October 17, 2020 at 12:14 pm PDT | by John Paul King
‘Equal’ explores LGBTQ life before Stonewall
Equal, gay news, Washington Blade
Keiynan Lonsdale as Bayard Rustin in ‘Equal.’ (Photo courtesy HBO Max)

We’re still in October, and that means as we cast our eye on our screens this month, it’s inevitable for us to also be casting our eyes on the past. 

The most relevant offering this week is surely the debut of a new HBO Max docuseries, “Equal,” designed to fill in a few gaps in our education about what queer life was like in the days before Stonewall – just in time for LGBTQ History Month. Premiering on Oct. 22, it’s four episodes of slick, smart, and star-powered television that profiles various “leaders and unsung heroes” of the community who stood up, each in their way, to become pioneers in a movement for equality that might never have happened were it not for their refusal to stay invisible.

Narrated by Billy Porter, this look back at the giants upon whose shoulders we stand is not what you might call a “deep dive” into pre-Stonewall queer history; instead, it provides a sweeping overview of LGBTQ life in the middle of the 20th century, through a focus on some of the individuals who cast a long shadow in the ongoing fight for equality. That doesn’t mean it’s short on information though; a lot of detail is packed into each hour-long episode, and viewers are sure to walk away feeling much more informed about this long-obscured era of queer history.

From a collaboration of producers that includes the likes of Greg Berlanti and Jim Parsons, “Equal” looks to shine a light on figures whose stories took place within the shadows of past American culture: founding fathers of the LGBTQ equality movement like Harry Hay, Dale Jennings, Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin; pioneering trans women like Christine Jorgensen and Sylvia Rivera; and men and women of color, like Lorraine Hansberry and Bayard Rustin, who brought their queerness with them into the larger fight for civil rights in the arts and politics of the mainstream world. To that end, real-life archival footage is blended with newly filmed “re-enactments” – and a healthy dose of artistic license – to bring their histories to life.

Among the cast of queer and allied actors taking part are quite a few familiar names and faces. Cheyenne Jackson stands in for One Magazine founder Jennings, with Anthony Rapp as Mattachine Society founder Hay; Heather Matarazzo (“Welcome to the Dollhouse”) and Shannon Purser (“Stranger Things,” “Riverdale”) play Lyon and Martins, respectively; Jamie Clayton (“Sense8”) is Jorgensen, and Hailie Sahar (“Pose”) is Rivera, while Samira Wiley (“Orange is the New Black,” “The Handmaid’s Tale”) and Keiynan Lonsdale (“Love, Simon”) portray Hansberry and Rustin. The cast also includes Sara Gilbert, Anne Ramsay, Alexandra Grey, Jack Starr, Isis King, and Jai Rodriguez, as well as many additional performers, playing a mix of other real-life and fictional composite roles.

If you can’t wait for Oct. 22 to watch, you might be in luck, thanks to NewFest. The series is included as part of the line-up during the long-running LGBTQ Film Festival scheduled run between Oct. 16-27. 

Celebrating its 32nd edition in the year of COVID-19 might not have been what this venerable film fest would have preferred to do, but like other prominent festivals that have had to adapt to life in 2020, it’s taken its show online – at least for the most part. That means that film fans who want to participate in NewFest without actually making the trip to NYC have gained an historic opportunity.

Organizers have put together what they describe as “an incredible virtual lineup” of screenings, special events, and panels, available nationwide for the first time in the festival’s history; and if you feel you must go in person to really feel a part of it all, there are even a few special drive-in screenings scheduled during NewFest’s 11-day run. 

If you’re not a documentary person, NewFest has you covered, too. Don’t get us wrong – it features plenty of them. But it also offers a lengthy list of narrative options, both short and long form, from which film fans will be sure to find something to fit their personal tastes.

Among the highlights: “Ammonite,” the new semi-biographical 19th-century period romance from “In God’s Country” director Francis Lee, starring Kate Winslet and Saorise Ronan; “No Hard Feelings,” a debut feature from German filmmaker Faraz Shariat that explores a romance between two Iranian immigrants who meet in a refugee camp and has already won a German Teddy Award for Best LGBTQ-themed Feature; “Ahead of the Curve,” Jen Rainin and Rivkah Beth Medow’s documentary tracing the legacy of the groundbreaking lesbian publication Curve Magazine; filmmaker Mike Mosallam’s feature debut “Breaking Fast,” a cross-cultural gay romcom about a Muslim-American (Haaz Sleiman) whose blossoming romance with an All-American white boy (Michael Cassidy) is set against the backdrop of his family’s celebration of Ramadan; Laurie Lynd’s “Killing Patient Zero,” a riveting documentary about the scapegoating of Gaëtan Dugas, the gay French-Canadian flight attendant who was blamed for spreading AIDS to North America; and Stanley Kalu’s “The Obituary of Tunde Johnson,” a timely drama about a black teenager struggling with coming out to his parents while dealing with the trauma he experiences from both being closeted and being black.

There’s a long list of other features and shorts, most of which are available for the entire run of the festival after their official “screening” times and dates; there are also numerous special events – such as an all-trans cast doing a table read of “Brokeback Mountain. The full line-up can be found, along with all-festival passes, tickets and ticket packages, on the festival’s website at newfest.org.

With so much exciting queer content at our fingertips, even in the middle of a pandemic, even the gloomiest among us would have to call it an embarrassment of riches – more than enough to see us through until long past Thanksgiving. If not, don’t worry. LGBTQ History Month is barely halfway through, and there’s sure to be plenty more, still in store.

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