filmmaking scene with My Own Private Idaho, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival. The following year, Greg Araki would also hit a new level of prominence with the motion picture The Living End. In these early years of the 1990s, other projects like Tom Kalin’s Swoon would debut to further drum up conversation and expand the world’s vision for what queer cinema could look like. The New Queer Cinema movement wasn’t limited to American films either, as, across the pond, director Isaac Julien featured a queer couple as one of the most prominent characters in his 1991 feature Young Soul Rebels. This film was also notable for featuring a Black gay character, which was still a rarity even in the flourishing New Queer Cinema movement, let alone in the broader visual language of cinema as an artform. With titles like Rebels, the global reach of New Queer Cinema, as well as how it could upend racial norms regarding queer representation, was established.

This phenomenon continued well into the 1990s, at which point a bit more diversity in terms of what kind of queer voices were getting uplifted began to emerge. In her essay, Rich notes that stories from queer male perspectives were getting preferential treatment in terms of being screened at film festivals and picked up for theatrical distribution. While certain titles from queer women directors couldn’t shatter all those double standards merely by existing, they did help at least fight back against these issues. The 1994 feature Go Fish from Rose Troche was a relaxed movie about a collection of lesbians with varying personalities with the kind of snappy dialogue that feels right at home with other early 1990s indie auteurs like Kevin Smith or Quentin Tarantino.

Meanwhile, Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman would prove to be an encapsulation of many of the qualities that defined New Queer Cinema. Dunye played the lead character of this movie, a variation of herself also named Cheryl. This character scours the Earth for information on a Black actress who went uncredited for her role as “the Watermelon Woman” in a movie from the 1940s. The heavily meta nature of this story, not to mention its cognizance of classic cinema and nonchalant representation of queer people, embodied the very groundbreaking storytelling and filmmaking traits that kept cropping up in entries in the New Queer Cinema canon. As paradoxical as it sounds, the very fact that The Watermelon Woman didn’t feel like other New Queer Cinema entries made it the embodiment of the uniqueness that defined so many New Queer Cinema titles. This achievement is especially impressive given that The Watermelon Woman wouldn’t receive a traditional theatrical domestic release until March 1997, years after this movement started. It may not have been at the forefront of this event, but The Watermelon Woman was still a creatively fresh exercise.

Of course, no cinematic movement last forever and the age of New Queer Cinema would inevitably end by the final years of the 1990s. Now, queer cinema itself didn’t vanish suddenly once the book was closed on the 1990s, but this particular era of the subgenre was certainly winding down. Part of this was an inevitability tied into how the key filmmakers of the movement had grown too big to be kept in the indie scene. Gus Van Sant, in particular, was directing award-season-friendly titles like Good Will Hunting. Later titles from some of these filmmakers, like Araki’s 1999 feature Splendor, also garnered mixed notices from critics. This seemed to indicate the bloom was off the rose a bit in terms of how the public was receiving works from the movement’s most prolific artists.

On a darker note, New Queer Cinema would be dealt a lasting blow in America by the aftereffects of 9/11. This horrific terror attack inspired a renewal of patriotism and conservatism in pop culture, while even documentaries had a new hot-button topic (terrorism) to focus on. It wasn’t so much that the public’s response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks drew attention away from queer people. Rather, the public’s tastes in cinema skewed more towards Black Hawk Down than even mainstream 1990s queer fare like The Birdcage. Queer cinema can never be stamped out, so of course, a smattering of queer films still emerged throughout the 2000s. But the sheer number of these movies that dominated festivals in the early 1990s, was a thing of the past.

Looking back on the age of New Queer Cinema, one can’t help but have a bittersweet aura stir in their soul. Even with the shortcomings that came with so many of these titles (particularly in an emphasis on cis-gender and white people’s experiences), there was so much promise here. Rich’s writing about this movement in 1992, just as New Queer Cinema was taking off, only exacerbates these melancholy emotions. Her closing lines about New Queer Cinema especially put a lump in one’s throat, as she remarks on the sight of so many queer filmmakers, young and old, gathered at an edition of the Sundance Film Festival. These directors, she observes, were “all engaged in the beginnings of a new queer historiography, capable of transforming this decade, if only the door stays open long enough. For him, for her, for all of us.”

The doors that New Queer Cinema opened could not last forever, as history has demonstrated. The indie film scene took some steps forward in the 1990s, but there’s no denying it would also take steps back when the millennium dawned. Even with those discouraging setbacks, the modern world of pop culture is still rife with queer cinema breaking down filmmaking norms and challenging the status quo. They’re living up to the ideals established by New Queer Cinema, which indicated the very existence of “the door” these films and their artists can walk through.

Just as New Queer Cinema was building on a path established by the likes of Desert Hearts and Tongues Untied, so too are modern queer works tipping their hats to Dunye and Haynes. New Queer Cinema may be gone but watching 21st-century films as daring as Rafiki, Tangerine, and Pariah, it’s clear that its vibrant spirit is as alive as ever. Much like the compelling words of Ruby B. Rich, New Queer Cinema will go on and on influencing art no matter what external forces try to wipe it out.

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