It might be obvious to say that history manifests itself differently depending on which medium it comes from. But the specifics are personally interesting. Films still narrativize history, looking to capture personal histories within a larger canvas. Podcasts, meanwhile, run the gamut, but there are a lot more examples in that medium that have academic approaches. The nascent medium, after all, needs as much respectability as it can get. Equal, an HBO Max miniseries that came out during my birthday last year, comes out in Hollywood Suite tomorrow, and it finds a middle ground between academic and narrative approaches in dramatizing the 2sLGBTQIA+ history.
And that middle ground finds tones within it that feel conversation and declarative. The declarative comes from Billy Porter’s narration. He recounts events of the pre-Marsha P. Johnson gay rights movements while taking those events out of its academic shackles. It also finds fun in dramatizing those events. It has Anne Ramsay in butch drag playing an FBI Agent investigating the Mattachine Society, a gay rights organization. There’s a whole episode on the Mattachine Society, which is both a conventional and unconventional choice to start the miniseries. It’s unconventional because I didn’t even know the existence of that society, which shows how much more we should know.
Equal, then, organizes its activists and misfits within these themed episodes. The second episode is about trans pioneers. The third lumps Black queer activists with two different clubs that call themselves The Black Cat. And the fourth is all about Stonewall. In watching this, viewers can probably find different ways of grouping these activists together. There could even be a standalone episode on bootlegger Jack Starr (Theo Germaine). Or it can at least explore the connections between the Prohibition and trans people. But at least we see how Jack connects the dots between himself and other trans people. It’s revelatory seeing how trans people found each other then.
Equal shows these pioneers both through the actors playing them and through archive footage, and with this mix it legitimizes its approach and shows that there’s a Venn diagrams where pioneers from certain groups within the umbrella get their inspiration from certain historical movements. The episode on Black pioneers and club owners illuminate this. This is especially true when it comes to its segments on Bayard Rustin (Keiynan Lonsdale). Both he and MLK, by the way, learned a lot from Gandhi. This episode also rehabilitates Rustin’s image. The only other time I’ve seen him was from the footage on the March on Washington. The footage here presents and rectifies his intimate approach towards civil rights.
Directors Stephen Kijak and and Kimberly Reed use those previous episodes to set up the last one about Stonewall. This reminds me of what my idea of a Stonewall movie should be after Roland Emmerich botched it during 2015. Stonewall is still a Rashomon situation, with Porter reminds his viewers that there are as many accounts of the riot as there are people who rioted.
This episode and the series as a whole proves something about what Derrick Berry said. He was wrong but also right about Stonewall’s relationship with people dying, it just didn’t happen during those nights. It made me want to re-watch the episode, and those re-watches tell a better Marsha P. Johnson story. It lastly shows Pose‘s Hailie Sahar as the the miniseries’ MVP. Playing Johnson’s BFF and Stonewall rioter Sylvia Rivera, she interprets the historical figure as a converser. She and her fellow thespians remind us that history comprises of waves of amnesia and lucidity. And boy we’re lucid now.
- Rated: NR
- Genre: documentary, History
- Release Date: 6/7/2021
- Directed by: Kimberly Reed, Stephen Kijak
- Starring: Anne Ramsay, Billy Porter, Hailie Sahar
- Produced by: Diane Becker, Melanie Miller, Stephen Kijak
- Written by: Jenni Olson
- Studio: Berlanti Productions, Raintree Ventures, Scout Productions, That's Wonderful Productions, Warner Horizon Unscripted Television