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7 epic LGBTQ-themed 80s films to add to your watchlist – or catch at the Barbican Centre this June

Queer 80s: Cinema on the Brink of Global Change screens at Barbican Cinema, Wed 5-Wed 26 June

By Alex Davidson

8 men wearing leather and denim
Tongues Untied (Image: Provided by Barbican Centre)

The 1980s was an incredible decade for queer filmmakers.

Directors seized the movie camera and created powerful movies showing LGBTQ+ characters at a time when the world was on the verge of incredible change, as regimes began to topple, new nations were about to form and a tidal wave of homophobia followed the beginnings of the Aids crisis.

Across June, in the run-up to Pride, the Barbican Centre is showing films from every continent, some rare, some beloved classics. Here are some of the highlights.

Two older, bearded people in dresses
Freak Orlando (Image: Provided by Barbican Centre)

Freak Orlando (1981)

Never seen an Ulrike Ottinger film? If you’re in the mood for something different, it’s time to discover her, as her wonderfully eccentric, experimental take on Virginia Woolf’s Orlando has to be seen to be believed. Its depiction of queerness and disability are radically different from anything else happening at the time, complete with jaw-dropping set design and joyful song and dance numbers. Best of all, Ulrike herself will join us on stage for a Q&A after the film.

Wed 5 Jun 2024, 18:30, Cinema 2 

Two young men in underwear
Freak Orlando (Image: Provided by Barbican Centre)

Beautiful Mystery (1983)

There’s something to offend everyone in this crazed Japanese sex comedy, about a patriotic bodybuilder recruited to join a secret army of gay men to overthrow the government. Packed with outrageous comedy set pieces and copious male nudity, Beautiful Mystery is a bonkers curio and a two-finger salute to nationalist hysteria.

Thu 6 Jun 2024, 18:30, Cinema 1 

two men in bed laughing together

Beyond Gravity and other Gay Shorts from New Zealand (1988)

Garth Maxwell’s featurette Beyond Gravity is one of the most romantic films in the season, a quirky comedy love story from New Zealand, released just a couple of years after the country’s decriminalisation of same-sex activity, it’s a great film to watch with a date or a mate, alongside two rarely seen gay Kiwi short films, including My First Suit, a beautifully observed comedy that perfectly encapsulates the awkwardness of gay teen life.

Sat 8 Jun 2024, 18:20, Cinema 2 

two topless men lying together on a beach

Radical Defiance: Queer Brazilian Super-8 Shorts (1982-3)

Making films about LGBTQ+ films can be a challenge at any time, but creating queer work under the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964–1985) is nothing short of a miracle. These three remarkable films don’t shy away from showing the homophobia and machismo-fuelled prejudice that prevailed in 1980s Brazil, but they are ultimately celebratory and empowering snapshots of queer life, showing in the UK for the first time.

Wed 12 Jun 2024, 18:30, Cinema 2

Eight men in leather and denim
Tongues Untied (Image: Provided by Barbican)

Tongues Untied (1989) 

Every LGBTQ+ person owes it to themselves to see Tongues Untied. And if you’ve already seen it, don’t miss the chance to see it again on the big screen. Marlon Riggs made a number of superb films exploring race and sexuality before his death from AIDS-related complications in 1994. Tongues Untied is his masterpiece, an urgent, unflinching depiction of Black, gay experience in the US, told through documentary, music, dance and poetry. It’s a phenomenal achievement.

Thu 13 Jun 2024, 18:20, Cinema 2 

A man pulling a woman by the leg
Law of Desire (Image: Provided by Barbican Centre)

Law of Desire (1987)

You never need an excuse to a film by Pedro Almodóvar and Law of Desire is one of his finest, a twisted tale of dark passions starring Antonio Banderas at his most beautiful as a fan who becomes obsessed by a gay porn director. Almodóvar plays mischievously with gender throughout, casting cisgender actor Carmen Maura (magnificent) as the director’s trans sister and trans actor Bibiana Fernández as a cisgender lesbian model. The screening will be introduced by actor Rebecca Root (Boy Meets Girl, The Queen’s Gambit).

Thu 20 Jun 2024, 18:20, Cinema 1

Two women talking on a boat
Quest for Love (Image: Provided by Barbican Centre)

Quest for Love (1988)

Helena Nogueira’s little-seen political drama explores the romance between two women that takes place across South Africa and a thinly-disguised Mozambique. It remains a powerful rage against the racist Apartheid regime (the end of which was only a few years away), which was banned upon its release for its political message. This is the first time the film has been shown in the UK for decades.

Sat 22 Jun 2024, 18:20, Cinema 3 

By Alex Davidson, Barbican Cinema Curator