'Equal': TV Review

Samira Wiley
Photograph by HBO Max
Makes full and respectful use of its creative license.
10/22/2020

Billy Porter narrates HBO Max's glossy four-part docuseries about all the queer progress that led to Stonewall.

The story of LGBTQ progress since World War II is often dominated by doctors and lawyers. That’s not without reason: The removal of so-called “sexual and gender identity disorders” from the DSM was an important milestone achieved after decades of activism, while the legal battles for the rights and protections for queer people of all stripes are, despite the establishment of marriage equality in 2015, still ongoing.

The new HBO Max docuseries Equal, narrated with cheeky brio by Billy Porter, seeks to convey to the under-40 generations how much of queer history pre-Stonewall was made in the underground — and how much more dangerous being gay or trans could be just a half-century ago, even in the big cities, even if you’d spent so much money buying off the cops that they bought a plane with all your bribes.

The writers, activists, organizers and outlaws that the doc reclaims are those who opted out of or were always going to be excluded from bourgeois privileges. The pioneers that directors Stephen Kijak and Kimberly Reed choose to iconize range from the Mattachine Society — which sought to connect gay men at an era when an outing could mean the 1950s equivalent of doxxing, i.e., the publication of one’s name and address in the newspaper — to luminaries like A Raisin in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry, trans trailblazer Christine Jorgensen and activists Bayard Rustin and Sylvia Rivera. But the documentary also makes space for the likes of bootlegger Jack Starr and brothel owner Lucy Hicks — trans groundbreakers I’d never heard of, and whose fascinating stories I immediately wanted to watch brought to life in biopics.

But Equal is just as notable for its old-school-MTV style as for its content. Visually busy and winkingly self-aware, the documentary slicks each one of its subjects with a one-dimensional rebellious cool that initially feels fresh, then increasingly ahistorical. The directors boast “never-before-seen footage of actual events,” but more striking still is the fact that not a single shot lasts more than five seconds. And many of the subjects receive knowingly outrageous glow-ups, like Mattachine founder Dale Jennings, who’s played in reenactments by a monologuing, absurdly handsome Cheyenne Jackson. Samira Wiley, Anthony Rapp, Sara Gilbert, Theo Germaine and Keiynan Lonsdale are among the other camera-addressing celebrity soliloquists.

The stronger performances — especially by Wiley, Lonsdale and Alexandra Grey as Hicks — make this potential abuse of dramatic license pay off. Even Porter gets in on the genre-convention-busting fun. “Hold up, sweetie,” he says as the camera freezes on Isis King’s sex-worker character, who’s on the verge of releasing her pent-up rage in San Francisco’s Compton’s Cafeteria, the site of a violent protest that preceded Stonewall by three years. Porter is able to keep the energy up even when every third line requires him to call someone a “wild radical determined to change the world” — a designation that irks not because it’s inaccurate, but because its relative vagueness and repetition throughout the doc flattens crucial differences and nuances between the pioneers. Nor are the subjects allowed to be flawed, or hesitant, or complicated, or even just OK-looking — Equal aims for unqualified hero worship.

But as long as viewers don’t expect anything more, that seems fine? Equal only covers about 25 years, from the late 1940s to the first Pride parade in 1970, which means that for most of its audience, it’ll be supplementary, not comprehensive, viewing. In celebrating a movement whose foremothers and forefathers’ names have yet to enter the common lexicon, Equal is a valuable if glossy resource. But hopefully our embrace of marginal queer figures can expand and evolve so that they’re appreciated less for their underground mystique than their full humanity.

Premieres Thursday, Oct. 22, on HBO Max