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Like Hip Hop Uncovered before it, FX’s new documentary series Pride boasts a broad title, but plays as an intermediate text that assumes you’ve done all of your introductory coursework. (And before you start thinking this is the core idea behind FX’s newly evolving documentary brand, the network’s recent women-in-comedy docuseries Hysterical was definitely an introductory text.)
This is, as it was with Hip Hop Uncovered, less a criticism than an expectation-setter.
As much as Pride exposes how desperately the LGBTQ+ rights movement deserves and needs some kind of Eyes on the Prize-style wide-reaching treatment, it’s still a mainstream cable series offering exposure to figures like lesbian experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer, New York scene videographer Nelson Sullivan and marriage equality pioneer David Wilson. And it has been made with a scholar’s eye toward intersectionality and marginalized figures within already marginalized communities. I find that to be remarkable and entirely admirable, even if the series itself is very much, almost by design, hit-and-miss.
Hailing from Killer Films and Vice Studios, Pride takes a decade-by-decade look at LGBTQ+ life and the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights starting in the 1950s and carrying through to the 2000s, with each installment hailing from a different LGBTQ+ filmmaker.
It’s hard to exactly pinpoint the dictates passed along to each filmmaker, and the result is that each hour is maybe half personal reflection on a tumultuous moment and half Wikipedia summary just to make sure that somebody who accidentally stumbles upon Pride won’t be entirely flummoxed. It’s a recipe for wildly varying levels of aesthetic inspiration and baked-in unevenness both from episode to episode and within episodes.
In the 1970s chapter, The Watermelon Woman director Cheryl Dunye — she of the fantastic “Strange Case” episode of Lovecraft Country — has an infectious passion for Hammer and her idiosyncratic lesbian gaze and a reverence for poet Audre Lorde. They are figures so integral to her personal development that Dunye puts herself in the documentary talking to people in Hammer and Lorde’s lives. It isn’t that Dunye doesn’t also care about the rise of threats to LGBTQ+ equality from the New Right, but anybody watching her hour will be able to differentiate between the stories Dunye truly wants you to hear and the chapters in history she thinks you might as well know about. Anita Bryant is very much in that latter category.
Along the same lines, in the 1980s episode, when directors Anthony Caronna and Alex Smith are able to use Sullivan’s home movies, it’s amazing. Sullivan shot 1,200 hours of footage between 1982 and his death in 1989, capturing friends and acquaintances at a moment torn between exuberant freedom and the burgeoning tragedy of the AIDS epidemic. It’s so vital that it makes the more generic “Here’s what happened in that decade” material feel generic.
In the 1990s episode, director Yance Ford finds a better way to handle more commonly available news footage, centering activists along with moments like Bill Clinton’s speech inscribing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell as law. It’s an hour that captures a decade of progress and regression through a general evisceration of Clinton’s failures to live up to his unifying potential. But then the episode meanders through an extended hagiography of the gay independent cinema movement, focusing heavily — though not illegitimately, of course — on producer Christine Vachon, who’s a producer on Pride as well. It’s odd to see Vachon so front-and-center even as FX completely resists cross-promotional referencing to shows like Pose or Mrs. America.
There are fun artistic flourishes. In the 1950s episode, Tom Kalin uses brief reenactments featuring recognizable actors like Alia Shawkat and a remarkable, nearly wordless Raymond J. Barry to help illustrate the stories of Madeleine Tress, fired from a government job for being gay, and ill-fated Senator Lester Hunt. Andrew Ahn utilizes colorful animation to bring to life the tumultuous 1960s in an episode that almost entirely avoids the actual Stonewall Riots.
And then there are smart approaches to familiar topics, like positioning Bayard Rustin within Black and gay rights movements and making it clear why he isn’t as well-known as some of his contemporaries. Or delving into the white, blonde privilege that made Christine Jorgensen so crucial to the transgender movement and yet left so many of her peers struggling to find similar visibility. There’s a frustration and anger to the 2000s episode that starts with burgeoning LGBTQ+ representation from Will & Grace to Glee, only to shift focus to five activists in communities where the struggle remains one of life and death.
Across six episodes, which FX is broadcasting over two weeks, you’re almost certain to find injustices that outrage you, heroes whose truncated lives sadden and inspire you and recurring figures — trans activist Ceyenne Doroshow appears in three episodes — you’d watch in their own documentary. That all stands out much more for me than any storytelling bumpiness.
Directors: Tom Kalin, Andrew Ahn, Cheryl Dunye, Anthony Caronna and Alex Smith, Yance Ford, Ro Haber
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