What I’ve watched in 2017–18: Queer cinema
I’ve been keeping track of the TV and film I’ve been watching, but then didn’t get round to polishing it into actual blog posts. There’s an index post that I’m still assembling and a handful of other posts that aren’t yet finished, but I soft-launched the piece on zombie ﬁlms a few days ago and the rest will come shortly.
This post lists the highlights of the Queer-themed works I’ve seen in the last 18 months. Quoting from The New York Observer:
TV is having a banner year for representation due to shows like Ryan Murphy’s Pose on FX [see below], which featured the largest number of transgender series regulars ever on a scripted U.S. series, and the upcoming introduction of Nia Nal (Nicole Maines), TV’s first transgender superhero, to CBS’s Supergirl.
GLAAD determined that the number of regularly recurring LGBTQ characters on primetime television has gone up from 6.4 percent in 2017 to 8.8 percent in 2018. Additionally, for the first time ever, we are seeing more LGBTQ characters of color than white LGBTQ characters in the 2018–19 TV season in conjunction with significantly more LGBTQ characters of color on all TV platforms. Also, the number of transgender characters across all TV platforms has increased, as has the number of bisexual characters represented on television.
And remember: Representation matters.
One of the few moments serving as an antidote to the horrors of the last 2 years’ news cycle was seeing a coming-of-age film about a poor black gay man literally take the Best Picture Oscar out of the hands of middle-class straight white people.
Moonlight is a triptych following a young black man through his childhood and teens into young adulthood; as Film School Rejects puts it, it’s “a poignant exploration of masculinity, sexuality and identity revolving around the coming of age of a black man growing up during the 1970s ‘war on drugs’ era in Miami”. While I can see why queer black essayist Orville Lloyd Douglas complained that “the suffering is about homosexuality, race, drug addiction, crime, and poverty. Black family dysfunction is the key for black films that want white critical acclaim and success.”, I think this portrayal of young homosexuality within a macho culture was beautifully-written, beautifully-acted and incredibly moving. While screenwriter–director Barry Jenkins is straight, the author of the original play (In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney) is a gay man, writing semi-autobiographically, and both drew from their own experiences of growing up.
Visually, it’s a gorgeous film and even the trailer is both beautiful and moving:
All three lead actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) were heartbreakingly good in their portrayals of Chiron, as were Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and André Holland as his best friend Kevin. Queer musician and actor Janelle Monáe (whose music video for “Pynk” is easily the most wonderful and least subtle piece of queer celebration in a long time) is exceptional as Teresa, girlfriend to Mahershala Ali’s Juan, a wonderful pair of substitute-parents for the 9-year-old lead in the first act. It’s also incredibly moving — even just seeing the clips Mark Kermode used in his Secrets of Cinema episode about coming-of-age films had me fighting back tears every time.
Our country is shit right now. Being a black person in America right now is shit, being a homosexual in America right now is shit, and being a black homosexual is the bottom for certain people. That’s why I’m so excited for people to see Moonlight. I don’t feel like there’s a solution for our problems, but this movie might change people. That’s why you do it — because you feel like you’re doing something that matters. This is someone’s story.
I was in Virginia filming a movie recently, and while walking down the street, I was being followed by a police car. I was just walking to the gym. I knew I was being followed, I looked back, and they made eye contact. They didn’t pretend to not be following me. I turned back and continued to walk. Being in that situation was the most frightening thing in the world to me.
It’s an incredible work of art, and it’s about a very, very marginalized group of people. I’ve had moments with many people who come up to me, red in the face, crying, tearing up because this is their story. They’ve never seen themselves put into a narrative on screen. How am I going to feel that again? I don’t think you can. At the core of it all, you just want to do something that makes someone else feel OK.
Ashton Sanders, the actor playing the teenage Chiron also felt the importance of the role:
Anything that’s outside the standard of the average black male is looked down upon. For me, I wasn’t raised playing sports. I was artistic, so that was looked down upon by people in my church and I was teased for that growing up in school, so it goes both ways. It’s not only outwardly in white America, it’s within the communities, too.
Indeed, as Prince Shakur put it in Electric Literature:
When I saw Moonlight as a gay, black man at the age of 22, I was shaken to realize that this was the ﬁrst moment in cinema I had seen a black man reassuring a potentially gay, black male that his existence was not only valid, but also worth taking pride in.
But he’s optimistic that times are changing from the systemic racism that he also describes; in an interview with The Guardian headlined with his comment that “America isn’t made for the black man”, he spoke about his optimism at the success a range of films, including Hidden Figures and Get Out:
I feel like there are a lot of stereotypical parts out there for black men, but I think we’re living in a time when barriers are being broken and it’s going to be such a pivotal, progressive time for art. We’re living in a really dope time for black cinema. I’m just happy to be a part of it.
I also found it very interesting to read British actor Naomie Harris (who you’ll recognise as the female lead from 28 Days Later… and Our Kind of Traitor, as Winnie Mandela in Long Walk to Freedom and as Eve Moneypenny) speaking eloquently to Variety about why she chose to play a stereotypical drug-addicted poor young black mother:
I’ve always said that I want to base my career choices on portraying positive images of black women, and I thought I never, ever want to play a stereotypical role, because there are enough of them out there. … I want a counterbalance to those stereotypical images. So I really didn’t want to do it, but I loved the script, so I was in a really tough position.
I watched Medicine for Melancholy, one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. And then I had a Skype conversation with Barry and I said, “Look, I have these issues,” and he said, “Naomie, I have them, too. As a black man, I don’t want to ask you to play a crack addict. But the reality is this is my story. That’s who my mother was. So what do I do? Because I want to represent that story faithfully.”
And that put a totally different spin on it. I thought here’s an opportunity to play a crack addict, but in a non-stereotypical way. And that’s why it was really important for me to bring out the layers in who Paula is. The more I read about addiction, it’s like a demon takes you over. So I wanted to show that Paula is taken over, basically. But underneath that, there’s still that love, but a lot of pain as well, a lot of trauma that she’s trying to escape. By showing all those layers I think she doesn’t become stereotypical. And also, her story is an inspirational story about how you can turn your life around.
And, frankly, as Nico Lang wrote for Salon, it really is important that this is the first time a queer film has won the Oscar for Best Picture. Representation matters and queer stories need to be told — especially those of queer people of colour. And the first Best Picture winner with a gay protagonist is also the first to have an all-black cast, as well as being the lowest budgeted film ever to take home the big prize. As James Baldwin put it:
When you try to stand up and look the world in the face like you have a right to be here, you have attacked the entire power structure of the Western world.
The film does contain scenes of bullying, terms of hate speech and sexual content; more content notes can be found at Does the Dog Die?
Moonlight is available on Amazon Video, inclusive for Prime subscribers in the UK and US. Alternatively it is available to rent from £2·49, US$2.99 and C$4.99 or to buy from £4·99, US$12.99 and C$12.99. Americans can also stream it inclusive from Kanopy.
Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party (2015)
Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party is a really lovely story, despite not being some upbeat bed of roses. Written and directed by Stephen Cone, it addresses homosexuality, religion, virginity and social conservatism, all set in the single day of Henry Gamble’s 17th birthday.
Henry, a closeted teen, is played by Cole Doman, who talks in Out about his own experiences of growing up gay in a devoutly religious household; his best friend Gabe is played by Joe Keery, who people will probably recognise as Steve from Stranger Things. Cone himself grew up in a religious household — his father’s a Southern Baptist preacher — and several of his films deal with religious households and the extra weight that religion can cause when addressing social issues; I really enjoyed his interview with the Pop Theology podcast, where he expands on that and on the background to Henry Gamble.
It’s refreshing to see a non-judgemental view on religion in a queer-themed film — or, if you prefer, a varied (and at least partially non-judgemental) view on sexuality in a Christian film. I shall have to look up more of Cone’s œuvre; of the 4 queer flicks I watched in one day on the sofa, this was definitely my favourite.
Unsurprisingly, given the context, the film contains terms of hate-speech and discussion of homophobic oppression as well as depictions of self-harm; there are more content notes on Does the Dog Die?
Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party is available to stream on Netflix in the UK, US and Canada. It can be rented from US$1.99 or bought from US$6.99; rented for C$2.99 or bought from C$7.99
God’s Own Country (2017)
God’s Own Country is the debut feature by writer–director Francis Lee, who grew up in an environment similar to his film’s setting. In rural Yorkshire (obviously) the somewhat uncharismatic young farmer Johnny (played by Josh O’Connor), who is increasingly responsible for the family farm as his ailing father’s health deteriorates; in economically uncertain times, Johnny drinks and fucks away his frustration and boredom, the only tenderness in his life reserved for his animals. As Michael O’Sullivan put it in The Washington Post, “For Johnny, sex has always been transactional, not emotional.”
Then a Romanian itinerant worker Gheorghe (Alec Secăreanu) comes to help with lambing season and, once they’re camping on the moors for a few nights to tend the flock, starts to break through Johnny’s taciturn and hostile exterior and they start a more tender kind of sexual relationship than he has previously experienced. The film is wonderfully matter-of-fact about the leads’ homosexuality and about the hollowing out of both rural Britain and of Eastern Europe; at one point Gheorghe bemoans that “my country is dead; you can’t throw a rock in most towns without hitting an old lady crying for her children who have gone”. And it simply takes as read that the contributions of immigrants have been vital to the UK for as long as there have been people on these islands.
Quoting Terri White in Empire:
To compare this film to Brokeback Mountain is to be entirely reductive and deny God’s Own Country the credit it so deserves. This is a full-throated, full-hearted gay love story. What it isn’t, necessarily, is a film that explores the politics of gay relationships or the politics of oppression. The fight is not with the exterior world (the bigotry on display is actually Brexit-Britain xenophobia), but the interior world. And it’s in this clattering clash of Johnny’s old reality and the new one opening before him where O’Connor is truly exceptional — “I don’t want to be a fuck-up anymore,” he says, a simple sentiment that becomes utterly devastating in his mouth.
The film is an exceptional debut by writer–director Francis Lee and deservedly won 2 BAFTA nominations and a slew of awards at film festivals, including the World Cinema Directing Award at Sundance and 4 trophies at the British Independent Film Awards, including best debut screenwriter for Lee and best actor for O’Connor.
The film includes terms hate speech, parental disability and illness; to quote the Post’s content note: “contains sex and nudity, obscenity, drinking and some upsetting scenes of life and death on a farm”. God’s Own Country is available on Netflix UK and US, or from £1·99 and US$3.99 to rent, £4·49 and US$9.99 to buy on most services; Americans can also stream from Hoopla and Kanopy. In Canada it is inclusive on Crave or Hoopla or can be bought for C$7.99 from iTunes, Google Play and YouTube.
120 bpm (2017)
120 bpm is a César-winning dramatisation of the early-1990s history of ACT UP Paris, as seen through the eyes of 2 men who become a couple — Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a “back-row radical” co-founder of the group who had become infected with HIV the first time he had sex, and Nathan (Arnaud Valois), who is negative, partly because he stopped having sex for 5 years after first reading about AIDS in a magazine when he was 19.
We see several demonstrations and several ACT UP meetings held in a lecture theatre, we see Sean and Nathan spending time together both privately and snatched moments otherhow. It’s also good seeing groups of people represented in ACT UP who aren’t just middle-class white cis gay men; one pair of characters are a hæmophiliac and his mother (Théophile Ray and Catherine Vinatier) who had been unknowingly injecting him with contaminated blood products, we see a trans woman raising the issue of drug interactions between hormone therapy and antiretrovirals, we see activists of colour and we see meetings being interpreted into sign-language, with a deaf character actively involved in the discussion.
The film does a good job at showing one of the key tensions of AIDS activism — particularly from the era before combination therapy — that of how direct should direct action be. As Guy Lodge put it in Variety:
The party lines are compellingly laid out in the film’s very first item of discussion: the fallout of an arguably botched on-stage intervention at a pharmaceutical conference … What counts as violence, and how close can you skate to it to shock complacent corporations into action? This becomes the driving point of argument in the group’s weekly meetings, as Sean — and others whose health, like his, is in rapid decline — fear they literally don’t have time for the more diplomatic tactics of Sophie (Adèle Haenel) and team leader Thibault (Antoine Reinartz) to take hold.
And I was impressed at how well the translation made the chanted slogans work in English — so “La sida, c’est une guerre ; ACT UP en colère” becomes “AIDS is a war; hear ACT UP roar”, for example.
Both Biscayart and Valois (discovered on Facebook because he had a “ ’90s look”!) are exceptional, as is the film more generally. I did notice that, as well as crediting co-screenwriter Philippe Mangeot as historical consultant (he and Campillo contributed their own personal experiences of the Crisis and of ACT UP into the script), the film also thanks several other ACT UP Paris activists as the silent titles roll. These include Didier Lestrade (who lauded the film), Alain Volny-Anne, Joëlle and Ludovic Bouchet (whose actions at a press conference in 1992 are retold in one of the film’s first scenes; Vinatier and Ray’s characters are cyphers for the Bouchets) François Houÿez and Christophe Martet.
Worryingly, the leadership of ACT UP Paris quit in April 2018, deploring entryism from a wave of new activists in response to the film, seeking to use ACT UP as a vehicle in other fights.
Content notes: Unsurprisingly for a film set at the height of the AIDS Crisis of the Global North, we see characters die — this is definitely not a film of happy endings. We also see several scenes of sex between men — and realistically portrayed, at that: I’m not sure that I’ve seen lube being used in films much or those embarrassed moments of clean-up. And we see naïve, bigoted reactions — though you have to love a film that credits an actor as “homme homophobe métro” and 2 others as “élève homophobe”.
120 bpm was first screened in the as a part of the BFI London Film Festival and has become available to buy on multiple platforms. I bought the film on Google Play, but in the UK is is currently available inclusive on Now TV and Sky Go or can be bought from £4·49. In the US it is inclusive on Hulu and Kanopy and available to rent or buy from 99¢; Canadians can only access it through iTunes, at C$4.99 to rent or C$12.99 to buy.
Beach Rats (2017)
Beach Rats follows a 19yo kid from Brooklyn, who spends his time avoiding his father’s terminal illness by getting high and having sex with older men — without really contemplating his sexuality. The film feels quite Larry Clark, with an almost exploitative gaze on the young actors’ physiques, but avoiding any sense of judgement on their hedonistic and possibly self-destructive lives.
Young British actor Harris Dickinson deservedly won rave reviews for his portrayal of Frankie the protagonist, in his first feature role. Dickinson was nominated for both the Gotham Independent Film Award for Breakthrough actor and as Best Male Lead in the Independent Spirit Awards, winning the
London Film Critics Circle Award for Young British or Irish performer.
The film includes scenes of frontal and rear male nudity, partial female nudity and a scene of quasi-homophobic violence; Does the Dog Die?
Beach Rats is available inclusive on Netflix in the UK and Canada, can be rented from £1·99 or bought from £4·49. In the US it can be streamed from Hulu; North Americans can rent it for US$2.99 (C$4.99) or buy it from US$9.99 (C$6.99).
The Pass (2016)
In the first act, Jason (played by Russell Tovey) and Ade (Arinzé Kenen), friends since childhood, are overexcited the night before their Champions League debuts. Five years later, we see Jason come back to his London flat with a pole-dancer. Five years after that, the third act sees Jason get back in touch with Ade.
I’ve never really seen Russell Tovey play anything with much emotional depth before; he is one hell of an actor. It’s very obviously adapted from a play — the cast of 5 and a single setting per act are a bit of a giveaway — but it’s a great film, well worth a watch. (I watched it too long ago to remember many content notes, but I would expect that it probably contains homophobic slurs and I’m pretty sure there are interactions that do not involve sober consent.)
Reviewing the play, with much of the same cast, in Variety, David Benedict observed:
In outline, The Pass might be mistaken for the standard-issue cost-of-fame scenario…. Yet for all the wordiness of the bullish dialogue, it’s the underpinning sensitivity and sadness of Donnelly’s adroit rebooting of the format that makes it engrossing. The workings and fallout of internalized homophobia have rarely been so so vividly presented.
The Pass is available to stream on Netflix UK. It is available to rent from £2·49, US$3.99 and C$4.99 or to buy from £5·49, US$7.99 and C$8.99 on several services.
Those People (2015)
Written, directed and produced by Joey Kuhn, Those People is a romantic drama about a young artist torn between unrequited obsession with his best friend and a burgeoning relationship with a concert pianist several years his senior.
With one review headlining it as “autobiografiction”, the film is apparently inspired by Kuhn’s own experience falling in love with his best friend at college and by Bernie Madoff’s son Mark, who took his own life two years after his father’s arrest. Set on the Upper East Side, Charlie has been friends with Sebastian — the son of a gaoled fraudster, who struggles with self-worth, depression and suicidal ideation — since childhood; Tim (Haaz Sleiman) is playing piano in a bar the circle of friends visit while out for Charlie’s birthday.
It’s a touching film about young love and poor decision-making skills (so often observed together!) and I was surprised to realise I’ve almost never before seen a gay sex scene be acted realistically and convincingly — showing the normal tenderness involved in what many straight men seem to perceive as a painful, violent act. Obviously, with most of the characters being 20something rich kids, I found them irritating drama queens and hard to relate to at times but it was an enjoyable film nonetheless. It is, however, yet another story of [upper] middle-class cis white gay men. (Again, no content notes, I’m afraid.)
Those People is available to stream on Netflix in the UK, US and Canada. It can be rented for US$1.99 or C$2.99 or bought for US$6.99 or C$7.99, but is not available on other services in the UK.
Jongens, subtitled from Dutch with the English title Boys, is another queer coming-of-age tale. Sieger (Gijs Blom) is a runner, chosen for his club’s relay team, living with his troublemaking brother (Jonas Smulders) and their widowed father (Ton Kas). When Sieger’s best friend Stef starts seeing a girl called Kim, Sieg feels he pressured to go out with her friend Jessica, but he’s also falling for Marc (Ko Zandvliet), another lad in his relay quartet.
Parts of the screenwriting feel a little simplistic, but the film was made for a younger audience — first airing on NPO Zapp, a Dutch channel for children and young teens — its success and popularity gained the film the theatrical release and international distribution that, frankly, it well deserves. (Again, no content notes, I’m afraid; I don’t remember any homophobic slurs, though they wouldn’t surprise me. There are scenes of underage drinking and of drink-driving.)
Jongens is available to stream on Netflix UK and Hulu in the US. and is £3·49 to rent or £6·99 to buy. It is US$3.99 to rent or US$9.99 to buy on Amazon Video or C$3.99 to rent or C$7.99 to buy from Microsoft.
Wonderkid (2016, short)
Wonderkid is a short by newcomer Rhys Chapman, starring Chris Mason from The Fades and season 3 of Broadchurch. The film premièred at the 2016 Raindance Film Festival before being broadcast on Sky Sports 1 HD and was even shown at a special screening in Moscow organised by the Russian LGBT Sport Federation, the film centres around a gay footballer and his dual struggles with homophobia in sport and the closet door.
Funded through Kickstarter, the film had a load of support from the FA and The Telegraph, as well as from Gay Gooners and the mellifluous tones of Sir Ian McKellen on the trailer. Not always an easy watch, it’s really good to see mainstream sport-related organisations like Sky Sports and the FA continuing really to push forward with their anti-homophobia initiatives.
Wonderkid is available to watch for free online. (Again, no content notes, I’m afraid.)
Lazy Eye (2016)
Lazy Eye centres around Dean (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) and Alex (Aaron Costa Ganis), who get back in touch 15 years after they spent a summer together. I had several laugh-out-loud moments in the first 10 minutes, which is generally a good sign. It’s very much my stereotypical idea of a French film, with lots of talking about feelings and everyone coming away changed. And, while it is yet-another film about middle class white [‑passing] gay men, at least they’re not teenagers coming of age.
But, as I’ve written before, how many more “white gay man contemplates his sexuality” films do we need — let alone adding “with the help of a mysterious stranger”? They’re important stories for sure, and I’d be a much more well-adjusted individual had these stories been around when I was a teen, but can we maybe tell some other queer stories too? (Thankfully, plenty of the other works here do precisely that.)
Coming back to the point, though, Lazy Eye is written, directed and co-produced by Tim Kirkman and mainly set at Dean’s house in Joshua Tree, California — the Mojave’s really pretty. It’s not a bad film, but I think the summary on IMDb of “a potentially good movie in the body of a mediocre one” is probably fair, despite that it’s beautifully shot. David Rooney was more damning in The Hollywood Reporter:
This is a shallow snapshot of First World problems and feeble conflicts that makes you despair for the state of gay-themed drama, perhaps even more so because it’s capably acted and assembled with a slick sheen.
Lazy Eye was available globally on Netflix, though it is no longer so. It can be rented for £2·49 and bought for £6·99 on Amazon UK. In North America, it’s available from US$2.99 and US$4.99, C$4.99 and C$5.99. (Again, no content notes, I’m afraid.)
Paris is Burning (1990)
Some critics consider the film to be an invaluable documentary of the end of the Golden Age of New York City drag balls and a thoughtful exploration of race, class, gender and sexuality in America.
As you can guess from something filmed in the Queer Community at the height of the Initial AIDS Crisis, it’s not entirely a cheery tale and, as Jesse Green wrote in The New York Times in 1993, several of the people featured died shortly after — indeed we see that one of the people dies in the film itself, albeit at the hands of violence rather than the virus. Green’s piece also discusses the controversy around the money for the film, with performers feeling undervalued and underpaid, and the further marginalisation of a subculture that became at least partly appropriated by the mainstream — particularly as a result of Madonna’s “Vogue”, which was released the previous year with a music video choreographed by Jose Gutierez of the House of Xtravaganza, who featured in this film as well as touring on Blond Ambition.
Strike a Pose (2016)
Open audition for fierce male dancers who know the meaning of troop style, beat boy and vogue. Wimps and wanna-be’s need not apply!
Two (Luis and Jose) came from the ball scene’s House of Xtravaganza, 4 others (Kevin Stea, Carlton Wilborn, Salim Gauwloos and Gabriel Trupin) were also gay and only 1 was straight: Oliver Crumes, a NOLA native who learned to dance on the hip-hop scene and was the only dancer not classically trained. All 7 also featured in the video to “Vogue” before they went on tour and were seen in In Bed with Madonna, the controversial documentary made on the tour.
The Blond Ambition tour took place in the height of the AIDS Crisis (not that that crisis ended for all demographics, but that’s another matter). Madonna used the tour to promote safer-sex information and spoke on stage about her friend Keith Haring, one of the seminal artists of the Crisis, who died a coupla months before the tour started. One of the striking things is that 3 of the dancers on the tour were HIV+, but they each thought they were the only one. Bear in mind the tour was 7 years before the advent of combination therapy — people who tested positive were expected to live no longer than 5 years; it was a genuine death sentence. Thankfully, of the 7, only 1 dancer (Gabriel) didn’t survive to see combination therapy literally bring people from their death-beds back to full health; he died in 1995.
Content notes: The documentary includes several characters talking about their HIV diagnoses and addiction problems. We also see Gabriel Trupin’s mother talking about losing him to AIDS and, in footage from the tour, we see Madonna talk about the death of Keith Haring.
Strike a Pose is available globally on Netflix.
Pose (2018– )
From newcomer Steven Canals — a research assistant for Dustin Lance Black before his MFA — with Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy, the pair behind Nip/Tuck, Glee, American Horror Story and American Crime Story, comes a show is set in the Harlem Ball community in the mid-1980s (see also Paris is Burning, above) and, while the characters are fictional, it is all very much based on Our Queer History.
It’s also, very deservedly, Variety’s top show of 2018 and in the top 10 for both Rolling Stone and The Daily Beast, as well as being nominated for a bunch of awards — and overlooked by too many, notably the Screen Actors’ Guild — and topping them.’s list of 2018’s best Queer TV. Several cast and crew were recognised in this year’s OUT 100 and Angelica Ross and Angel Bismark Curiel were deservedly featured in OUT ’s list of actors “who deserved better” recognition in 2018.
Canals’s original script centred around a 17yo Black lad thrown out by his parents for being gay, who moved to New York with the dream of going to dance school and being given refuge by a trans woman of colour who was a House mother. Ryan Murphy was also developing scripts for a show set in the Ball community. Quoting W magazine’s interview with Janet Mock:
The television auteur wanted to adapt Paris is Burning as a series, but felt weird about serializing the lives of real people. Enter Steven Canals, an Afro-Latino queer man from the Bronx who wrote the script that would eventually become Pose while he was in graduate school.
Canals told Towleroad that when they met and read each other’s scripts,
We connected on a very deep level about our love for this community and for this story. He talked about his experience in New York in the ’80s. I talked about mine. We shared why this story is important to be told today. At the end of that meeting he said we’re going to make that together.
Canals has spoken about how important the representation given by this show is — he’s had his share of being told “it’s too black, it’s too brown, it’s too queer, it’s too trans, it’s a period piece”. In the Towleroad interview, he said “My hope is that our audience recognizes the beauty and the breadth of both the trans and queer experience.” And he’s grateful to be able to be a part of this change, telling Deadline: “as a Bronx-bred queer writer of color, I’m honored to aid in ushering this groundbreaking show into homes”.
And as well as telling the stories of queer and trans people of colour, it’s doing so with a cast that itself is representative — the largest ever cast of trans actors playing series-regulars and the largest ever LGBTQ+ cast in recurring roles; 140 LGBTQ+ people were cast, all-in-all, over 100 of whom are trans and most of whom are unknown faces. As Daniel d’Addario put it for Variety:
The show bursts at the seams with performers we hadn’t seen before, particularly trans women of color. It was hard not to feel retroactively deprived, in a way. For how long hadn’t we been seeing artists this compelling, telling stories quite this urgent?
When Janet Mock was asked by them. why Hollywood finds it so hard to find trans actors and talent, she was pretty clear:
Largely because they haven’t had to see that trans folk exist. There is such unmined and untapped talent there, and unmined stories. Our show is a prime example that people who may not have long-ass résumés or star power can carry a series, and that there’s not just one of them — there’s ﬁve of them. And then you add on the layer of having queer men of color, queer black men to be honest, carry their own storylines, too.
What Ryan has done so brilliantly is use his access and his privilege and all the power he’s built over these years to make this show possible. To give this opportunity to the community to be what they are: stars. So I don’t think any longer that it’s an excuse. I think it’s a mistake that’s been made over and over and over again. I can’t believe that it’s still happening to this day.
Series regulars Mj Rodriguez, Indya Moore, Dominique Jackson, Hailie Sahar and Angelica Ross are all trans women playing trans women; Billy Porter (the dude from the Oscars with the tuxedo gown), Ryan Jamaal Swain, Dyllón Burnside and several actors playing recurring character are queer actors playing queer characters. Though quite how I failed to recognise Laith Ashley is beyond me:
Hiring a trans woman of colour into the writing room is a new first for American television — Janet Mock spoke to Variety about how Pose means that:
I would hold the pen, writing narratives that would show the totality of what it meant to be brown and black, to be trans and poor and femme in an era in New York City dictated by a series of ills, from HIV and gentrification to crack and greed.
And it’s not only in the writers’ room that Mock is breaking new ground, where she has a screenwriter credit for fully half of the episodes, but also before the show aired she added director to her list of firsts. Then Ryan Murphy pushed her to direct the episode “Love is the Message” (1x06) and that directorial début tops Vulture’s list of best episodes of the year. Rightly so, it’s a beautiful episode where most of the emotion-heavy storylines swell and break very movingly, including a cabaret at the AIDS ward with vocal performances from both Mj Rodriguez and Billy Porter (who inspired the scene when remembering the Crisis years with Canals and Murphy).
It’s hard to understate what a big deal all this representation is. Quoting Myles McNutt in The AV Club’s review of the best TV of 2018, which sees Pose in their number 6 slot:
When you get your first glimpse of New York City’s 1980s ballroom scene in Pose, you wonder how this has never been a TV show before…. But as the series expands, you realize that Pose could have never existed even five years ago.
And just as importantly, the show is not just about the queerness and melanin of the characters; in an interview with GQ, Ryan Jamaal Swain (who plays Damon, the lad at the centre of Canals’s story) talks about “the radicalness of being a normal teen”. Damon falls for Ricky, another homeless queer boy of color, a role created for Dyllón Burnside. (And I can completely understand people stanning and shipping the actors; from even just the first episode they make such a cute couple on-screen.) As Caroline Framke puts it in her season-finale review for Variety:
The show doesn’t ignore the harsh realities those characters would have faced as real people; HIV diagnoses, poverty, and racism loom omnipresent. But over the course of eight episodes, Pose did a downright radical thing by not just focusing on its characters’ pain, but their defiant triumph in the face of it.
In Mock’s Variety interview (linked above), she describes her intentions — which Framke finds embodied in season 1’s closing scene — as being to create:
a salve and a possible solution, showing viewers what inclusion looks like, what community and family looks like, what radically loving and accepting one another, especially those most rejected and discarded, looks like.
Also, Ryan Murphy is he donating all of his profits from Pose to organisations that directly serve trans and gender-nonconforming people: House Lives Matter, Equality New York, Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, Destination Tomorrow, Callen-Lorde, Camp Brave Trails, Sylvia’s Place, Peter Cicchino Youth Project, and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project.
The soundtrack to Pose is also just brilliant — and vitally important to ﬂeshing out our concept of place and time. Beth Winchester has a great series of posts at The Young Folks about each episode’s soundtrack (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8) but I’m pretty sure nobody involved will have regretted that “we spent our entire budget” for episode 7 securing absolutely the right track for its closing scene. Anyway, I’ve definitely obsessed too much about details now.
NPR’s review of the season finale described the whole series pretty well:
Those ballroom scenes, bursting with color and music and laughter and attitude, cast long, glittery, fabulous shadows over the scenes that preceded and followed them, enlivening the series with a sense of hard-won joy. Which of course is what Pose is about — the power of the disempowered to create something that is uniquely their own, and use it to make life more bearable. It’s a how-to, of sorts: We watch members of a marginalized and threatened community channel the fear and outrage that mark their everyday lives into something fearless and invulnerable, beautiful — and fleeting.
Of course it’s not all joy, sequins and rainbows. We see Damon be thrown out, after violent homophobic abuse from his father — an experience very close to home for both Ryans, Swain and Murphy. We see racism, transphobia and misgendering, in the gay community and beyond. We see characters receive (what was then) the death sentence of an HIV diagnosis and we see more than one character die of AIDS. Reagan-era America was very much not a friendly place for the underrepresented and Pose shows us that, unvarnished. Also, the are frequent mentions of Donald Trump. More content notes at Does the Dog Die?
In the US, Pose can be streamed from FX Now or can be bought for $19.99 from several services. In Canada it’s only available to buy from iTunes at C$22.99; it is not yet legally available in the UK, but the BBC recently acquired the rights to a bunch of new FX content including Pose, so I’d expect to see it on BBC4 sometime in 2019.
ETA: Update: Season 1 premières on BBC2 on 21 March 2019 at 9pm 🎉
Vida (2018– )
As well as being the Spanish word for “life”, the show is also named for Vidalia, the mother of the 2 main protagonists, estranged sisters Lyn and Emma who go back to Boyle Heights in eastern LA for their mother’s funeral.
When they arrive back and rediscover parts of their childhoods they’d left behind, they also discover their mother was married to a woman called Eddy who has also been left a third of the over-leveraged bar and apartment building, that the barrio they grew up in is becoming gentrified out of recognition. Messed-up Bay Area hippy Lyn (Melissa Barrera), distant Chicago businesswoman Emma (Mishel Prada) and Vida’s struggling-to-cope wife Eddy (played by non-binary actor Ser Anzoategui), are joined by Lyn’s childhood sweetheart Johnny (Carlos Miranda, who is about to become a father, though they still hold mutual ﬂames for each-other), Johnny’s younger sister Mari (Chelsea Rendon, a vlogger campaigning against the on-going gentrification, whitening and gentefication of the neighbourhood), and fellow activist Tlāloc (Ramsés Jiménez).
Showrunner Tanya Saracho, who expanded her work into television after a decade in Chicago’s Latina theatre community, adapting Chekhov into Spanglish and, coincidentally, wrote storylines for her childhood friend Raúl Castillo in Looking, has long been focussed on providing representation and challenging stereotypes, telling Breaking Character magazine last year:
And she’s doing a great job at providing representation both on-screen and oﬀ. As Carmen Phillips put it in one of her interviews for Autostraddle before the show premièred (this one with Anzoategui, rather than with Saracho; she also wrote episode recaps):
Writer–producer Tanya Saracho has crafted the kind of show that I’ve been waiting for years to come to us. She wanted an all-Latinx writers room — so, she made it happen. She wanted the writers to be heavily queer — so, she made it happen (50% of the writers identify as LGBTQ+). She wanted every director on the show to be either a woman of color or Latinx — so, she made it happen. From the bottom up, in every nook and cranny, this show was built with queer folks, Latinxs, and people of color in mind.
And, like the actors van Peters and Kate Mara, playing the straight characters in Pose, the men — Carlos Miranda and Ramsés Jiménez — know that they’re not there to tell their stories; the show isn’t about them. As Carlos Miranda put it on Instagram: “I’m beyond blessed to be a part of this story primarily centered on women and created and developed by women.”
The show makes The AV Club’s top 25 shows of the year and topped Variety’s list of top 10 shows of 2018 as well as them.’s. And fully deservedly; I’m looking forward to season 2 sometime in 2019. (And, like a true Wikipedian, the first thing I did after finishing the series was spend 3 days working on showrunner Tanya Saracho’s biography 😂)
In addition to content notes for (graphic) sex and nudity plus slut-shaming and hate speech, it’s worth mentioning that dialogue is mainly in Spanglish, with characters code-switching in the way that a bilingual community’s members do (see also several recent shows coming from BBC Cymru and S4C). I found that turning on subtitles and keeping and Wiktionary to hand helped a lot; there’s no on-screen translation of Spanish, but the subtitles display all the dialogue as spoken, no matter which language.
All 8 episodes are available on Starz ,which can be bought as an add-on for Amazon Prime Video in the UK (or a 3-month free trial!). It can be purchased as a single add-on on Amazon for £4·99, or through iTunes, Sky and Microsoft from £12·99. In the US, it can be streamed on Starz or added to Amazon for $4.99; Canadians can stream through Crave. North Americans can buy the series for $12.99 in either country’s dollars.
Black Mirror: “San Junipero” (2016)
Another of the few genuinely positive moments of 2016–17 was a surprisingly hopeful episode of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian science fiction anthology Black Mirror. While I know a few people who’ve avoided watching seasons 3 and 4 of Black Mirror because the dystopia we’re living in is quite enough already thanks, I can honestly say that “San Junipero” is worth the hour of your time and isn’t the depressive thought-experiment we’ve come to expect from Brooker. Indeed, in an interview with The Daily Beast, he said:
It’s the first script I’d written for season three, and I was keen to upend what I thought a Black Mirror episode was. I’d read people saying, ‘Oh no! It’s going to get all American!’ so I said, fuck it, I’m going to set it in California, fuck you, I’ll choose protagonists that wouldn’t necessarily leap into my head, and I’ll explore a hopeful use of technology to shut up people who think it’s written by the Unabomber.
If you haven’t yet seen “San Junipero”, it’s a hopeful, positive depiction of queer lives set in a reality full of nostalgic reminiscence. Brooker created a 42-song Spotify playlist of songs from 1987 for the episode and Vice’s Noisey has a soundtrack review where Emma Garland describes Clint Mansell’s score as a 3rd lead character for how much it’s used to set the tone and personality of the episode. (Garland’s long-read is probably the best thought-piece I’ve read about the episode itself, as well.)
Hugo-nominated — it was beaten by “Leviathan Wakes”, the season 1 finale of The Expanse, another show well worth seeing — and winner of both a GLAAD award and an Emmy, the episode is directed by Owen Harris, who also made the season 2 opener “Be Right Back”, which saw Domhnall Gleeson as the synthetic re-creation of Hayley Atwell’s dead boyfriend. And the positive reaction to the optimistic feel led to at least 1 up-beat episode in the 4th season, which was released to Netflix on 29 December 2017.
This was my second time watching “San Junipero” and even so there were things in Salon’s “obsessives’ guide” article that I’d not clocked; it’s an episode that bears repeated viewing and I think it’s become one of those pieces of entertainment I watch quite regularly. I’m certainly hoping so…
“San Junipero” is episode 3x04 of Black Mirror, all 4 seasons of which are available globally on Netflix. (Again, no content notes, I’m afraid; I don’t recall any hate speech, but there are hospital scenes.)
Grace and Frankie (2015– )
Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston star in this odd-couple comedy made for Netflix, about 2 wives who become friends when their husbands announce that, for the last 20 years, it’s not only in business that they’ve been partners — and now that same-sex marriage has been made legal, they want to divorce their wives so they can marry each other.
The show’s not about Robert and Sol, entertaining though they are, so much as the pairing of retired WASPy businesswoman Grace and hippie art teacher Frankie, who are a joy to behold. Almost as much fun as the 2 ex-wives are their kids, particularly Brianna (June Diane Raphael), who took over running Say Grace, the cosmetics company built by her mother, and Coyote (Ethan Embry), a substitute teacher with a history of addiction.
While the show starts with 2 queer men betraying their long-time relationships, it’s pretty sympathetic to all 4 characters and is very much a fun, light comedy.
The show does include some hate speech — in particular where an am-dram group is picketed by religious homophobes — and scenes of addiction and in hospitals; Does the Dog Die?
4 seasons are available globally on Netflix, with 2 seasons available to buy on some other platforms.
Queers (2017 miniseries)
2017 was the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of sex between men in England and Wales.
As part of the Gay Britannia stream of TV on the BBC commemorating this milestone, Mark Gatiss curated a series of 20-minute monologues looking at queer histories — primarily of the gay male experience in the UK, given sex between women had not been criminalised in 1885 — each delivered straight to camera by a single actor.
Every single one is moving, well-written and well-delivered; they range in time throughout the 20th century and beyond, from a Tommy in the 1920s to a teen in the 1990s plus a groom-to-be in the current day. All of them speak with passion about their lives, joys and fears.
The monologues are:
- Ben Whishaw as a Tommy returning from the trenches in “The Man on the Platform” by Mark Gatiss;
- Fionn Whitehead as a teenager excited from attending the 1994 age of consent vote in “A Grand Day Out” by Michael Dennis;
- Russell Tovey as an actor during the 1980s Aids Crisis in “More Anger” by Brian Fillis;
- Rebecca Front as a woman helping her husband hide a secret at the time of the 1957 Wolfenden Report in “Missing Alice” by Jon Bradfield;
- Ian Gelder as a man reminiscing in 1967 about the furtive excitement of the Blitz in “I Miss the War” by Matthew Baldwin;
- Kadiff Kirwan as a young Black man surviving the Blitz in “Safest Spot in Town” by Keith Jarrett;
- Gemma Whelan as Bobby, a swaggering man about town who isn’t quite what he seems in the 1920s in “The Perfect Gentleman” by Jackie Clune; and
- Alan Cumming as a groom-to-be, anxiously preparing his wedding speech, in “Something Borrowed” by Gareth McLean.
Gatiss spoke with the BBC in more detail about the series. Queers is no longer available on iPlayer, but can be bought on DVD and BluRay or streamed from Amazon and iTunes from £8·99 or US$12.99. Canada doesn’t seem to have it to stream, but the scripts are available for C$11.99, US$8.70 and £6·64.
Eastsiders (2012– )
I started 2018 by bingewatching the third season of this Emmy-nominated queer webseries; the first 2 seasons each won the Indie Series Award for best ensemble in a drama.
The first 2 seasons focus on a couple — Cal and Thom, co-creator Kit Williamson and Van Hansis — and their circle of friends. Season 3 is a road trip across the northern US, while Cal and Thom introspectively analyse their dysfunctional relationship. TIL: Idaho is really pretty.
The show has several guest appearances from other queer actors, including Firefly’s Sean Maher and Queer Eye’s Jai Rodriguez in recurring season 1 roles; Nashville’s Derek Krantz and Gus Kenworthy’s boyfriend Matthew Wilkas each perform in a handful of episodes seasons 2 and 3; porn stars Aram Kirakosian (Adam Ramzi) and Colby Keller each guest on an episode, as do Wilson Cruz, Tuc Watkins and Max Emerson.
Importantly, unlike so much queer cinema (and like Pose to a great extent), this is just about “normal” gay people stuff — as Kit Williamson described in a HuffPo interview:
It is no longer sufficient to just hit “the greatest hits of what is gay”; the coming out story for example. I think we are getting to a place where we want to get deeper and get to know LGBT characters in a really human way, know their flaws and complexities, and what really makes them tick.
The first 2 seasons of Eastsiders are available globally on Netflix. Season 3 is available on Netflix UK and elsewhere, including WolfeOnDemand.com and Vimeo.
After Forever (2017– )
After Forever is an 8-part series showing how Brian (Kevin Spirtas, who also writes and exec-produces the show) navigates the start of his life after the death from cancer of his husband Jason (Mitchell Anderson). It’s pretty short at 10 minutes apiece and nicely put-together, but I’m not sure it could have stood being longer without a bit more substance. Theater Pizzazz probably has the best review, highlighting also the female performances — Tony-winning Cady Huffman as Jason’s best friend, Erin Cherry as Brian’s PA and “work wife” plus Tony-nominated Anita Gillette as Jason’s mother.
While the subject matter is, inevitably, emotionally draining, the short episode lengths help it not be overwhelming. And, importantly, this is another of those tales within queer culture that’s rarely told — how we cope with the loss of a partner and restarting a life without them, 50something gay men living their lives, and of gay men dying of something other than the one disease that has plagued the entire adulthood of most queer men. As I’ve written above, it’s good to see other stories be told; there’s a reason Call me by Your Name is not on this list of things I’ve watched in the last 18 months.
After Forever is available on Amazon Video, inclusive with Prime.
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