TV Review: Pride ★★★★★

Taking viewers on a journey through LGBTQ+ history, politics, and everyday life in the USA from the 1950s up until the present day, the ambitious six-episode docuseries Pride, which premiered on FX on Friday night and has begun streaming on Hulu, builds into something powerful, stirring, and monumental.

Each episode is helmed by a different director who takes their own distinctive approach to their depiction of queer and trans life in their respective decade, with references back and forth to certain events and figures helping to make the series feel cohesive and enriching the audience’s experience, typically devoting significant time to painting intimate and detailed portraits of individuals, that humanize and personalize, while contextualizing major events.

The Brooklyn Liberation An Action for Black Trans Lives. Photo by Cole Witter, Sunday June 14th 2020.

Stonewall is of course is included and its significance to what was then termed the gay rights movement duly acknowledged in the second episode dedicated to the 1960s, directed by Spa Night filmmaker Andrew Ahn, but lesser known earlier riots and uprisings, like 1959’s Cooper Do-nuts Riot in LA and 1966’s Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in San Francisco as well as later demonstrations are given equal weight, right up to 2020’s Brooklyn Liberation Action for Black Trans Lives and the Queer Liberation March for Black Lives and Against Police Brutality.

(L-R) Bayard Rustin, March on Washington’s Deputy Director with Cleveland Robinson the Chairman of Administrative Committee. World Telegram & Sun. Photo by O. Fernandez. (Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division).

Similarly voices that have often been sidelined in previous documentaries about LGBTQ+ history and activism are centred throughout Pride, with people of color, women, trans, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming folks all represented both in front of and behind the camera. Again in Ahn’s episode, as the importance of the Civil Rights movement in helping to ignite the queer rights movement and intersectionality is explored, Bayard Rustin is given his rightful prominence as instrumental in organizing 1963’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Not only was he sidelined to some degree within the Civil Rights movement and attacked by right-wing politicians at the time as a result of being gay, he has subsequently been largely written out of Black and LGBTQ history. As one contributor puts it, had he been straight “there would be a lot more schools named after him now”.

Ceyenne Doroshow in PRIDE “1980s: “Underground” Episode 4. Photo credit: FX.

There was inherent protest in the drag balls and pageants of the 1960s, organized by the legendary drag mother Flawless Sabrina. There’s archive footage of her, including from the treasure that is the 1968 film The Queen, and her partner Curtis Carman gives us an insight into her life, while we also hear from artist and activist Zackary Drucker who contextualizes and analyzes Flawless’ drag persona. Ceyenne Doroshow, having been rejected by her birth family, was taken on as a daughter by Flawless who speaks movingly about her connection to her and what she has meant to her life, even taking on her surname as a tribute. Ceyenne returns later in the series in the 80s episode, having been empowered by Flawless as a younger trans woman she has devoted her life to the health and housing crises faced by LGBTQIA+ individuals through the organization she founded, G.L.I.T.S. (gays and lesbians living in a transgender society). Movingly in the final episode we see her own work acknowledged as she speaks at last year’s Brooklyn Liberation Action.

Mx Justin Vivian Bond and Kate Bornstein (L-R) in PRIDE “1950s: People Had Parties,” Episode 1. Photo credit: FX.

Back in the 1950s-focused opening episode—directed by the New Queer Cinema filmmaker Tom Kalin (Swoon)—in examining the impact of Christine Jorgensen’s celebrity, there’s some great archive film of Jorgensen being interviewed that conveys her warmth, wit, and intelligence, as well as her patience with journalists asking her ignorant questions. There’s also a fascinating present day conversation about Jorgensen and gender identity between Kate Bornstein and Mx Justin Vivian Bond, both trailblazers of course in their own right. Author Jules Gill-Peterson also introduces us to the lesser known contemporary of Christine, a trans pioneer herself, Louise Lawrence, who transitioned in the early 1940s, going on to become “a symbol of freedom and possibility” for other trans women, as Gill-Peterson puts it, emphasizing the strength that we can take from knowing about our LGBTQ+ ancestors to help us through our lives today.

Susan Stryker in PRIDE “1960s: Riots & Revolutions” Episode 2. Photo credit: FX.

Still in the 50s, there are some extensive recreation scenes featuring Search Party actress Alia Shawkat as Madeleine Tress who was fired from her government job at the Department of Commerce for being lesbian, with the FBI keeping tabs on the bars she frequented and the women she spent time with. Adding texture to this portrait of Tress, there is also some archive audio of her talking as well as an interview with her brother, photographer Arthur Tress, who recalls what she was like growing up.

Still from Vallejo (1947). The Harold T. O’Neal Collection (#2002-03) / Courtesy of The G.L.B.T. Historical Society.

Later in the episode, journalist and Making Gay History podcaster Eric Marcus reminds us that despite the Lavender Scare, which banned the federal employment of gay and lesbian people, and the police harassment and intimidation of the bar raids and arrests, there were LGBTQ+ folks who were nevertheless living happy and fulfilled lives and finding queer love. As theorist Susan Stryker puts it, “the idea that the closet door was nailed completely shut” during this period and “that nobody ever stepped out of that is historically inaccurate”. One of the highlights of the first episode is the footage from the home movies of filmmaker Harold O’Neal, who was active between 1939 and the 80s, offering a window into gay life in California during those years. There are joyful, intimate scenes of loving looks, men holding hands, dancing, and swimming together.

The Watermelon Woman (1996) Courtesy of Cheryl Dunye.

Episode three, is a work of art in itself, devoted to queer+ life in the 1970s, and opens with a personal direct to camera introduction by its director, Cheryl Dunye, who also goes on to narrate much of the episode. She talks about the making of her own groundbreaking African American lesbian feature film, 1996’s The Watermelon Woman, and the women who were prominent in the 1970s who inspired her; pioneering lesbian filmmaker Barbara Hammer and poet Audre Lorde.

“This is one story of how we got here, it’s a story about some of the gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender and people of colour who fought for us so we can be proud of who we are while remembering how far we have to go,” Dunye says as she introduces her episode. Increased visibility and the politicization of the fight for gay rights and its intersection with the feminist movement is examined, with a push for lesbian identity to become distinct from the umbrella term of gay that had generally been used up until the 70s. There’s a focus on the significant protests of the era, such as those that followed the murder of Harvey Milk and the lenient sentence received by Dan White, and some powerful, stirring footage is included of 1979’s National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, which was attended by around 200,000 people. As Dunye points out, it wouldn’t be until 1993 that the word bisexual was added to the name of the march and not until 2000 when trans identity was included.

Ann Northrup in PRIDE “1980s: “Underground” Episode 4. Photo credit: FX.

In covering the the AIDS crisis of the 1980s—the death, governmental neglect, and the sharp increase in homophobia—episode four introduces us to journalist and activist Ann Northrop, a key figure in ACT UP/New York who took some of the skills she’d learnt as part of the feminist movement and her experience demonstrating against Vietnam into the direct actions and protests of her AIDS activism. More recently, she was one of the founders of The Reclaim Pride Coalition formed during the first year of Trump’s presidency to push back against the commercialization of New York City Pride. When they were unable to convince the official Stonewall 50 Pride Parade to go back to its roots as a political event, Reclaim staged their own resistance march and the first Queer Liberation March was born.

Michael Musto in PRIDE “1980s: “Underground” Episode 4. Photo credit: FX.

Amidst the trauma and loss of the bleak decade for LGBTQ+ folks that was Reagan era 80s USA, directors Anthony Caronna and Alex Smith also turn their focus to the form of resistance that was the queer+ joy and creativity of New York’s downtown scene, captured by prolific videographer Nelson Sullivan. He was friends with the likes of RuPaul, who there’s some fabulous footage of, cabaret performer John Sex who died from AIDS related complications in 1990, and downtown scene writer Michael Musto, who appears in present day New York to reflect back on that period. The episode closes with an epic and moving cover of Erasure’s A Little Respect by Mx Justin Vivian Bond, the musical highlight of the entire series.

Marquise Vilson Balenciaga in PRIDE “1980s: “The Culture Wars” Episode 5. Photo credit: FX.

The penultimate episode, which is devoted to the 90s, is directed by filmmaker Yance Ford, and ultimately paints a picture of an eternal struggle for queer+ rights that may abate from time to time, depending on who holds the reigns of power, but a struggle which we must as a community remain vigilant about because it will never be entirely over. One of Pride’s executive producers, Killers Films’ Christine Vachon, recalls first working with her longtime collaborator, filmmaker Todd Haynes, and the right’s distortion and demonization of artwork and films with any LGBTQ+ themes that had received funding, however small the amount, from National Endowment for the Arts. Haynes’ 1991 film Poison being one such film and Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied, which was broadcast on PBS, being another, with the likes of Sen. Jesse Helms denouncing these works as morally corrupt and corrupting.

The 90s episode features some particularly engaging, insightful, and thought-provoking contributions from actor and activist Marquise Vilson Balenciaga, who talks about the personal impact of the culture wars led by conservatives like Helms, that put him off both religion and politics. Marquise recalls how he eventually felt like he’d “found his tribe” in the world of ballroom in the mid-90s, becoming part of the House of Balenciaga, and the realization he came to in 1997 that he was trans through watching an episode of Jerry Springer featuring Reno Prestige Wright. Hearing Reno speak about his identity enabled him to embrace his own Black trans masculinity.

Margaret Cho in PRIDE “1980s: “2000s: Y2Gay” Episode 6. Photo credit: FX.

By the 2000s, as examined in the final episode directed by Ro Haber, there was “an explosion in queer visibility” as academic Julia Himberg puts it, with the likes of Queer Eye, The L Word, Queer As Folk, Glee, Brokeback Mountain, RuPaul’s Drag Race, The Kids Are All Right, Will and Grace, Noah’s Arc, and Six Feet Under. This mainstreaming marked “the beginning of this post-closet era”, as Himberg sees it, though as she rightly notes these films and series featured “mainly white lesbian and gay characters”. All of which Rashad Robinson, President of Color For Change, sees as being hugely significant, commenting that “media played a deep role in opening up acceptance and super charging people’s understanding of the LGBTQ community”.

Haber goes on to focus on the concurrent alternative queer art scene that was also “fighting for visibility” along with fighting for “their lives”, as gender studies professor Jeanne Vaccaro observes. The alternative art that emerged in the 2000s was “sex positive, anti-racist, gender expressive, and trans positive”, and it is the conflict between the mainstream and this radical agenda that characterized the decade according to Vaccaro. Margaret Cho appears to discuss the way that she combined her comedy with activism, bringing issues about queerness and race into her standup sets.

In its depiction of the the fight for marriage equality, like much of the series, the 2000s episode humanizes and personalizes the issue with its focus on the story of David Wilson who campaigned for legal marriage in Massachusetts.

CeCe McDonald in PRIDE “1980s: “2000s: Y2Gay” Episode 6. Photo credit: FX.

As the series goes on it follows the expansion of the LGBTQ+ movement to acknowledge and include more identities, and it’s increased intersection with the Black Lives Matter movement following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and so many others, at the hands of the police. There’s also a focus in the final episode on the epidemic of violence against trans women and the urgent need to place Black trans women and trans women of colour, the most vulnerable part of our community, at the centre of LGBTQ+ activism.

Dean Spade PRIDE “1980s: “2000s: Y2Gay” Episode 6. Photo credit: FX.

Prominent legal experts Dean Spade and Chase Strangio examine the introduction of LGBTQ+ hate crime legislation in recent years and its real world impact, while we also meet trans rights activist CeCe McDonald who details her experience of being arrested and facing criminal charges after defending herself against a transphobic attack, and the subsequent outpouring of support she received. Disturbingly, her description of the treatment she received from the authorities echoes what we heard trans and gender non-conforming folks say about the way that they were mistreated by police earlier in the series, over half a century before. There is hope for the future though in what writer, activist, and public speaker Raquel Willis says: “Black trans people are windows of possibility into a world where we all have less restrictions on our expression. When we abolish white supremacy, when we abolish these cisgender heterosexual norms, everyone will be freer, but the way to do that is to end these systems that say that those identities are superior.”

Raquel Willis in PRIDE “1980s: “2000s: Y2Gay” Episode 6. Photo credit: FX.

Ultimately, the experience of watching all six episodes of the series is an empowering and moving one, resulting in a mix of gratitude and a sense of pride for the queer, trans, and gender non-conforming lives that came before us. As we delight in the joy and resistance of our ancestors and those still doing the work today, there’s also a feeling of anger in hearing these stories of injustice, that combines to spark a fiery passion and inspiration in us for the fights that lay ahead. Essential viewing.

By James Kleinmann

The first three episodes of Pride are streaming on FX on Hulu now. Episodes four to six premiere this Friday May 21st at 8pm ET/PT on FX and will stream the next day on FX on Hulu.

PRIDE Docuseries | Official Trailer [HD] | FX

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